The Amazing Race: Iowa Harvest Edition

The Amazing Race: Iowa Harvest Edition
Every autumn farmers race time and the weather to bring in the year’s crops. It’s no game; the stakes are high for a world that has nearly 6.8 billion mouths to feed. This has been a particularly challenging year for farmers in the Midwest. Their early harvest window was shut down by rain. According to an Iowa State University climatologist, this year’s harvest is the latest in Iowa since 1951, a year when there were still more horses and mules on farms than tractors!

When all the conditions are right, you’ll see combines rolling through the fields all day and into the night. Farmers also have to carve out time for their normal work with livestock and other field work that needs to be completed before the ground freezes (such as chiseling and spreading fertilizer on newly harvested ground).

It’s an experience that’s easier to appreciate when you see it in action. Earlier this month, I returned home to my family’s farm in eastern Iowa to help my dad ( Lee) and brother ( Ben) with the harvest. Here are my notes, photos and videos from Saturday, November 7.

5:38 - Dad gives me a wake-up call. I had my alarm set for 5:30, but, hey, the last time I woke up this early on a Saturday was...well, it's been awhile.

6:09 - When I get outside, Dad is checking the progress made by our grain dryer overnight. Often farmers need to dry their grain before delivering it to an elevator (especially when the weather is as wet as it’s been this year). Drying prevents grain from getting moldy during storage. Farmers will harvest around the clock when the weather cooperates, as long as they have room in their bins and dryers. We dried corn all night, but at 6:09 a.m., our dryer is still working at capacity (wetter corn takes longer to dry). Dad will have to wait until mid morning to start harvesting more corn.

6:13 - I join Ben, who’s checking the pigs in our nursery (a barn for piglets). It’s around 40 degrees outside and a comfortable 76.3 degrees inside our nursery. When piglets are first moved into our nursery, it’s approximately 90 degrees, and the temperature is adjusted by fractions of a degree daily, keeping the pigs comfortable as they grow.

6:31 – Dad pressure washes one of our hog barns. After a group of pigs goes to market or moves to a different barn, we clean their pens, feeders, and waterers. It’s a dirty job (when sh**’s splattering, you learn to keep your mouth shut), but it’s a crucial part of maintaining a clean, healthy environment for our hogs. I suppose Dad could have stuck me with this job, but he didn’t. Thanks, Dad!

6:45 – Ben and I feed the hogs in one of our other barns. Ok, Ben did most of the work.

8:10 – Ben mixes up a new batch of feed and explains the process to me. Each batch is mixed differently, according to the age and nutritional needs of the pigs being fed, and each of the ingredients has a different purpose. For example, DDGs (a co-product of ethanol production) are a good source of protein and fiber.

9:30 – Ben and I fuel up the combine and a tractor.

10:30 – I start chiseling (i.e. plowing) a field that was recently harvested, but the ground is too wet, so I have to stop after a couple rounds. I try another field, with no luck. We’ll give the fields another day to dry out. While we no-till a lot of our ground (leaving the soil undisturbed before planting), we use conservation tillage on ground that was planted to corn this year and will also be planted to corn next year (i.e. “corn-on-corn”). Conservation tillage leaves most of the corn stalks and leaves on the surface of the soil to reduce erosion.

11:15 – Ben and I grab our lunch coolers from Mom and head out to help Dad harvest. Dad calls us to say the 9-0 Iowa Hawkeye football team is leading Northwestern, 10-0.

12:02 – I get in on the harvesting action, pulling the grain cart. My job is to transport corn from the combine to our semi-trailer so the combine doesn’t have to stop picking (saving time is critical).

2:01 – The Iowa Hawkeyes lose their starting quarterback and drop their first game of the year to Northwestern. It’s a sad day for the Hawkeyes and Iowa’s farmers, who share a mutual respect.

2:20 – Ben joins me in the cab of the tractor and tells me he remembers planting this field in May. He tells me he finished planting around 9 p.m., started taking hogs to market, and finished delivering hogs at 5 a.m. the next morning. Harvest isn’t the only time of year that has farmers working at all hours. Then he shares his insights on the harvest.

2:45 – I join Dad for a ride in the combine.

3:36 – I take my turn on the combine.

4:50 – Ben takes over on the combine. It’s getting dark, but we’ll keep going as long as the weather holds and the dryer is under capacity. Dad has to leave for a couple hours. My younger brother is starring in his high school play, and (even though things are busy in the fields) he won’t miss it. Ben and I will take a couple hours off tomorrow to check out the matinee. Harvest is a hectic time of year, but family comes first.

9:00 – Ben continues to harvest after sunset and finishes up around 9:00. He brings a semi-load of corn back home and checks the hogs before turning in for the evening.

Written by Zach Bader
Zach is a Communications Specialist for Iowa Farm Bureau.