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What are the steps of harvesting?

Craig Lamm in his combine
The Lamms grow corn and soybeans in Boone County. Pictured is a combine ready to harvest soybeans.

I don’t think I’m alone when I say fall is my favorite time of year – the beautiful colors, pumpkin picking, college football (yay, finally!) and a batch of chili in the crockpot filling our home with a hearty aroma. For our household, and many farm families around us, it’s also the start of corn and soybean harvest.

As your family travels the countryside to experience fall foliage or a favorite orchard, you may see combines rolling along in the fields prompting questions from your young passengers (or even yourself, which is totally OK).

At a basic level, harvest includes equipment preparation, combining, storing and delivering grain and preparing for next year’s spring planting. But there are many things you may wonder about in between. Here are some of the most common harvest questions answered:

What do crop farmers do between seeding and harvest?

Many farmers are using new precision agriculture technologies, such as GPS guidance, control systems, sensors, robotics, drones, autonomous vehicles, variable rate technology and GPS-based soil sampling to help make farming more accurate and controlled when it comes to growing crops and raising livestock. Drones, for example, can detect individual weeds, enabling the farmer to be very targeted in their use of spray and reduce overall pesticide use. 

Some farmers also “side dress” their corn crop, applying fertilizer alongside the plants after they have begun to grow. This allows the corn to uptake the nutrients at a time when they need them most, reducing nutrient loss by up to 37 percent. Farmers have soil samples taken throughout their fields to know how much of a specific nutrient is needed, in what amount and in what location. This helps give plants what they need while improving soil health and protecting Iowa’s natural resources.

This is also primetime for machinery repairs and delivering corn and soybeans to grain elevators that farmers had stored on their farms over the winter. Even though corn and soybeans are harvested in the fall, many farmers pre-sell their grain for spring or early summer of the next year if prices are more favorable. Grain bins on the farm need to be emptied and cleaned out by late summer to make room for the crop that has yet to be combined.

 

Farmers also engage in educational workshops during the growing season to learn more about options related to selling their crops, new research and technologies that can provide improvements to their family farms and effective conservation practices. In fact, in 2019 more than 50,000 Iowans attended a water quality event to learn from area farmers what types of practices are working well on their land to protect local creeks and streams.

One other thing that may surprise you is more than half of Iowa farmers hold a primary occupation off the farm. For example, in addition to farming, my husband works as a full-time IT consultant. So, while the crops continue to mature, he is racking up paid time off hours for the coming harvest and finishing up any loose ends on projects for his clients. Because when harvest conditions are favorable, time is of the essence!

When is harvest season for corn and soybeans? How long does harvest last?

Generally, harvest runs from as early as mid-September to as late as the end of November. For each farmer, how long harvest takes depends on how many acres they farm, how many people they have helping out, the size of their equipment and how many combines, tractors and semis they have running. On our farm, it’s my husband and his dad who do the majority of the work. If conditions are absolutely perfect and they don’t have any obstacles to maneuver around, in one hour they can combine roughly 9 acres of soybeans and 7 acres of corn (an acre is about the size of a football field if you chopped the endzones off). A farm running larger and more equipment would be able to get more ground covered in less time.

How is corn combined? How are soybeans combined?

From outside a combine, you can see a crop going into the machine, grain collected into the grain tank and the plant remainders, like the leaves and stalks, exiting the back. But there are sophisticated mechanisms inside a combine that separate the parts of a corn and soybean plant and directs each part where it needs to go. The Illinois Farm Bureau has created an easy-to-read graphic (below) showing these intricacies.

The difference between how corn and soybeans are combined is how they are gathered into the machine. Dropping our two-year-old off at daycare recently, one of his teachers pulled my husband aside to ask, “What is a corn head?” (If you’ve got ears, my toddler is talking shop).

A single combine can harvest both corn and soybeans but different attachments put on the front of the machine determine what is being harvested. A corn head has long pointy cone-shaped fingers on the front called snouts. In between each snout, a stalk will be gathered and drawn into the front auger. A soybean head cuts off plants near their base and a large, rotating reel with skinny fingers rakes the soybean plant into the machine.

What can ruin the harvest season?

First and foremost, road accidents can ruin the harvest season for all involved. It is the responsibility of both farmers and non-farmers to practice road safety. If you’re following too close to a combine or tractor, they likely cannot see you behind them. Additionally, while it may seem like a farm vehicle is pulling to the side of the road to let you pass, they may actually be swinging wide to make a turn – check to see if their turn signal is on and if they are approaching a crossroad.

Rear-end collisions are another common accident between cars and farm equipment during harvest, especially when traveling on hilly roads. According to Iowa State University farm safety specialists, if you’re driving 55 miles per hour and come up on a tractor going 15 miles per hour, it only takes five seconds to close the gap the length of a football field – not a lot of time to react!  It can be frustrating to wait behind a huge combine, but we’ve all got places to be, and it’s more important to get there alive than get there fast (and on average, being slowed down by farm equipment is about the same as waiting for two stoplights in town!).

While equipment breakdowns or damage may not completely ruin harvest season, it certainly puts a damper on it! Even unforeseen hurdles, like a tire puncture from a deer antler shed, can put a farmer out of commission for a few hours or even half a day if they cannot get the parts they need in town – a big deal if rain is on the horizon.

Weather is a big factor in farming, and that rings true even at harvest time. In the fall of 2018, you may remember Iowa experienced abnormal rainfall. It was the 2nd wettest year on record, just behind the floods of 1993. This put Iowa farmers weeks behind on harvest. The rain made it impossible for large farm equipment to get into the field without risk of getting sucked into the soil, cool fall temperatures were a hindrance to fields drying out and grain was susceptible to mold. There were even some Iowa farmers who had to let their crops sit in the field during the winter and finished up harvest in the spring.

This year, derecho caused crop damage on many of Iowa’s acres. We have neighbors whose corn fields were deemed a total loss, and stalks not salvageable for animal feed were disked in early September. A few of our corn fields sustained wind damage causing corn to flatten or lean. Because of these conditions, we expect our corn harvest will be long and slow. With severely leaning corn, a special attachment will be put on our corn head to help pick up fallen stalks and feed them into the combine.

 

What happens to the corn and soybeans once they are harvested?

Corn and soybeans are an integral part of the feed that grows your favorite animal-based protein, a natural source of the many nutrients our bodies need to stay healthy. You may even start your morning with a bowl of corn flakes and a soy latte, but these grains are used in so much more than food.

When you commute to work, your car is likely being fueled by a blend of gas and corn-based ethanol (your tires may be made out of soybeans as well). Materials that hold your house together like plywood and insulation are manufactured using soybeans. And if you’ve been a habitual user of hand sanitizer as of late, you’re using a corn-based product. From toothpaste to adhesives, there are thousands of everyday items made with the soybeans and corn grown and harvested in Iowa that are used not only in our great state but across the globe.

What happens to corn stalks after harvest?

After harvest, farmers might work stalks into the ground, chop them for livestock, let cattle graze them in the field or leave them completely undisturbed, allowing corn residue to cover the field. Many farmers are turning toward reducing tillage to build soil organic matter and promote water quality. According to the 2017 Iowa Ag Census, 10 million acres of Iowa farmland used conservation tillage (30 percent or more of stalks and residue left after harvest) or 8 million acres had no tillage done.  

You may even see some greenery – cover crops – peeking through these stalks over the winter. The Iowa Nutrient Research Educational Council estimates farmers planted more than 2 million acres of cover crops in 2018. Planting cover crops is another way to provide forage for cattle (just like leaving the stalks), and research shows they can prevent 28 to 30 percent of nitrates from reaching our water.

Have more questions? Ask!

Not from a farm? Neither am I! I knew next to nothing about growing and harvesting a crop, but curiosity (well, and love for my spouse) got the best of me. One thing I’ve learned since being a farm wife is that there is so much to know! But farmers would love to answer your questions and share more about the legacy of their family farm. If you don’t know a farmer personally, Iowa Farm Bureau can connect you. You can also follow along with this year’s harvest by liking your local county Farm Bureau Facebook page where many photos and videos are being posted.  

Iowa agriculture continues to lead the nation. It’s a story Iowa farmers are proud to share, and now with some of your ag-related questions answered, I hope you feel confident to share your knowledge with others, too!



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