Annual MDA survey relies on farmers’ participation

Minnesota Department of Ag Logo The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) is encouraging farmers to take part in its annual pesticide and fertilizer use survey. The 2016 survey is directed at corn producers and hay growers. The data helps the MDA track the use of agricultural chemicals on Minnesota farms and provides guidance to educational and research programs.

The process should begin February 10 and be completed by February 28. Questions will focus on the 2015 growing season and how farmers use and apply pesticide applications on corn and hay grown in Minnesota. It also includes questions on best management practices when it comes to nitrogen and manure applied to corn. The annual survey is completely voluntary and no personal questions are asked of producers.

Minnesota farmers may be getting calls from multiple agencies and companies conducting a variety of surveys this time of year, but the information gathered from this one is critical for research purposes. It’s conducted for the MDA by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agriculture Statistics Service out of their regional offices in Missouri. The MDA has conducted this annual survey for the past decade.

If you have questions about the MDA’s annual survey, or if you wish to view results of previous surveys, visit the MDA website at http://www.mda.state.mn.us/chemicals/pestfertsurvey.aspx.

Producers can also call the Minnesota Department of Agriculture at 651-261-1993 between 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday – Friday.

Famers assessing their finances for 2016

January is a time when farmers are typically doing paperwork, looking back at 2015 ahead of the upcoming tax season.

What some may find is their books don’t necessarily balance they way they want. The good news is, it’s possible to make better decisions in a difficult Ag economy if you have a clear understanding of where you’re operation is at financially.

Rob Holcomb wants farmers to keep a sharp eye on their finances heading into 2016.

Rob Holcomb is a University of Minnesota Extension Educator, specializing in Ag Business Management over in the Marshall regional office. (Photo from extension.umn.edu)

“What I’m seeing happening right now is people in the habit of doing a FINPACK (software from the Center for Farm Financial Management) analysis,” said Rob Holcomb, Ag Business Educator for the University of Minnesota Extension Service, “including balance sheets and income statements, are really analyzing what happened in 2015.”

He added, “A lot of people are doing analysis, and unless they’ve got some special circumstances, farm returns are due on March 1.”

Dave Bau is encouraging farmers to get their finances in line.

Dave Bau is a University of Minnesota Extension Educator also specializing in Ag Business Management, and based in the Worthington office.

Looking ahead to 2016, Holcomb said the financial condition on farms is a mixed bag.

“We had people last year that had big trouble managing the tax bill,” Holcomb said. “What led to this challenge was the buildup of $8 per bushel corn, which caused more trouble than first thought. You hate to be negative about it, but I knew it would cause trouble down the line, and that’s what we’re finding now.”

He said certain farmers were doing a lot to avoid paying some taxes, like deferring income to the next year.

“They were also maxing out on pre-payments,” Holcomb said. “The problem is, a lot of farmers were rolling these massive deferred tax liabilities forward every year, even though they’re showing a loss. They may have a loss over the last couple years on their accrued farm income, but they still have this cash they have to deal with, because if they don’t do it, they have a monstrous tax bill.”

He said a lack of steady farm income leads to an obvious problem in that situation.

“The challenge is the recent lack of cash flow is such that they can’t afford to have that big tax bill,” Holcomb said. “In a sense, they’ve backed themselves into a corner with their tax problem.

“But that’s not everybody,” he added. “Some folks have been paying a little more as they go and didn’t have a big aversion to paying taxes, I think those folks are in much better shape.”

Holcomb said one of the big buzzwords in the Ag industry is working capital.

“It’s a current and intermediate cushion that the farmer has,” Holcomb said. “The more working capital you have, the better. Unfortunately, we’ve been burning some working capital over the last couple years. That’s probably the thing that lenders are getting the most squeamish about right now.

The lack of working capital on some farms is showing signs of getting serious.

“I got a call last week from a banker in my area that was asking about lender mediation,” Holcomb said. “That conversation can only be the result of one thing, which is a farmer out there that the bank is getting ready to pull the plug on.

“That means there are farm folks who could be in tough shape,” he added.

He’s especially worried about young farmers.

“When the $8 per bushel corn began coming down,” Holcomb said, “some of the younger guys were paying ridiculous land rental rates to try and get their hands on some acres to work. The problem is they’ve got the least ability to weather out low prices because they don’t have a lot of working capital. They have a cost structure that’s not sustainable.”

High land rental rates are squeezing farmers finances.

The high cost of land rental rates in farm lease contracts are putting a heavier squeeze on farmers and their financial bottom line than we’ve seen in several years. (photo from americasnewfarmers.org)

Rents are beginning to come down, but they have a ways to go to ensure profitability for both farmers and landowners.

Rent is the largest input cost for corn and soybeans,” said Dave Bau, University of Minnesota Ag Business Management Educator in Worthington. “Rents are going down, but at current corn and bean prices, they should be around $100 to $125 an acre. Even base rents on flexible leases are still much higher than this.”

There is still pressure on farmers for land rents to remain very high for at least one more year.

“Farmers are doing more and more flexible agreements with a base rent and additional rent if prices improve,” Bau said. “With other input costs not coming down significantly, break-even prices for corn are $3.80 to $4.00 for corn, and $9.50 to $10 for soybeans.”

Bau adds, “Cash prices currently are around $3.40 for corn, and $8.25 for soybeans.”

With this much economic gloom ahead, what’s the key to surviving the downturn in 2016?

“I think the number one thing is you have to get your cost structure in line,” Holcomb said. “Land rent is one of those high costs that can be negotiated. $400 land rent won’t work right now.”

One of the best things farmers can do is figure out where they’re at financially before they make decisions on the year ahead.

“The farmers I fear for the most are the ones that aren’t doing any kind of financial analysis,” Holcomb said. “They have no idea where they’re at. It’s a sad situation when they find out they’re in trouble, and it’s their banker that tells them”

He added, “The smart producers know where they’re at, and that can alleviate a lot of trouble.”

Farmers need to do a better job of marketing their products in 2016.

“There are marketing workshops going on around the state,” Holcomb said, “and I think it’s really important to look at that.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silver Bay teacher wins Ag in the Classroom top award

Minnesota Ag in the Classroom

Minnesota Ag in the Classroom’s top teacher award went to Tom Frericks, a 5th grade teacher from Silver Bay.

 

Tom Frericks, a 5th grade teacher at William Kelley Elementary School in Silver Bay, MN, has been awarded the Minnesota Ag in the Classroom (MAITC) 2016 Outstanding Teacher Award. The award is given annually to a Minnesota K-12 teacher who exemplifies excellence in the classroom and a passion for teaching agriculture.

Frericks will receive a $500 stipend and up to $1,500 in expenses to attend the 2016 National Ag in the Classroom Conference at Phoenix, AZ, in June. This annual award is sponsored by the MAITC Foundation.

As the school garden coordinator at William Kelley Elementary, Frericks effectively incorporates food and agriculture concepts into core subjects such as science, social studies, nutrition and environmental education. He uses the 40-bed terraced garden, garage garden, strawberry and raspberry patches, apple and plum orchards located on school grounds.  He also uses the nearby Bird Hill School Forest to provide his students firsthand experience in growing food.

Frericks believes outdoor learning opportunities, cultural connections, and the science of growing and harvesting local foods are important because students are better able to understand new concepts when they are taught in a real world setting.

“Tom’s efforts to include agriculture into his 5th grade curriculum are amazing!” says MAITC Education Specialist Sue Knott. “The opportunities he is giving his students to apply core curricular concepts in the school garden is not only building agricultural literacy, but he is also empowering these students to be positive and active members of society.”

The MAITC vision is for agriculture to be valued by all. The program is a 30 year established public/private partnership based at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Visit www.mda.state.mn.us/maitc for more information and free educational resources.

Minnesota Farmers Union President looks ahead

2015 was a mixed bag in agriculture, and that might be a bit of an understatement.

On the one hand, production levels were good in many commodities, including a record crop for soybeans and the third largest corn crop on record. On the other hand, the prices for those commodities were not good at all. Those conflicting numbers have brought some tension back into family farming that hasn’t been seen in several years.

Farmers Union President

Doug Peterson, Minnesota Farmers Union President, said agriculture was a mixed bag in 2015, and challenges are ahead in the new year. (Photo from www.myklgr.com)

“Family farming, as a whole, had a pretty good year in 2015 as far as yield,” said Doug Peterson, the Minnesota Farmers Union President. “Prices went to hell in a hand basket, and that puts a lot of edginess back into farming.

“Prices were good for a number of years, but now when inputs haven’t gone down and prices have, that brings challenges in the balance sheets,” said Peterson. “As a result, there may some changes in loaning procedures by local banks because they’re scared.”

Peterson feels the future of agriculture is still good, and the Farmers Union spent some time traveling around the world for a firsthand look.

“We participated in the World Farmer Organization (WFO) General Assembly in Milan, Italy,” Peterson said. “We also took part in a Food, Faith, and Farming symposium as well. We talked about family farming, the environment, and how to sustain the family farm in policy decisions.”

The overseas tour also included a face-to-face with Pope Francis.

Farmers Union President

Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson meets with Pope Francis Wednesday, March 25, 2015. Peterson and other U.S. farm leaders discussed family farmers with the Catholic church leader. (Minnesota Farmers Union photo)

“We met with Pope Francis and his Secretary of State to talk about his encyclical and making sure that family farmers were part of the focus of the Pope’s message on stewardship in agriculture,” Peterson said. “We also had a chance to speak with leadership of the Vatican about family farms.

“We talked with the leadership about the importance of stewardship and family farms,” Peterson said. “We were told that Pope Francis himself feels all religions in the world should pay attention to the stewardship and the sustainability of family farms. Family farms, and not corporations, are the ones that have the ability to feed the world.”

Vatican leadership, as well as Pope Francis, appears to be very concerned about corporate farming.

“They are very concerned, as we are in Farmers Union, about the corporate takeover of family farms around the world,” said Peterson, “and I’ve done enough traveling to see the dirty hand of multi-national corporations coming in and usurping the family farmers for profit.”

He said Mexico is a good example of the dangers of corporate farming.

“Corporations are farming land in other countries (like Mexico),” Peterson said, “and then exporting it back to their home countries.

“That brings us back to Minnesota, where we have an anti-corporate farming law,” said Peterson, “and we don’t allow foreign countries to own farmland in the state either. There are a lot of other states around us that have lost that law, and the ability to control that in their legislative process.”

The Minnesota Farmers Union and it’s President, Doug Peterson, are very concerned about corporate farming squeezing smaller family farms off their land and out of business. (photo from truthdig.com)

The Minnesota Farmers Union and it’s President, Doug Peterson, are very concerned about corporate farming squeezing smaller family farms off their land and out of business. (photo from truthdig.com)

He said North Dakota is facing a battle over corporate ownership of dairy and pork farms.

“Concentration in farming is going to be one of the top issues in the next 10 to 15 years,” Peterson said. “We need to make sure farmland stays in the ownership of family farmers.”

Vigilance will be the key because anti-corporate farming laws are always under attack, and will be again in 2016.

“Back when I was in the legislature (1991-2002),” Peterson said, “there were moves to get rid of the corporate farming law, and to allow foreign ownership of land.

“In fact, about five years ago, we had an attempt by Goldman Sachs to come to the legislature and asked to have an exemption carved out for them,” said Peterson. “We defeated that. So we’re on top of it in Minnesota. But I don’t care who you are, there’s always going to be a threat.”

He added, “It’s always going to be about other people wanting to own land. It’s no different than outside investors, nature conservancies, or outside investors wanting to come in and own land. You get it from all sides.”

The challenges of transferring land ownership can exacerbate the problem.

“Farmers have to figure out what they’re going to do to transfer their land to others,” Peterson said, “and it’s a very slow and costly process to keep family farmers on the land.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MDA weed of the month: Garlic Mustard

Garlic Mustard is the MDA weed of the month

Garlic Mustard is a highly invasive, noxious weed that is prevalent in southern Minnesota and rapidly making it’s way north. (Photo from MN Department of Ag)

January’s Weed of the Month is garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).

Garlic mustard is an edible, biennial herb that emits a strong garlic odor. It was brought to the United States from Europe as a culinary herb. It has naturalized in many eastern and midwestern states.

In Minnesota, it is widespread in the south and is spreading north.  The bad news is garlic mustard is highly invasive. It grows in woodlands, and along trails and waterways. It outcompetes native plants, becoming detrimental to wildlife habitat and biological diversity.

Garlic mustard forms rosettes after seed germination in early spring. In its second year, it forms upright stems that produce flowers in May and June. Seeds begin to develop in slender pods shortly after flowering and are the plants’ primary means of spread.

The plant has distinctive characteristics to distinguish it from other woodland MDA-logoplants. In the rosette stage, the leaves are heart-shaped with toothed margins. When it matures, the leaves along the stem are triangular and the small, white, four-petaled flowers are produced in clusters at the tops of the stems. The plant produces slender seed capsules. Seeds can be spread by water and soil movement on boots and equipment.

Garlic mustard is a restricted noxious weed and cannot be transported, sold, or intentionally propagated in Minnesota. It is recommended that this species be prevented from spreading to new areas and that smaller populations be eradicated.

Managing garlic mustard takes persistence and a focus on preventing flowering, making timing a key component to management.

  • Regular site monitoring for several years will be required to ensure that new seedlings are destroyed and the seedbank is depleted.
  • Hand pulling may be practical for small infestations. Pull plants prior to flowering to prevent seed production. Flowering plants can continue to set seed following removal of soil.
  • Mowing of bolted plants prior to flowering can prevent seed production. All equipment should be inspected and cleaned prior to moving into new areas.
  • Foliar herbicide applications may be effective. If using herbicide treatments, check with your local University of Minnesota Extension agent, co-op, or certified landscape care expert for assistance and recommendations.

Farmer diversification now includes hops

Farmers are getting lower prices for traditional commodities, so the word diversification is making rounds in agriculture.

As farmers look for alternative crops to keep their incomes steady, hops are one crop that seems to be taking hold in Nebraska. You may be thinking, “Don’t they put hops in beer?” If you are, you’re right.

Just what are hops?

American farmers are turning to hops for extra income

Here is a closeup of what hops actually look like when they come off the bine. (Photo from patspints.com)

“It grows up on a bine, not a vine,” said Andy Andersen, a farmer from Arlington, Nebraska. “Hops will grow up to twenty feet tall on a trellis. In my system I have 5 rows, with 2 telephone poles on each end. Then I take 2 strings from each plant, starting at the ground and going to the top in a V formation.”

He added, “You have to train a bine, and it will go all the way up the top by the end of the year, hopefully. You have to trim them back, usually around the end of April or early May. After that, it’s usually around 120 days till harvest.”

Andersen said hops are an annual that come back every year.

Hops farming

Here is what hops look like as they grow on a bine. The bines are hooked up on a large trellis, which supports the bine while the plants grow. (Photo from beerbybart.com)

“They say you should get around 20 years of production out of the plants,” said Andersen. “I’ve had mine for about 6 or 7 years, and there are a few I’ve had to replace. I originally planted what’s called a rhizome, which is basically a piece of the root. You can also get plants as well if you need to replace a few or start a new yard.”

Once the hops crop gets established, you can use it to expand production.

“If I have a good plant,” said Andersen, “I can cut a rhizome off it now that they’re old enough. I can then plant that rhizome in another area that didn’t do as well, or maybe had a plant die off.”

The biggest expense in getting started comes when you first start growing hops.

“The right support system is what makes it expensive to put them in,” said Annette Wiles, a co-owner of Midwest Hops Producers based in Plattsmouth, Nebraska. “You have to put a trellis in, and each plant can weigh up to 45 pounds when it’s mature. That’s why you need some pretty heavy duty cabling and poles (for support).

As with other types of crops, there are several different types of hops.

“I planted the Cascade variety,” said Andersen. “It’s the type that will grow best in Nebraska. One of the other hops growers in the state planted up to 22 different varieties.”

Midwest Hops Producers put the 22 varieties in, which can be a little challenging come harvest time.

“There’s 2 purposes to hops,” said Wiles, “mainly they’re for bittering and the aroma. It’s similar to grapes or other fruits, each variety has it’s own time frame for harvesting, depending on what type it is. We put the 22 varieties in to see what grows well in Nebraska, but they’re all over from a harvest perspective.

Once harvest time rolls around, hops growers start chopping their bines.

“At the end of the 120 days,” said Andersen, “you start chopping bines. I recently began harvesting a couple weeks ago. I like to harvest by hand. There is harvest equipment you can use, but I like to do it by hand because of the number of plants I have, and the brewer I sell to prefer it that way. If I add anymore plants, I’d have to get some harvesting equipment.”

The hops hang off the bines in bunches, similar to some types of fruits.

“You cut the bines off the top and bottom (of the trellis),” said Andy. “They hang off the bines in groupings, and you pick them off. Then it’s off to the brewers. The last few years I’ve sold (hops) to Empyrean Brewing Company out of Lincoln.”

The hops he grows are then brewed into beers.

“They use it primarily for a seasonal (beer),” said Andersen, “primarily because of the consistency of the locally-grown product. You can’t get them consistently for the beers they produce all the time. They’ll use pelleted hops for that.”

Hops are a key ingredient in beer

Hops are what gives your favorites beers their distinct bite and flavor.

Andy said they “wet-brew” the hops, which means he doesn’t have to dry the product before it’s sold.

He added, “I bring the hops to them and they literally brew the next day.”

Midwest Hops Producers grow the pelleted hops, and they’re actually looking at ways to make harvesting easier for themselves and for hops growers around the state.

“Equipment is a big challenge for growers to get started because it’s usually for a large number of acres and it’s expensive,” said Wiles. “There aren’t a lot of 1-to-5 acre harvesters available. We got a grant through the state to develop a prototype. We’ve developed a mobile harvester that we’re using for this harvest.”

Wiles added, “We’ll then modify it and go for another grant to actually manufacture or fabricate them.”

Growing up on a diversified family farm was part of the reason he got into growing something a little different than your standard crops.

“I grew up on a family farm,” said Andersen, “and my grandparents had an apple orchard. After that, we were into livestock. In fact, at one time my father was the largest pork producer in the county. Since then, I’m always looking for ways to diversify the farm.”

All it took was a conversation with a friend to persuade him to try growing hops.

“He had started growing hops,” said Andersen, “and we were having a couple beers and I thought it might be interesting to try as there seemed to be more demand for the product. I put a few plants in around 2010 when there was just a handful of growers in the state.”

Diversification was also the key for Annette and her husband’s decision to grow hops.

“My husband is a third generation farmers,” said Wiles. “We have been trying to identify some alternative crops. It’s really diversification. You don’t have to have a lot of acres like you would for row crops. The row crop equipment is incredibly expensive too. We saw it as an opportunity for us and for young people who want to get into farming.”

She added, “Again, you don’t need the number of acres, and we’re trying to come with a piece of harvesting equipment that’s affordable.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minnesota Farm Bureau asks for support of S.1140

Stop EPA’s Waters of the U.S. Rule

“On August 28, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will have control over citizen’s land and a federal permit will likely be required in order to conduct any activity on land that causes any material to be deposited onto a regulated low spot, wetland or ditch (for example, applying fertilizer, applying pest control products or even just moving dirt) or face significant fines,” said Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation President Kevin Paap. “EPA is overreaching their authority, and we need your help to stop them.”

Farm Bureau Federation

The Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation wants citizens to contact their Senators to tell them to put a halt to the EPA’s Waters of the US Rule. (photo from fbmn.org)

“Contact Senator Klobuchar and Senator Franken and ask them to support S. 1140, the Federal Water Quality Protection Act, which will stop the EPA from implementing the final rule and re-propose a rule that actually follows the limits set by Congress and affirmed by the Supreme Court,” said Paap.

“The final rule is even broader and more unclear than we thought it could be. One major concern is the expanded definition of tributaries,” said Paap. “Any land feature with the ‘presence of physical indicators of a bed, bank and ordinary high water mark’ would be considered a ‘tributary,’ and therefore a Waters of the U.S., even if there is no water there.”

“In addition, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers can use ‘desktop tools’ (e.g. LIDAR, aerial photography and NRCS Soil Surveys) or base it on past conditions rather than current conditions to make a determination on whether or not you will need a federal permit,” said Paap. “It will be impossible for landowners to know which ditches are excluded.”

Kevin Paap

Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap is encouraging farmers and other Minnesotans to call their Senators and ask them to put a stop to the EPA’s Waters of the US Rule. (photo from twitter.com)

“With just a few weeks until this rule goes into effect, we need the Senate to pass S. 1140 as soon as possible. That means you need to act now,” said Paap. “Go to fbmn.org to send a message to Senator Klobuchar and Senator Franken. Every voice counts!”

Minnesota Farm Bureau representing Farmers • Families • Food is comprised of 78 local Farm Bureaus across Minnesota. Members make their views known to political leaders, state government officials, special interest groups and the general public. Programs for young farmers and ranchers develop leadership skills and improve farm management. Promotion and Education Committee members work with programs such as Ag in the Classroom and safety education for children. Join Farm Bureau today and support our efforts to serve as an advocate for rural Minnesota, www.fbmn.org.

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For more information on the Minnesota Farm Bureau log onto www.fbmn.orgwww.Facebook.com/MNFarmBureau or www.Twitter.com/MNFarmBureau.

MDA Weed of the Month: Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy

Low growing form of poison ivy. (Photo from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans and T. rybergii) is the only plant native to Minnesota on the noxious weed list. Poison ivy contains toxic compounds that can severely irritate human skin. The leaves, roots, and stems of poison ivy contain an oily resin that causes a rash, blisters, or swelling to human skin. Poison ivy can be found growing in woodland habitats, along fencerows, ditches, pastures, and natural areas. It must be controlled for public safety along rights-of-way, trails, public accesses, business properties open to the public or on parts of lands where public access for business or commerce is granted. It must also be controlled along property borders when requested by adjoining landowners. Though harmful to humans, poison ivy is beneficial for wildlife.

Poison ivy is a perennial that can grow as a climbing vine (T. radicans) or shrub (T. rybergii). The vine form is found only in southeastern Minnesota and the small shrub form is found throughout the state.  Depending on its growth habit, the height of the plant can vary from oneMDA-logo to two feet in the shrub form, and three to 12 feet in the vine form. It can reproduce by seed and shoots that grow from the roots.

The leaves of poison ivy are an important identification characteristic. The leaves are compound and consist of three leaflets that are 2-7 inches long and 1-4 inches wide. The leaves have pointed tips and irregularly toothed margins. They also have prominent mid-veins.

Always be cautious when working in and around this plant, and be aware that the toxic compound can be spread by freshly contaminated clothing, gloves, footwear, and pet hair.

  • Do not burn poison ivy.The toxic compounds can be inhaled from the smoke and cause serious respiratory problems.
  • Control or eradication by hand is not recommended.
  • Mowing may reduce the spread and population size of a poison ivy stand. Wear protective clothing and completely rinse any equipment after operating in poison ivy.
  • Various herbicides have been used successfully to control poison ivy. Check with your local University of Minnesota Extension agent, co-op, or landscape care expert for assistance and recommendations.

Farm tiling study called into question

Tiling is a widely accepted agricultural practice that’s been around for decades, but recently it’s been called into question.

The banks in the Minnesota River basin have been eroding, and a recent study by a St. Croix laboratory claimed that tiling is causing increased flows in rivers and streams, which in turn eats away at the riverbanks. A University of Minnesota Professor has some questions about the methodology and the findings in this study.

“Certain environmental groups have accepted that bank erosion is the primary reason for sediment buildup in the Minnesota River and Lake Pepin,” said Dr. Satish Gupta, the Raymond Allmaras Professor in the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate. “So the next question is ‘what’s causing the sediment banks to slump’”? They’re saying the river flow has gone up and it’s undercutting some of the banks.”

Satish Gupta

Dr Satish Gupta of the University of Minnesota Extension Service (photo from www.swac.umn.edu)

Gupta said the question now is why the river flow is higher than it’s been in the past.

“They’re saying it’s because we have put tile drainage in the landscape that we have so much more water coming into the river,” said Gupta. “This is based on work people did in Iowa and at a laboratory in St. Croix, Minnesota. They did some analysis and suggested it is tile drainage that’s causing the rivers to go up.”

He noticed that some of the analysis did not account for increased precipitation and mis-applied the soil hydrology principles.

“They’re saying when immigrants came to this country, they started draining the land and tiling it,” said Dr. Gupta. “Over the years, they say the practice has been increasing runoff into the river, which in turn erodes the riverbanks. That’s their argument.”

Dr. Gupta and his associates put together their own study of the matter, and the findings will soon be published as a paper in a journal called “Water Resources Research, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Tiling

According to one expert, farm field tiling is not responsible for the erosion of banks on the Minnesota River. (photo from twin cities.com)

“We started analyzing river flow and annual precipitation data, using 1976 as a starting point,” said Gupta. “The reason we did that is plastic tile wasn’t manufactured in the USA until 1967. People were initially worried the plastic wouldn’t be able to withstand the pressure from freezing soil in the winter and they’d end up replacing it. They didn’t really adopt plastic tile line until after 1976.”

He added, “Even the Research and Outreach Station at Lamberton used the clay tile lines in 1975.”

So they began their study to see if annual river flows had risen significantly over the next several decades.

“What we found was riverflows were higher because we’re getting an average of 4 inches more precipitation every year,” said Gupta, “and that water has to go someplace. In fact, in Waseca we get an average of 8 more inches of precipitation per year now than the past. In the areas we studied in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, there’s no space to hold the extra water.”

Gupta said those numbers were confirmed by a recent national climatic assessment issued by the White House.

“A recent study commissioned by President Obama said we are getting about 10-15 percent more precipitation than in the past,” said Gupta. “If you think we have 30 inches of rain in Minnesota on average, then 10-15 percent is 3.5-4 inches more rain per year.”

Dr. Shawn Schottler and associates of the St. Croix Watershed Research Station wrote the initial paper that blamed tiling as a major cause in rising river levels. Gupta said he questioned the methodology used in coming to that conclusion.

“Dr. Schottler had made some mistakes in his analysis,” said Gupta. “He also made some assumptions which are not right. He showed that quite a bit of water is coming from tile drainage, and also because we replaced previous crops with more soybeans.”

Gupta added, “His argument for soybeans was ‘we plant them later into May, whereas corn is planted in mid-April, so during that period there’s some evapotranspiration (moisture released from the plant into the atmosphere) going on, and that water also shows up in the river. That’s simply not true.”

“Evapotranspiration of corn and soybeans are about the same,” he said. “They both lose about 20-22 inches of evapotranspiration. The previous crops included a lot of small grains, which only uses 12-14 inches of evapotranspiration. As a result, we have actually increased evapotranspiration than what we had previously.”

He said the previous crops like small grains actually left more water in the soil than the corn and soybeans we grow currently. That’s just one of the errors Gupta feels the St. Croix lab made in it’s analysis.

“They made some high-school-level math mistakes too,” said Gupta. “Taking an average value of a linear relationship is okay, but the average value of an exponential relationship is wrong, because it should be like more of a geometric mean.   And when you take an average value, you ignore the variability, and Schottler called this variability the tile drainage effect. That is simply wrong!”

He added, “Those kinds of mistakes aggravated the problems in their analysis.”

The other problem is their technique showed tile drainage effects where there is no tile drainage.

“We took their technique and applied it to northern Minnesota,” said Gupta. “We found a 139 percent increase in tile drainage, when there’s no tile drainage in the entire area.

Gupta said they studied a wide range of watersheds in Iowa and Minnesota.

River watershed

The Rush River watershed is similar to the ones Gupta and his associates studied in their attempt to answer criticism of farm field tiling. (photo from www.co.sibley.mn.us)

“We studied a total of 29 different watersheds,” said Gupta. “In almost all cases, we found an increase in precipitation that’s been happening for the last 30-40 years is causing higher flows in rivers, while tile drainage and cropping systems have had a very minimal impact.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Railroads aim to improve grain handling

Inconsistency in the grain handling industry, specifically as it relates to rail transportation, was a topic of extensive discussions throughout 2014.

The Surface Transportation Board received numerous complaints about service problems in the rail industry, and held a public discussion back on April 10, 2014 to discuss the challenges shippers face and some possible solutions to improve efficiency. The discussions continued through October, but the cause of the problems and potential solutions depend on whom you talk to in the industry.

Grain trains

Agriculture is looking for more consistency in grain handling, and the railroads say they’re listening (photo from exactrix.com)

“Personally, I think they have some infrastructure problems,” said Kurt Glinn, a transportation coordinator for the Aurora Cooperative in Aurora, Nebraska. “There are some holes in their infrastructure that they haven’t serviced before. For example, in South Dakota, there are smaller operations that are basically land-locked.”

He said larger co-ops like Aurora, have a big advantage when it comes to loading grain cars.

“Two of our shuttle locations have a natural rail loop,” said Glinn, “and it runs in a full circle. So when the train gets on there, they leave the locomotive hooked up and it goes in a full circle. You load it, and then they come back and get it 10-12 hours later. It takes a lot of ground to do that. Both sit on 75 to 80 acres, and there is some industry in there, but it takes that big of a footprint.”

The Aurora, Nebraska Co-op is a larger business that has adequate access to railroads and grain cars, but there are plenty of others that may not even get rail service, because some tracks have been abandoned (photo from Auroracoop.com)

The Aurora, Nebraska Co-op is a larger business that has adequate access to railroads and grain cars, but there are plenty of others that may not even get rail service, because some tracks have been abandoned (photo from Auroracoop.com)

He added, “There are also lines across the country that they’ve flat out abandoned.”

At least one of the major rail carriers, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), is committing large amounts of capital to improve some of the infrastructure challenges.

“BNSF is planning on $6 billion dollars in capital expenditures to improve operations in 2015,” said Amy Casas, Director of Corporate Communications for BNSF. “It’s a direct reflection of our pledge to meet our customers growing freight demands. The plan includes $2.9 billion dollars to replace and maintain the core rail network and its related assets.”

While the projected improvements will take place across the country, not all states appear to be struggling with grain handling transportation issues.

Amy Casas is the Director of Corporate Communications for the BNSF railroad (photo from linkedin.com)

Amy Casas is the Director of Corporate Communications for the BNSF railroad (photo from linkedin.com)

“We actually have more than adequate supplies of rail cars and service for our grain shippers,” said Tom Tunnell, the President and CEO of the Kansas Grain and Feed Association. “Our current condition shows empty elevators waiting for the winter wheat harvest.”

He said recent rainfall is welcome, but it’s creating delays in winter wheat harvesting.

“As a result, we don’t have any transportation issues right now,” said Tunnell. “We don’t have anything to ship until they cut it. We also anticipated the harvest and emptied our storage, so whatever is cut early will be retained at the elevator because we can store it.”

Although things look good so far this year, Tunnell said they have had some big grain handling challenges in recent years.

Tom Tunnell

Tom Tunnell is the President and CEO of the Kansas Grain and Feed Association (photo from ksgrainandfeed.org)

“We had a lot of grain on the ground about 18 months ago,” said Tunnell. “The cost to get rail cars was extremely high, way above normal. The premiums were in the thousands of dollars per car range, but all that’s gone away. We’re back down into a more normal range.”

Fewer rail cars means more demand and higher prices. Amy Casas said one of the improvements BNSF intends to make should help lower prices come fall harvest.

“In 2015, we plan to acquire approximately 7,800 more rail cars,” said Casas. “Of that total, about 900 will be the new cover-hopper grain cars. We also plan to acquire more than 300 locomotives this year too.”

Kurt Glinn said the ethanol industry may have lowered demand for shipping grain, but thanks to advances in seed technology, demand for grain shipping may be on the rise again, hence the need for more cars.

“When ethanol came in over the last 15-20 years,” said Glinn, “I think the railroad saw a decrease in their business. Because of the ethanol industry, there was less grain to be shipped due to ethanol plants using a lot of corn.

“Now, we’ve got better hybrids, agronomy practices, herbicides and stuff like that,” said Glinn. “We’re raising more corn per acre than we’ve ever raised before, so even with ethanol usage, we have a lot more corn to ship than in recent years even with the same number of acres planted. There’s more grain and the railroad is struggling to keep up.”

Tom Tunnell said railroads are also struggling with increasing demand for cars because of the Bakken oil field in North Dakota.

Bakken Oil Well

Ag experts say the Bakken Oil Fields may have taken some railroad cars that otherwise would have shipped grain (photo from deq.mt.gov)

“Much of the railroad’s equipment was taken by the efforts in the Bakken oil exploration in North Dakota,” said Tunnell. “It was taking up a lot of the railroad’s interest and time as well. However, since that time, oil prices have gone down and that situation doesn’t exist anymore.”

Glinn has a similar perspective on the railroad hauling oil out of the Bakken. “To me, personally, I think they would rather haul oil than grain,” said Glinn. “That’s just a personal opinion.”

Glinn said he thinks the shipping challenges can get better, but it will take some time.

“I think they’ve got some logistical problems,” said Glinn. “I think in the next few years we’ll see these shuttle loaders that can load 110-120 cars will improve things. The railroads would like to see more of these. Railroads want more efficiency. They want to pick that train up in 15 hours and move on.”

The price of corn’s steep drop may have played a role in some of these challenges.

“If the price of corn stayed at $7 a bushel, the railroad would have been very grain efficient,” said Glinn. “If you cut that price by 60%, and then you start whacking it another 15 cents a bushel for increased freight to compete with oil or the refrigerated cars to haul fruits and vegetables, they can’t do it.”