DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Ryan Jenkins has seen things most people would rather not think about. While he is a full-time farmer today, Jenkins had a previous 10-year career as a paramedic on a medical helicopter. Those years offered perspective about the need to put farm safety first.
"The problem is most people don't take the possibility of something happening seriously until it happens to someone they know," said Jenkins, who farms near Jay, Florida. "Farming will always come with risks, but we can reduce those risks by taking time for precautions."
Jenkins, along with Reid Thompson, a farmer from Colfax, Illinois, are participating in DTN's View From the Cab project, a weekly series that highlights crop conditions and other aspects of farm life.
This week, both farmers give an update on crop conditions and detail some practical steps they take to put protective measures in place around the farm and in the field.
Thompson, who has two toddler sons, admits that the topic of safety has taken on more meaning for him of late. "Like many others, I've recently started asking myself how I survived on the farm as I consider my own children in the same setting.
"Am I just getting older and more cautious?" he asked. "Maybe. Or, maybe it is because equipment is larger or that we hear and talk about safety more these days. It's definitely something we are doing our best to be thoughtful about, both for our working partners and those living here at the farm."
Farm safety for children has been a decades-long commitment for DTN/Progressive Farmer. The Progressive Agriculture Safety Day program, which is now part of a stand-alone foundation, is in its 26th year of providing age-appropriate, hands-on events for children 4 to 13 on topics affecting safety and rural communities. Learn where events are being held at www.progressiveag.org. This year, many sessions are being held virtually.
Read on to discover some safety steps our View From the Cab farmers are taking and to get an assessment of how their crops are faring this week:
REID THOMPSON -- COLFAX, ILLINOIS
Thompson wouldn't normally consider storms to be a safety concern, but Monday, the farm was caught in the tail of hurricane-like conditions that swept across the Midwest.
"We had just set a new UAN tank and were putting the finishing touches on additions to our grain storage system. I wasn't sure what was going to be left, but we really lucked out with only minor tree breakage.
"We are feeling fortunate and really feel for our fellow farmers who had larger losses," said Thompson.
A yield check on corn planted April 20 near Gibson City, Illinois, in some of his lighter soils, pulled a 209-bushel-per-acre (bpa) estimate. Ears averaged 18 around and 6.75 inches in length.
"I still say it is going to be hard to get a consistent sample this year on corn, and I'm still having a hard time believing 181.8 bpa national averages reported in this first [USDA] Crop Production report," he said. The central and eastern part of Iowa that he thought looked so good during a road trip last week suffered big hits in the recent storm. Some corn that pollinated during the heat is also reportedly showing pollination issues.
Thompson said most of his corn pollinated after the heat and during the cooler temperatures that followed. "We have less than an inch of tip back on the majority of our farm, and we will have good yields. But I have also seen ears that are missing kernels on the cob -- so pollination wasn't perfect. And stand counts are down due to some early heavy rainfall and cool temperatures," he noted.
Soybeans, on the other hand, have never looked better in his memory, Thompson said. "We are podded from head-to-toe, and 100 pods per plant isn't unusual -- that often turns out to be 80-plus [bushels].
"We've still got 30 days to go before harvest. So, they could be 90-plus. They could be 70-plus. I don't know. They are branched and they are heavily podded -- we just need some rain to fill them out," he said.
The push right now at Thompson Farms is to finish the new storage system being built. Bin safety has always been a priority for Thompson, but the 2019 uptick in grain bin accidents across the nation drove home the wisdom of the farm's cardinal rule to never enter a bin.
The new grain setup came with some standard safety equipment. The leg has a cage that stretches the entire height with step offs for resting. Staircases with handrails twist around the outside of the bins.
"Since controls for the system will be a distance away from the bin, we're installing some disconnects so sweeps can be shut off at the bin entrances," he said.
"The main thing is there's no reason to be in that bin -- ever. If there is, we're likely going to suck the grain out first before we address the issue," he said.
As harvest approaches, Thompson is double-checking all tractor lighting and safety guards. Reflective cones will help semi-drivers as they pull in during night hours.
"We added lights to the new leg. There might not be high school football this year, but we're going to be lit up like a football field, and drivers will be able to see where they are going," he said.
Noise-canceling earmuffs are used to protect ears. A Bluetooth connection keeps mobile calls hands-free. He never wears a wedding ring. He's taken to wearing high-visibility shirts to work in, especially when loading grain along roadways.
Keeping kids visible is a new strategy the farm is also taking. "We have high-visibility vests on order for the kids and for any others that might be visiting," he said.
"We have backup cameras on everything. They are set up so when you put the machine in reverse, it switches on the camera on the seat armrest. We have cameras on augers and the grain cart -- everywhere we can think to put them," he said.
Backup cameras on semi-trailers haven't been very successful, he said, as it is hard to maintain a consistent signal through a metal bed filled with grain. "Our policy is just go forward. I've never found a situation where it was easier to back into something," he said.
A chemical-mixing shed is another step the farm has taken toward containing risks. "We recently installed a scale too that allows us to measure insecticides, pump in water and clean without ever touching it.
"It was a $3,000 investment, which is not a small thing for us, but we did it without batting an eye. It's not as much a discussion about whether someone will or won't get hurt as it is about the ability to avoid exposure. That's something I don't think you can put a value on," he said.
While there's no question that he loves seeing his children, putting them in the cab isn't an option for this family.
"I spend a good share of my time in the sprayer, and there's just so much going on there that takes all of my attention. Frankly, I just don't think it is the place for a small child. We'll reassess as they get older.
"For now, there are plenty of safer ways for them to enjoy rural life," he said.
RYAN JENKINS -- JAY, FLORIDA
Those hurricane-like conditions that roared across the Midwest this week made Ryan Jenkins wince with understanding. Violent weather patterns are often part of farming in the Florida Panhandle.
"What's scary to me right now is that our crop looks so good," said Jenkins. "As positive as I try to be, there's always that feeling that something is waiting to knock you down a notch or two -- especially here, where weather can turn on a dime."
It's hard to stay down for long when you can wade through fields of blooming cotton, and Jenkins' fields have been putting on a display.
Cotton starts the process with white flowering blooms that only stick around for a day before self-pollinating and turning a pink color. These pink flowers continue to darken to a near-purple hue for the next day or so before withering and falling off. There are times when fields might be absolutely littered with dead blooms as the plant matures and begins to make bolls where the flowers once flourished.
"It's beautiful. I absolutely love growing this crop," Jenkins said.
Still, corn was getting most of his focus this week. He started the week by harvesting corn variety trials. The farm hosted 13 different hybrids and six different seed treatment trials in cooperation with Agri-AFC, a joint venture between Alabama Farmers Cooperative (AFC) and WinField United.
"The information we gather from these trials is really helpful in choosing new hybrids and seeing if different seed treatment and fungicide treatments are economic," he said. Yields were running from 185 to over 200 bpa (dryland).
As if 2020 hasn't thrown enough curveballs, the facility where Jenkins hauls corn had a fire this week that destroyed the grain dryer. Corn is more of a specialty grain in this region, so infrastructure and buying points are limited. He has no on-farm grain drying or storage capabilities, and other elevator options accept dry corn only.
"Field drying is not what I want right now. The longer corn stands in the field, the more of a chance of a storm knocking it down. We also lose yield, the morning glories start to wrap and there's a greater chance of aflatoxin setting in," he noted. "I like starting to shell around 20% [moisture] or even a bit higher."
Harvest can get harried without added complications, and that's where having rules and safety protocols helps, Jenkins said.
The whole farming community shuddered a few years ago when a fellow farmer was trapped beneath a picker head during harvest. While the farmer survived, the accident was a huge wakeup call, Jenkins said.
"One of our farm rules is you never, ever climb beneath equipment without having it properly supported," he said.
Carrying a cellphone with you at all times is also mandatory. "Our guys know that anytime they step out of a cab or away from a piece of equipment, that phone is in their pocket.
"I preach this every day -- even if the operator steps from the tractor just to pee, they are to take that phone.
"We're also big on accountability. Because there is poor service in some of our fields, everyone knows where everyone else is during the day, so we can check on them," he said. The farm still keeps radios in implements as a backup plan for cell service.
Road miles and transporting equipment is another concern. Family members driving equipment talk about various traffic scenarios and what to do, but Jenkins has taken it a step further and advocates to the general public through his YouTube channel about the necessity to slow down around farm machinery. See a recent driving safely episode here:
Making sure lights work and slow-moving vehicle signs are clean may seem simple, but it is important, Jenkins said. Drivers coming from the rear are his biggest concern because they often follow so close you can't see them in mirrors. Night driving adds another level to the challenge. "You're basically losing a sense. We try to move in daylight if we can," he said.
Picking peanuts and power lines don't mix well either, Jenkins said. The baskets raise to dump and stretch skyward and can easily become entangled. One of his farmer friends was dumping peanuts well below a high-voltage tension line when electricity arced -- blowing out tires and machine electronics.
"I am forever lecturing helpers and remind those that bring trailers into our fields to watch where they park," Jenkins said. "Nut buggies have to lift high to clear a trailer, and it's so easy to forget to look when you didn't put that piece of equipment there."
Similar precautions come with cotton. Today's round cotton bales are moved and stacked similar to hay. "We have to be very careful where we set the bales because the people will come in the module truck and they'll get in the power line," he said.
"We've all just got to look out for each other. We've got a lot of moving parts, lots of fuel on board and lots of things clamoring for our attention.
"Taking time to be safe is always the right thing to do," he said.
Pamela Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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