Spring and fall seem to be the season that most people associate with farming. In the spring, farmers are busy in their tractors, planting crops. In the fall, farmers are out in their combines and grain cart tractors, harvesting the crop and bringing it in. However, in today’s blog post, we’re going to take an in-depth look at what a farmer does during the winter when there are no crops in the ground. In order to do that, I made a phone call to one of my favorite farmers, my brother, Levi. I had a good idea of what he does during the winter but decided to let him describe his average winter day to me in detail to answer the question, “What do farmers do during the winter?”
Levi graduated from Iowa State in 2016 with a degree in Agricultural Business. Upon graduation, he came back to our family’s row crop and hog farm and diversified the operation by adding a cattle barn. He also works for Granular, which is a company that uses technology to help farmers run their business.
A typical winter day for Levi starts at 8 a.m. at the cattle barn. He has a maximum of 499 head of cattle to feed every morning, but depending on the schedule of selling and getting new cattle in, that number can be lower. While 499 cows may seem like a random number, there’s a specific reason – operators with 500 or more animal units must have a commercial livestock manure management plan – you can read more about animal units here. His barn gets cattle in at about 800 lbs, and the cattle are sold at around 1500 lbs.
Every morning, at 8 a.m., Levi feeds the cattle a mixed ration of cracked corn, hay, and gluten. Cattle eat corn for energy, hay for protein and fiber, and gluten as a supplement that provides energy and protein. The gluten that cattle eat is different than the gluten that some people are allergic to, which prevents them from eating bread. Gluten as a supplement for cattle is a coproduct that is produced by wet milling plants. A cow’s digestive needs change as they grow, so calculating the ration that they need is very important to maximize growth. Feeding his animals is a very technical process, and keeping track of the feeding is a vital part of raising cattle. To do that, Levi uses Performance Livestock Analytics, which uses technology to feed the appropriate amount every day and to track every feeding.
After he finishes feeding, which takes about an hour, Levi goes to what we call “lunch break” on the farm. Lunch break serves a simple purpose. It is to discuss what needs to be done on the farm that day. Three generations of farmers, Levi, my dad, and my grandpa, talk about what needs to get done that day on the farm, and then they get to it. Lunch break is an all-year daily meeting but is especially important during the winter, as many jobs need to get done.
Levi’s morning consists of doing mechanical work in the shop. On this particular morning, he’s working on the planter. Spring planting is just around the corner, so he is performing preventative maintenance on the machine. Instead of waiting to begin planting before finding problems, it is in the best interest of farmers to check their implements very carefully when the conditions aren’t yet suitable for planting. Levi spends his morning checking for loose parts and ensuring the ground engaging equipment is ready to use. He also inspects the technology on the planter, making sure the row-by-row monitors and shut-offs are in good shape.
The machinery used by farmers can be highly technical and doing preventative maintenance on that technology, like Levi does, is incredibly important. The row-by-row
monitors show farmers that the planter is getting the seed to the location they want it. The shut-offs allow for small sections of the planter (3 rows per section on a 24-row planter) to be shut off if needed. As the planter may be driven over areas that have already been planted, it uses the shut-off sections to avoid double planting. Double planting could cause two seeds to compete for the same space, nutrients, and water. This could lead to farmers getting a lower yield out of that field.
Levi’s afternoon consists of hauling corn. He uses a semi to take the corn in our grain bins to our local co-op. When farmers harvest corn, it often works best for them to put their grain directly into personal storage, for three reasons. First, it allows for harvest efficiency. Waiting in line at the co-op can slow down how fast farmers can get their crops out of the field. Second, personal storage allows for cheaper drying. Corn and soybeans often need to be dried before being put into storage, to prevent mold and crop loss. You can read about the grain drying process here. By performing that process before taking it to the co-op, farmers can save some money. The third reason is that farmers can get a better price for their crop closer to the next harvest season. Commodities, like corn and soybeans, raise in price after harvest is over.
After that, Levi finishes his day by watching an informational webinar about financial and business software. Farming is a business, and continued education allows for informed financial decisions. Continued education is essential in many aspects of farming, and it is often during the winter months when farmers participate in training and certifications. For example, Levi has certifications in Pork Quality Assurance and Beef Quality Assurance and is a certified Confinement Site Manure Applicator and a Commercial Pesticide Applicator. Farmers get certifications like this to manage their farm safely and knowledgeably. They care about the welfare of their animals and their land, and it shows in the way they spend their time and in the continued education they get.