Lying in a hospital bed, fighting off nasty blood and urinary tract infections is no way to spend your 84th birthday.
My father, Eugene, would have rather been playing a rousing game of 500 with his card-playing friends at the IOOF Home in Mason City, Iowa, and wishing for a solid 8-hearts bid. But that wasn't the hand he was dealt.
Dad and I often talk about farming when I visit him at the nursing home -- or, in this case, the hospital -- in mid-April. It's a bond we share. I knew a planting update would cheer up the former, old-school farmer. Even if it was just for a little while, as he suffers from severe dementia.
Seed had just started to go in the ground at the time, and fast. The Iowa Crop Progress and Condition Report said 21% of corn and 3% of soybeans were planted in the Hawkeye State as of April 28. Some growers were finished seeding one crop or the other, but not both.
The progress report was just what the doctor ordered. Dad perked up as we talked about soil conditions. But it was the size of equipment, technology and efficiency of today's farmers that ironically -- you will soon learn why I added that word -- brought a big smile to his face.
That got me thinking about the advancements in agriculture and equipment since my dad planted his first crop in the mid-1950s. It's impressive, to say the least.
But first, a little bit of context. Dad was an extremely hard worker. He loved his family, farm and agriculture. But he could never be labeled as a "progressive farmer." Another irony that his son writes for a magazine by that name. But I digress.
When my father started helping Grandpa on the farm in the late 1930s, real horsepower was still used to cut and rake hay, haul manure, cultivate corn, etc. Belgians and Percherons worked side-by-side with small tractors, some with steel wheels. That's how he learned to farm, and he wasn't going to change. Period.
Dad operated a diversified 160-acre farm in north-central Iowa near Grafton. Here's the operation in a nutshell:
-- Dairy herd of about 30-35 beef cows, with a few Holsteins, Jerseys or Guernseys in the mix. Surge buckets were used to milk in a stanchion barn. Milk was stored and sold in cans.
-- Thirty to 40 head of cattle were sold a year. Calves were fed out. Some replacement heifers were held back.
-- About 400 hogs were marketed annually. Around 25 sows mingled with the cattle. The farrow-to-finish set-up consisted of outdoor pens and an unheated brick hog house.
-- Eggs from about 850 layers were sold on the farm and at the local produce, which closed in the mid-'80s. That part of the business ended then, too.
-- The crop rotation consisted of corn, hay, oats and pasture. All of it fed to livestock.
-- Equipment consisted of several tractors, the largest being two 45-horsepower Massey-Harris 44s made in the mid-1950s. Also a wide variety of small implements -- disks, 2-bottom plows, a two-row New Idea corn picker, etc.
It was the typical 1950s farm. Dad had two teams of draft horses, which were used for haying and hauling manure and other tasks. He threshed oats well into the '80s (not every year). It wasn't a threshing bee, but people would stop on the road to watch.
You get the picture. Dad farmed the same way from the beginning until the end in 1996.
That's why it was so interesting that Dad perked up when he heard about the equipment and technology used to plant today compared to the way he put seeds in the ground.
I recently spent an afternoon with Joshua and Mike Rausch as they finished planting soybeans near Paulina, Iowa. The son and father pull a 24-row John Deere DB 60 central-fill planter with a John Deere 8335 RT tractor.
The Rauch's planting equipment, including a Unverferth seed tender, easily cost about $600,000 new. The GPS-guided tracked tractor and planter are fitted with Precision Planting technology, like SeedSense 20/20 and VSet, to control seed population, spacing, etc. The duo can plant about 160 acres in about 5 hours.
"Your entire farm can be planted in about a half-day, and the driver doesn't even steer the tractor going down the field," I told Dad. "If the weather cooperates," I said, "most farmers have the ability to plant their entire crop -- even thousands of acres -- within a couple of weeks."
He just shook his head in amazement, uttering, "Huh."
The cost and efficiency of today's equipment is mindboggling to a farmer who checked corn his entire career with an early 1950s four-row John Deere planter pulled by a McCormick Farmall Super C. That 24-horsepower tractor new cost less than $1,500 in the early '50s. The planter probably cost even less.
It would take weeks for Dad to plant 100 acres. But then, checking corn was slow and labor intensive. It entailed the farmer moving a wire, which contained knots 42 inches apart that would trip the planter to drop a few seeds into the ground, after every pass.
Corn was planted in a checkerboard pattern so it could be cultivated both ways. It fell out of favor after the advent of herbicides and research showing substantial yield loss compared to conventional or drilled planting.
Dad likely won't remember our chat about planting -- past and present. But I will. It brought joy to a father and son, but for slightly different reasons.
Matthew Wilde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow me on Twitter @progressivewilde
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