View From the Cab

Farms Buzzing With Bees, Planting

Richard Oswald
By  Richard Oswald , DTN Special Correspondent
This year's View From the Cab farmers are Chase Brown of Decatur, Illinois, and Jim Hoover of Newport, Pennsylvania. (Brown photo by Pam Smith; Hoover photo by Edwin Remsberg)

LANGDON, Mo. (DTN) -- "I would say most of the corn is going to be put in the ground this week." That's the assessment of DTN View From the Cab farmer Chase Brown as he summed up intentions of corn farmers around his place near Decatur, Illinois.

Chase told DTN he has about half his seed corn in the ground, only slightly less than the local average of 60% complete. "We had a pretty good week with no breakdowns. I have lots of seed customers calling, some with (a few) bags to return, others needing a few bags more," he said.

Chase is satisfied with his planting progress. His fields are in a sweet spot for moisture. "Five miles south of us they were planting corn yesterday. North of us they were wetter," he told DTN late Sunday. It's all part of the plan: Working fields earlier in the season, applying pesticides over the top preplant, and planting through the crust later after a rain gives fast, uniform emergence of Chase's corn crop with varying variety maturities ranging from 107 to 116 days.

Even if Chase could plant the entire crop in a day, he wouldn't. "We're pretty happy with where we're at. We can't harvest it all in a day ... We lost a lot of money and gave up a lot of yield in (too) dry corn last year," he explained.

With cover crops gaining wider acceptance, it isn't unusual to see fields of cereal rye greening in places where corn or soybeans might soon be. But weather and growth stage when cover crop burn-down herbicide applications are made can be tricky. "Cover crops are dying slowly. I would say we aren't getting the kill like we'd like to have," Chase noted.

Even in the heart of Illinois corn country, livestock are still important. That's why Chase keeps a herd of purebred Hereford brood cows. And he's been experimenting with another form of livestock on the farm -- honeybees.

"We're trying to do our part," Chase said. "I don't think there's any doubt something is going on. Production ag is taking a lot of blame (for declining bee populations)." No one knows the cause of colony collapse, for sure. But it is known that seed treatments formulated with neonicotinoids can be deadly to bees. "I'm not a bee expert. I had three hives last year going into winter. I lost two of them. I know people who lost all their hives and some who didn't lose any."

Chase has discovered a sizable local following of beekeepers willing to share knowledge and help each other. His interest, and negative publicity for some types of farmers, has even engaged his partners, his dad, David, and uncle, Joe. "This is my second year. It's Dad and Joe's first year. Dad and I have this discussion all the time. I'm afraid (agriculture) has lost the food war. We've lost this battle, we're in so deep we can never change their minds," he said. But if America wants a different system, they need to make it worthwhile. "If they want me to grow organic, they're gonna have to pony up and pay me," he said.

Chase purchased his bees through the Decatur Bee Club. They came as what's called a "nuc," or nucleus colony, made up of five frames and 30,000 bees including one queen. When it arrives in its own cardboard box, the nuc is placed into a hive, taking care not to harm the queen, because without her the colony would fail. That can be harder than it sounds. "The whole hive revolves around the queen. She is running around loose in there, so she's pretty hard to find. What's fascinating is I can take that queen out and I will have 30,000 bees following me," Chase said.

The Browns' efforts at beekeeping probably won't have much effect on colony collapse. But it will give them a better working knowledge of honeybees, which might help them better understand the nature of the problem. It's also made Chase think more about pollinator crops on the farm as well as insecticides he uses. "I think there's enough farms out here who aren't going to change that I could have 500 hives and it wouldn't offset what they will do." But Chase does feel a certain responsibility. "Einstein said, 'If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left.' We have cut back on soil-applied insecticide by 70%. But we are still using some." That's because all the eggs shouldn't be in one basket, at least where continuous corn is concerned. "We will not use single mode of action on corn on corn," he added.

What if colony collapse is laid at the doorstep of row-crop corn and production agriculture?

"If proof came out, I think the industry would change," Chase said.

Meanwhile, at his farm outside Newport, Pennsylvania, View From the Cab farmer Jim Hoover of Hoover Turkey Farm had what every farmer wants: "a pretty good week."

"We got a little bit of rain, but not very much, (0.3 to 0.5 inches). It was certainly a help, but it's dry," Jim told DTN late Sunday. "Other people are worse off than we are. I know a half-dozen in central Pennsylvania who don't have any rain. I was planting in wheat and soybean stubble today, and it was as nice a planting as you'd want to have."

Jim farms along with his wife, Jane; son, Craig; and grandsons, Mason and Dylan. And his daughter, Stacey, and her husband, Mark Butcher, use parts of the farm for produce they sell through their own farmers market. The entire farming operation has evolved to two locations. The home farm is near Newport with a second location near Tower City, Pennsylvania. "If I have a good week, I'll have everything done at home. That'll be the first time I've ever been done here in April," he said. "Craig has the corn spraying all done. Mason has the vertical tillage done over at Tower City, so we're ready to go over there."

An aging neighbor with health problems asked Jim and his family to take over his farm. "We planted all his corn in a day. He told me what a pleasure it was to watch us work, and he no longer feels the pressure to try to keep up (with the neighbors)," Jim said.

Spring comes slowly to southeastern Pennsylvania. Sunday's high temperature was only about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Overnight lows have dipped into the 30s and 40s. "Nobody's corn is up, at least I haven't seen any," Jim said.

Jim prefers soybeans drilled in 7.5-inch rows over 30-inch rows and a planter. He wants plant populations of at least 200,000. Any less than that and he may miss targeted yields of 60 to 70 bushels per acre. The drill allows more even spacing for plants at numbers that high. Weather permitting, Mason will be drilling soybeans at the home farm this week.

Craig has added a large machinery storage building at his home place. The 60-by-120-foot building was completed last week. "We had two weeks to watch the Amish work on that building. When you go over and look at the saw cuts in this building, everything is square, everything fits." In addition to the new building, an existing barn was remodeled. "They had to redo this old barn in green and white to match," Jim explained.

After frost damage to parts of his crop a week or two ago, Mark has begun using Reemay cheese cloth to cover rows and protect them from cold. It can make up to 6 degrees difference. "It really prevents frost from coming on the crop. This week he's planting cucumbers, green beans, lettuce, broccoli, zucchini, and cauliflower. In order to have the business they have, they really need to have all that stuff," Jim said.

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Richard Oswald