Shift switch: Harvesting soybeans
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There's no denying it, I'm a city boy through and through. Yet when the offer to ride along in a combine harvesting soybeans arrived in my inbox, I couldn't reply fast enough.
A mere 75 minutes from my desk at OnMilwaukee.com and I'm sitting in the jump seat of a John Deere 9500 – at about $250,000, by far the most expensive wheeled vehicle I've ever taken a ride in – on Jeff Gaska's farm near Columbus.
But first, when I arrive, I meet Gaska, who is walking his 3-year-old daughter back to the house. Gaska tells me later that she loves to ride along in the combine – always has – and cried when I arrived and she had to go home to take a nap.
After a little time in the cab of the great, green, hulking machine, I understand why. There's a persistent rumble of the inner workings, but there's something peaceful about slowly making your way through the field.
Ahead, through the giant windshield, you can see the machine's whirling auger pulling in the crops you've worked hard to bring to the harvesting stage. Through the window behind, you can watch the harvested soybeans filling the hopper.
And for daddy's little girl, the cab of a combine can be the scene of some pretty stellar daddy-daughter bonding.
"I bought this place in '94," says Gaska, adding that he also farms his parents' land and leases nearby fields from his in-laws. "I grew up just about four miles up the road at my home farm with my dad and I got three brothers. It's about 450 total acres, but 250 are tillable. (Here there's) about 185 acres and about 125 are tillable."
He grows soybeans, corn and winter wheat and keeps a small herd of beef cattle. He's got about 25 cows and ends up with about 25 calves.
Gaska's father was born in Poland and came to America as a boy, settling with his family in Chicago when he was 12. He grew up in the Windy City, where he became an anesthetist; a registered nurse. After his three sons were born – Jeff is the youngest – the family moved to Columbus. It sounds like dad was already feeling the urge to farm.
"We lived in the city of Columbus for about six months, and then we found this farm," Gaska recalls. "As my two older brothers started to get out more and play more, they wanted to mess around with farming. He kind of started from nothing, but this was back in the early 70s, and he just started slowly."
Now, Jeff's dad is retired, but helps Jeff with farm chores. So does his eldest brother, who works at UW-Madison as an agriculturalist. His other brother left farming and lives in Kentucky.
Other than this help – and the moral support of his little girl riding next to him – Gaska works the three farms pretty much alone. There's very little downtime, though he does manage to take the family on a few short vacations each year. Otherwise, he's always at work with the cattle, fencing, working in the pasture, planting and harvesting and pulling rocks out of the fields, the finances, repairing the barn, plus the usual household chores.
"Corn and soybeans we rotate through and we try to get wheat into the rotation every third or fourth year," he explains. "So I don't farm quite as much wheat as I farm corn and soybeans."
Gaska has also started to experiment with tillage radishes to help replenish the soil.
Climbing up the five stairs of the ladder, I take my seat in the combine and Gaska fires up the engine. He and his daughter got a little start around the outer edge of the field before I arrived, so he heads to where he left off and explains ...
"First thing we want to look for is to make sure that edge (of the combine head) is right along and then we watch the height of the crop, and here the crop is kind of laying down a little bit. So with this reel up in front I can make it go up and down hydraulically. When the grain is down I have to put that reel down, because it sort of helps pick that soybean plant up into the machine. And then as the soybeans start to get taller I can raise that reel up a little bit. You don't want that reel to be batting the soybeans, or else you start losing soybeans in the field. Because they're in the pod (and) if it hits the pods they could break.
"The whole plant is coming into the combine. When it's in the combine it goes through a presser which breaks it all apart. If you look back here, that's where the soybeans are harvesting and coming apart. The nice thing about the combine is there are so many moving parts and then there are the sensors. So if something goes wrong in the back of the combine, it can tell me and I can react to that. You would never know sitting in here if a belt fell off, but then the alarm system tells me what went wrong and I can go back and fix it. Luckily, you don't have to worry too much about the combine because it's taking care of itself. Sometimes you're digging; you've got to watch out for a big mound of dirt so that doesn't feed into the combine."
Gaska tells me that the combine pulls in the plant and removes the pods and shucks the soybeans. Behind us, we can see those seeds filling the hopper, and the combine seems like a magician at work.
While the beans mound up in the combine, the stalks and all the rest are tossed back onto the field, where it becomes compost.
"Next spring we will come in and plant more on this field and do no-till," says Gaska. "So this field is just going to stay like it is. We need to get the winter wheat in so it'll get about 3 or 4 inches tall. (With no till) you are not turning the soil over. There's a lot less erosion, its sequestering carbon, and once you till it, you release the carbon. You get a lot of earthworms in this soil because its not tilled. The other thing is it's a huge time saver – we don't have to go over this field again until I plant next spring."
A small family farmer like Gaska clearly pays a lot of attention to efficiencies. Every penny or minute saved improves his bottom line – and his quality of life.
Everything he grows in these fields is to feed livestock. He does not grow food-grade soybeans or corn, though it all ends up in the food chain anyway, via the meat we eat, the milk we drink and the cheese we shred on our pizza.
"All our soybeans are cash crop, which means we grow them for cash and then turn around and sell them; they will go to a mill," Gaska explains. "I have a friend who does custom hauling, so I might pay him to come out and bring the beans or the corn in. The bigger farms, bigger than me, will sometimes own their own semis, but I'm not at that point yet where it is cost effective. It's easier for me to just hire someone to do that.
"So all these soybeans are basically going for feed for cattle, chicken, livestock, all of that. You can grow what they call food-grade soybeans, which would be made into tofu, vegetable oil, stuff like that. Generally they don't yield quite as well, but you get a premium when you bring them in, because they are worth more – human consumption vs. cattle or something like that. It's more work to do the food-grade beans, but you get a better reward for that."
Where Gaska lives also plays a role. The market for livestock-grade beans is closer to home. Were he to raise food-grade beans, he'd have to pay to ship them to the nearest plant, which is near the Illinois border.
"It would take a lot longer to haul them down. If it takes the driver a long time to get back, I may end up being full or have to wait until the next semi comes in (to continue harvesting). They do have food-grade corn, we usually just look for what's the best market around here. There's a couple of ethanol plants to the north, so I market some of it up there. Some of them pay more than others, depending on where they're located. Like the ethanol plant; they're the end users, they don't have to ship it out again, so they can generally pay a little more. Another mill that ends up taking the corn and shipping it somewhere else, they're basically a middle man. So you kind of look at that and see what's the best option for the crops we've got."
I ask Jeff if it's true that ethanol has pushed up the price of corn and he says, "Yes and no. There's still a limited amount of corn that goes into ethanol, so it's not taking up the entire market. It can't all go there. There are other varieties of corn that they're trying to develop that may yield more ethanol, so there's some work there.
"I've seen reports and studies saying both, that it does increase the price of corn, and studies that contradict that. It's hard to say. They're definitely using corn, but not all of it. There is plenty of corn yet out there for other markets."
On the day I ride along, the sky looks ominous above us, though to the north and south there's sun. When we start out, raindrops dot the windshield, though it never gets any worse than that. And that's good news for Gaska, who says he can combine harvest wet corn, but not damp soybeans.
"This field is 11 acres and it usually takes two and a half hours when I'm going 1.6 miles per hour. But we have about a total of 190 soybeans, and it ends up taking me about maybe two weeks to get those in, with life involved. Generally you can't start combining soybeans right away in the morning because the dew is settled right on them, they absorb that moisture, so you have to wait for the sun to come out and the plants to dry out.
"We can start around noon or so. Once you get into the evening, as the dew comes back, it makes it tough again. We maybe have a five-, six-hour window we can combine soybeans. Once they dry down, those pods become pretty brittle. You can get a strong wind, shatter those pods, then the soybeans fall onto the ground and you can't get them anymore. Corn tends to stand better; hold onto those kernels. You could start harvesting corn at 7 in the morning if you wanted to because its not effected by the dew as much. Certainly soybeans are a priority. I've read somewhere before that in fall, you normally have 10-14 days of good weather for combining soybeans. You have to try to fit that into your schedule and get that as quick as you can. Edible beans are at a different time."
Each year, Gaska spends a lot of time riding in the combine. How does he pass the time? Well, there's his daughter to keep him company. But the machine is also outfitted pretty well. In addition to a computer that uses GPS to track his progress in the field and also saves all sorts of data about the combine and the crop, there are the same amenities you find in a car.
But, says Gaska, you can't really let your mind wander. While there might be some Zen-like vibe to combining, you can't switch on the auto-pilot.
"You have to be on your game," he says, "but you do it so much it becomes commonplace. So I'll listen to the radio or books on tape. In that sense, it gives me a chance to relax.
"When I planted this field, I recorded it (on the computer). I got a map, saved to a disk and I can bring it up and it gives me all these colors. These colors describe the yield. You're hoping for more green and less blue. We can come back and make management decisions based on what we see here. When it shows up blue, we will see a case where the yield will really suffer there. So knowing that, we won't put as much fertilizer and less seeds on those areas of the field. You can use that information to hopefully make a little more money.
Farming, says Gaska, has gotten a lot more scientific, in large part because of the technological advances in machinery and the ability to find ways to boost efficiency and cut waste.
"You look at efficiencies: What's the most efficient way to work this field? The longer the row, the more efficient you are. When you do the field, what I do first is call the head lands, and that's the area of the field that allows you to turn around and not drive over a crop or something. Once the headlands are done, then I start going back and forward."
"Back then (when he started out) it was, 'we think this will work, let's try it.' You generally could not tell what your yield was. You could tell what the whole field did, but didn't know exactly where were getting those bushels. Back then we didn't have the technology to change the rate of seed as we're driving. With electronics and all of that ... it's gotten to the point where I can say in the winter in this corner of the map here, I only want to plant half the seeding rate.
"A new combine of this size, you're probably looking at almost half a million dollars. You work your way up. In my case, it's great when you can take over the family farm. We had been buying equipment for 40 years. Just jumping into it would be almost impossible (now). You have to buy the land; you have to buy the equipment. What most people do is they grow up farming. It's a family farm, so they get bigger and bigger. As they get bigger, they expand. There can be ways to do it, but it could be difficult if you just say, "I want to start farming tomorrow."
Gaska says his dad learned farming as he went, using trial and error. Technology hasn't robbed farming of that same kind of explorer spirit. There are still new ways to approach a way of life that goes back thousands of years.
"My philosophy has always been, if you're not going forward, then you're losing fields," Gaska says. "Switching to no-till was a big deal for us. You slowly change, you look at different varieties, you look at different rotations. We used to be all corn. We started learning about putting soybeans in, putting wheat through. The thing with wheat is that gets harvested in July. You're breaking up your workload.
"What we did for the first time this year is we planted a cover crop called tillage radishes. They look like radishes and absorb all the nutrients in the ground. The root dies and decomposes and is available for the corn for the following year. It provides a lot of green manure that goes back into the soil."
Some of the old ways – like crop rotation, for example – continue to prove their worth to farmers like Gaska, who – like most – were affected by this summer's severe drought.
"Corn gives us more money," he says. "This year, the drought hurt the corn more than the soybeans, so we will have a reduced yield of corn this year. In the end, I think the soybeans will out-profit the corn. There are a lot of benefits to doing the rotation. There is less disease on the corn. After you plant soybeans for a year and then go back to corn, your corn yield increases some.
By being diverse, you will probably always have a crop that will do well. It might not always be corn, because if all you have is corn, you're relying everything on the corn to make you money. I can handle making not as much money on soybeans, knowing that this year, I might make more money on soybeans this year because of the weather. It's not that you lose money with soybeans, you just make less money.
"It was scary here, through the middle of July. I think we got rain around the 20th, but before then, we hadn't had any rain since Memorial Day. It was a difficult situation to be in. You're really starting to sweat, hoping that you got something."
Gaska says at that point he wasn't sure he should spend the money to fight the bugs that were beginning to appear in the field. It could have been throwing good money after bad.
"Even if we had sprayed, we might not have gotten a crop. The crops were just decimated by the insects. It's a gut-wrenching decision to make. Then the rain came just at the right time. This field right now, we're averaging 55 bushels per acre. I would say a 10-year average on my farm is probably about 48 bushels. Normally, our corn, we can get about 170, 180 bushels for the acre, and I'm hoping for 125. It's going to be a significant reduction in the corn. The wheat did really well because the timing was just perfect."
Those kinds of powers that are out of a farmer's control, make farming a risky business. But despite the stress and the hard work – Gaska says he'd go crazy if he had too much time to sit around and do nothing – is worth it to Jeff. It's not easy, but it provides a good living for him and his family – which is growing.
"My wife works off the farm, but the farm allows me to stay home, farm full-time and watch my daughter. We just had a son a week ago, so we're kind of throwing that into the mix of harvesting. The amount of acres I farm allows me to stay home. It covers all of the costs of staying home and not having a job off the farm. We couldn't do it if she didn't work."
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