(Editor's note: This the fourth in a series of monthly articles in which staff writer Doug Clough, a city boy, visits area farms and works for part of a day and writes about his experiences.)
BATTLE CREEK - I picked a wayward corn plant from my backyard the other day. The plant is a volunteer from last year's crop that resides in the field behind our Ida Grove neighborhood. After cleaning off the dirt, I could see roots splayed out like anchors from the seed and grass blades from the top.
In my 47 years of life, it's the first time I've given our state's hallmark plant this much attention.
Doug Clough, Farm News staffer, tries out a mechanized seed tender. With acre-expansion and row planters hitting the 48-box mark, Clough found the tender a significant way to speed up replenishment. “I can see it would be a back-saver as well,” said Clough, who also spent a portion of his time at D & S Farms filling boxes with seed bags brought out to the field.
That was the case until I found myself sitting shotgun to Don Schultz in his John Deere 8220 tractor, pulling a Kinze 16-row planter.
"I bet you didn't know this," said Schultz, "but corn is actually a grass." A record 30 seconds into this planting experience and I already knew 100 percent more about the topic at hand. Not a plant, a grass.
Schultz is the '"D" of D & S Farms; his wife, Sue, the "S."
"We've been partners running an auto parts store," he stated, "and since 1984, we've been partners in farming."
The couple has three children and seven grandkids, all within 100 miles of the farm.
"At one time or another, I've had a grandchild in the tractor with me," said Schultz. "None of my kids or their husbands farm, so it's a good way to give them a taste of farming."
Schultz' grain farming, however, is far different from the taste of farming his father Alvin Schultz gave him.
"When my dad was farming," he said, "it was mostly true that if a farmer worked hard, he would be successful. Today, working hard is part of it, but the successful farmer also needs to work smart."
Looking around the tractor's cab, it is apparent that this statement is not a cliche. Both the John Deere and the Kinze products have computer monitors that are linked to a satellite receiver above the tractor's windshield.
The Deere monitor keeps track of the position of the tractor and the swath that the planter leaves behind, allowing the operator to know if he's missed any ground. The Kinze monitor reports the seed usage per acre and when any of the 16 boxes goes empty.
"I told my brother Ron over dinner that this would be so much easier if our father had bought land in Pocahontas County," Schultz said, with a laugh.
I easily see his point. Roughly half of Schultz' planting is done on the family farm acres and the other portion is rented land; however, none of it is flat, graphed-out land you sometimes see from a bird's eye view.
Even with the technology, there are times that Schultz must pause to check out the lay of the land to decide which line the front-and-center piece of his tractor must follow next. Even after observing for hours in the tractor, I can only guess as to the planting pattern.
I can only think of the challenge that Alvin Schultz must have faced. His sons will plant up until a couple hours past dark with bright lights and a technology beyond his imagination.
"That was a different time," Schultz reminisces. "All of my father's grain went to livestock consumption; all of my grain goes to market.
"We have corn, soybeans, and just about 35 acres of alfalfa. With corn going in everywhere, alfalfa prices are starting to be affected."
"A few years back a neighbor had some California friends stop by to visit," said Schultz. "They said, 'How can you spend so much time in that tractor? We'd get bored just going back and forth.'
"Besides working around the terraces, there's work to do with the computer and planter. I have this clipboard for records to be taken on-the-go. I'm also a seed dealer for Hoegemeyer Hybrids and Prairie Blend, so I take calls on my cell to take care of customer's needs. And I listen to the markets on the radio and get updates on my phone. There is always something going on that affects grain prices positively or negatively."
I think of the 'work smart' mantra. It would seem that a farmer needs not only know how to plant, but how to be a commodity broker, as well.
Just as I was thinking how it would be interesting to work with a broker, an alarm went off on the Kinze monitor. We were out of seed in a few boxes.
After leveling out the amount of seed from box to box, Schultz radioed his brother to bring seed to us when he could catch a break from tilling. Schultz's timing was right, and Ron Schulz with his truck stocked with seed bags.
I opened bags of seed and dumped them as evenly as I could. My real job was to not spill any of the expensive seed on the ground and keep the paper out of the boxes. The paper could interrupt the seed flow or block the infrared eye that counts the seed.
For my own part, everywhere I turn on these market experiences, I see capital investment, so I took the challenge pretty seriously.
I wouldn't be running the tractor nor planter, and I wouldn't be spilling any corn seed. Immediately, I noticed that the corn seed was red instead of yellow, and my reporting for Farm News had already taught me that this was a insecticide meant to deter pests and bring high yields.
The bag boasted of 95 percent germination, which further spoke to improvements in farming.
After the seed was disbursed to the boxes, the brothers knelt to the ground to check out how the planter was doing. Schulz said he liked to see his seed in the ground 1 3/4- to 2-inches deep at least, and he had set his planter to do just that.
I got the sense that planters, no matter how good, could fail occasionally and an aware farmer will check them at regular intervals. Both confirmed the depth was right and that the soil looked good after recent rains.
Soon after, Sue Schultz, a city girl turned country by her husband of 41 years, drove the couple's Gator to us delivering sodas and brownies.
It was a fine break after sitting in the tractor for a couple hours. Schultz allowed that the breaks and lunches help him to stay focused and safe.
"There are times that Sue will bring out meals if necessary," said Schultz. "A pick-up tailgate isn't a bad place to eat when you don't have time to sit down at the dinner table. Sue is an excellent cook ... there isn't hardly anything she makes that I don't like!"
Another hour in the tractor and our discussion ensued.
"There's a computer disk that I take out of the Deere monitor and put it in my computer at home; it tracks where I've been, how much I've planted, and the conditions I've planted in.
"I do the same thing at harvest in the combine. I get a printout showing me how my decisions played out. Did I tell you that Sue helps during harvest? She drives the grain wagon."
Don made time to also talk about summer "cruise nights" he and Sue take part in on occasion in northwest Iowa communities.
The couple has a '65 Thunderbird and '67 Fairlane. A self-described Ford-man, Schultz told me that the cars are drivers, not intended to be stored, but for use.
"For Father's Day last year, I bought myself a car-hoist, so I could work on them when necessary," he said with a grin. It turns out his auto-mechanic skills are quite necessary with his farm equipment as well, amongst changing oil and filters and keeping the equipment washed and waxed.
Before supper, Schultz shows me how to operate a mechanized seed tender. I can see that with many acres - and with my own middle age - that such a tool would be indispensible to the life-long grain farmer.
After all, Schultz tells me that there are 48-row planters out there - on perhaps flatter, more grid-like acres - and this city boy doesn't even want to contemplate how many bags he'd have to carry for that monster.
After supper, I visited with Sue and her sister-in-law over warm homemade chocolate cake and cold ice cream. Last bites taken, Don and his brother were already talking at a table corner about the weather forecast and what they could accomplish yet that evening.
I'm no grain farmer, but I'm sure that's an aspect of the job that remains the same since Alvin Schultz grew grain for his livestock.
Contact Doug Clough at email@example.com