Monday, May 8, 2017

10 Sustainable Changes in Farming

With our farm changing, and the birth of our daughter, I have begun to reflect upon how our world and our farm will change in her lifetime.  My wife Ruth and I both grew up on a farm, and we have fond memories of caring for the animals, taking the old pickup for our first drive, finding new kittens in the barn, and watching our families plant and harvest crops.  In looking back over the past 35 years as a "farm kid" it is interesting to see how advances in agricultural technology have allowed our farm to be more sustainable. 

Below is a list of 10 things that I am proud that have changed for the better:
1. Use of GPS on farm equipment
Isn't GPS only for my car?  Installing GPS on our farm equipment was a game changer.  We type information about our equipment and can accurately go down the field with no overlap.  Also because plants don't grow well in compacted soil, I can't miss a spot while digging.  Before, I would overlap at least a foot every pass I made over the field.  Now, I can make 12 fewer passes.  This is a big deal for fuel consumption and preservation!  We are also able to track the amount of growth in a specific area, so we can make precise improvements in the future.  GPS allows us to plant our crops with no overlap on the ends of the fields.  We thin out our lettuce in the garden when it is too thick to grow, but don't have to do this in our fields!
2. Putting (and keeping) nutrients where they belong
We take samples of our soil every few years to monitor the health and nutrients available.  Tie this with the GPS harvest data, and we put the exact amount of nutrients back in the ground to be used by future crops.  Just like kids, not all soil is the same, and we treat areas of the fields differently.  When applying nutrients in the field, we program the spreader to avoid certain areas that don't need any fertilizer.  This helps us preserve the farm's nutrients. To test the crops, we take leaf samples throughout the growing season to ensure the proper amount of nutrients have been applied, and make adjustments the following year.
3. Changes in seed varieties reduces disease and increases yield
As a kid, I remember walking through a field and seeing a great deal of the corn broken off and laying on the ground.  When I asked my dad why this happened, he said that a bug ate some of the corn stalk, and made it weak.  He'd pick up the ear of corn, look at the others on the ground, and sigh.  Fast forward a few decades and through selective breeding, we have corn that is able to withstand wind damage.  Through other genetic modifications, our crops are stronger and healthier, and we are able to harvest more of the crop that is grown.
4. Application of chemicals has decreased
I distinctly recall my dad filling an old sprayer in the middle of the yard with huge bottles of chemicals adorned with skull and crossbones.  He told me to stay back because they were "bad news."  Due to genetic modifications, we no longer need a cocktail of chemicals to control weeds.  For our soybeans, we will apply 4 ounces, about half a cup, per acre, just under the size of a football field, before the plants emerge.  A month later, we will apply Roundup to the field which kills unwanted weeds, but not the soybeans.  That's it.  We don't drench our crops in chemicals.  A version of Roundup can be purchased at Walmart.  We utilize GPS technology so we don't apply herbicide twice in the same area.  This saves so much time and has a much smaller impact on the environment.  Is it perfect?  No. Is technology getting closer to where we only apply on the pest?  Yes.
5. Protecting our water and air
Living in the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," water quality is very important.  We have added buffer strips along all the lakes, streams, and ditches that flow through our property.  As heavy rains fall, any potential soil and nutrient runoff is held in place by growing vegetation.  In addition to protecting waterways, buffer strips help preserve natural habitats for local wildlife. When the buffers are done doing their job, and pheasants are done nesting, we cut the grass and use it as feed for the cows.  This, tied with precision application of nutrients helps to protect our waters. Farmers also plant waterways in areas that are likely to have water occasionally flowing after a heavy rain. Also, our herbicide equipment is fitted with low drift nozzles so the product we apply goes directly on the weeds, and not into the air.
6. Protecting our soil
When you think of farming, don't think of a horse and plow.  We don't use either of these on our farm anymore.  Our tillage equipment has greatly changed over the years so that the soil better stays in place.  After the crops are harvested, we till the ground to prepare for the following year.  The equipment leaves some crop leaves and stems on top of the soil, which helps to hold it in place, despite our Minnesota wind and snow.  Some farmers in our area are experimenting with the use of living cover crops.  This further holds the soil in place, and provides "green nutrient"' for the following year.  I anticipate that this practice will grow as more farmers try it out and refine their techniques. 
The topics above reflect improvements in cropping but we have also made modifications with our livestock as well. 
7. Managing pasture lands for cows, water, and soil
When I started raising cattle in 9th grade, we would turn our cows out to pasture for the summer.  We'd check on them and bring them home in the fall.  Today, we have divided our pastures into smaller sections.  This encourages our cows to graze the entire pasture, and not just eat from their favorite spots. We rotate the cows to allow the grass a chance to rest and regrow. By changing the foot traffic of the cows, we minimized paths across the pastures.  This practice has reduced soil erosion along the creeks and streams.  We also move the cows out of the pasture before the grass is too short.  This has multiple benefits in that the grass grows quicker and puts down healthier root systems, which hold the soil in place.
8. Barn technology helps save lives (and sleep)
We installed a surveillance camera in our calving barn to monitor the cows about to give birth.  The old practice was to go out and check on the cows in the dark.  The cows would get up, and we couldn't tell if the cow was calving or not.  With a camera in the barn we are able to see the cows in a relaxed state and monitor them safely from the house.  This has made checking the animals at night much more enjoyable, especially since Ruth gets up to feed the baby, and can check to see if anybody is calving.  When a cow is in labor, I can assist if necessary and see if she is having difficulties.  There have been numerous occasions where we have been able to see that something was not going well and provide assistance that saved the calf. 
9. Understanding animal housing and nutrition
Animal housing has undergone major advancements.  I recall our old hog buildings had a roof over part of the pig pen and the rest was open air.  Not only was the cold reducing the hogs' growth capacity, rains would wash manure down the concrete floors and into a holding area.  The holding area would often overflow and run across our yard.  Modern animal housing creates an ideal environment for the animals by controlling the temperature, and is designed so manure doesn't run off.  When I was a kid, we sold hog feed out of our garage to other farmers.  Today, we work with a nutritionist to carefully balance our animal's diet and mix it so the animals get exactly what they need to grow and stay healthy.
10. Farming with nature in mind
We know humans are not the only ones who live on our farm.  In Minnesota, 75% of the wildlife habitat is provided by farmers.  This year we will be planting 40 acres of pollinator habitat in areas that are typically not productive for our row crops.  We cut the alfalfa hay from the middle to the outside, instead of from the outside in, so the animals are flushed out rather than crowded in and potentially harmed by the mower.  We are installing wildlife visibility flags on our fences so the deer can easily see the barricades instead of getting tangled in them (hopefully).  This year we are working with the state Department of Natural Resources to help them manage some of the grassland they own.  Instead of burning habitat that has animals in it we will have the cows graze the land.  Their trails will be used by pheasant hatchlings to help them navigate and keep grasses shorter so the hatchlings can escape from predators.
With so many changes one may wonder if we are still a family farm?  Of course we are!  Working together has always been a way for us to spend quality time together.  Our equipment and barns have become bigger, but we still have a strong desire to work together and preserve the land so future generations can continue growing food for you and your family!


Friday, April 21, 2017

Taking Over!

Sorry Ruth's been away for so long!  It seems she's been pretty busy with life recently.  This is Paul and Ruth has given me the password so that I can help keep you posted as to what is going on at our farm.  Ruth started this post by putting on a few pictures last year but then got busy with taking care of the family and being a farm wife.  Enjoy the pictures!
As an update, we've been thoroughly enjoying our transition to the main farm which has been keeping us very busy! We didn't mean to keep you hanging for the past year about the progress made on the house project.  Below are some picture of the finished product!
The view from the front door.
Barn door made from my grandfather's old barn.
Ruth's canning kitchen with lots of windows to see all that's happening on the farm!  She likes to refer to this space as her Command Center since she can see everything going on and can help the kids with homework on the island at the same time.
Ruth's favorite part of the kitchen is the view and her big sink where she has already done quite a bit of canning this past summer. Based on her garden plans, I think the family will be pretty busy again this summer!
The stove hood made from Grandpa's old shed.
The stair are the only part of the main level that stayed.  Everything else was changed.  This area works well for the kids to be doing craft projects.  My farm office is behind that door where I can still be involved in the activity going on right outside the door!
Below are some random farm shots that are some of our favorites for various reasons.

A cow with hardware provided a unique opportunity for Mary to work with our veterinarian in learning about animals and medical care.  She ended up with a Grand Champion ribbon explaining the cause, symptoms, and treatment of hardware in cows.

Sale day for the fat cattle.  We were fortunate to have four generations together for the day seeing them all get loaded!
Below are a few pictures from our summer vacation that we took to the Black Hills last year.

Below are some random pictures that Ruth had loaded onto this post before she got super busy!

Biggest news recently is the addition of Joy Jean Lanoue to our family on March 31, 2017.  She's been a very good baby so far and likes to be held which is good when you have 5 loving older siblings!  Mom is doing great!

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Most recent family photo!
Like I mentioned earlier, I plan to post occasionally about the happenings on the farm.  Don't be surprised if I get a little deeper into the why's on our farm, just the old Ag teacher in me, I guess!

Friday, February 5, 2016


      I finally found some time to update this little farm blog. We have been up to big things bringing the farm up to date for the next generation. As my husband and I get more involved in the farming business with my parents more talk has been taking place about when it will be the right time for us to move onto the main farm place and take over the everyday responsibilities of running the farm. After lots of "someday" talk it was finally decided that the transition would happen within the 2016 year. The plan is that my parents will move into our house which is on a hobby farm site and 3 miles down the road from the main farm and Paul, I, and the kids will move to the main farm.
      The main farm house is a hard working gal, and she needed a little updating before taking care of another generation of active kids and farm family.  I am very excited at the prospect of raising my children in the house that I have so many wonderful childhood memories in. Also after having spent my years of my life in this house I could see ways that the flow and layout of the house could be improved. Putting all this together leads to a major farm house remodel.
       Let me take you on a journey through our project so far.
     My main goal of the remodel of the farm house was to gain better visibility of the farm yard from the main parts of the house. In the previous floor plan the master bedroom had the best view of the yard. My goal is to make this space my kitchen, the heart of the house.
     As in many 100 year old farm houses there are many small which cut up the house and my goal create as much as an open floor plan as possible. I also am excited to bring back into view some of the original woodwork.
    There are many features that I plan on keeping like this wonderful picture window that faces the road and monitors the coming and goings on the farm. It will now be located in the living room of the house.
      The previous living room was located on the north side of the house (the yard is to the south).This is an addition my parents added to the original farm house in 1987, when I was 7 years old. I remember my mom hanging the wall paper on the new walls and staining the woodwork.  I am moving the living room it to the southeast side of the house so it can view both the farmyard and road. Where the living room was previously will become the master bedroom.
      The kitchen in the farm house was behind the load baring wall cutting off it's view of the yard. When in the kitchen you would have to walk around the wall to the round top window by the entry or into the dinning room to see what was going on in the yard. The farm is becoming busier by the year and I need to be able to get my work done in the house and monitor what is happening on the farm all at the same time. This area is to become the master bath, powder room, and kitchen pantry.
       The first day in 2016 we started the remodel project. After removing my parents belongings from the main floor of the farmhouse and packing them into a spare bedroom at my house we started pulling up caret and taking paneling off walls to reveal the 100 year old plaster walls and wood floors. I enjoy uncovering these forgotten pieces of years gone by.  
       The kids came over for the beginning of demolition and helped remove some plaster, using some unusual tools. The kids are excited at the prospect of living on the farm and making the farmhouse our new home.
       For about a week my dad and I worked had on removing all the lath and plaster and 1950's version of sheet rock from the main floor. With the number of walls that would be removed/relocated and the new electrical updating of the house everything had to go. It was a lot of work.
          Within the first few days of the construction crew starting work and walls being removed to the bathroom and bedroom, the beginning of my dream of having full visibility of the farmyard can start to be seen.  
               As many of you know remodeling is a very messy undertaking. I can not count how many times I have swept the floor or how many trash cans of plaster I have removed from the house. My parents decided to say living in the house utilizing the top and bottom floor. We set up a kitchen in the basement and a living room in one of the bedroom's upstairs. It is important for someone to be on the farm with the animals. My mother did leave go with my sisters who are also setting up new houses in the Kansas/Missouri area. All three of us sister are in the process of setting up new home at this time.
       It was an exciting day to see the large 8 foot patio door being installed in the dinning room. Talk about a wall of windows. My dream is to add a covered porch outside this door so we can continue to enjoy meals outside on beautiful days.

       Putting new windows into my kitchen.

        One difficulty with doing a big remodel project in Minnesota in the middle of winter is the cold. As demolition took place we tried to leave as much insulation in place as long as possible to keep some of the warmth in the house.  The plan is to put polyurethane insulation throughout the main floor to make a nice snug house for years to come.

      Opening up the floor plan to the south, towards the farmyard. 63foot wall of windows making monitoring of the farmyard easy from the main living areas on the house.
        After the construction crew had taken down many walls and put up a few new ones it was time for the pluming and electrical work. This took a little time but it is important to have it done right. A focus was put on  making sure the house was equipped with the technology needed see it years into the future. We currently have a surveillance system we use during calving to monitor the cows that are about to calve. This surveillance is a key aspect to safety of the cows and calves during this busy time on the farm. Wiring was installed to make sure that the system functions to it's best ability and can be viewed throughout the house and remotely. 
          Then it was time for insulation and Sheetrock. Each day I would visit the farmhouse and see more and more of it take shape. With just the stud walls it can still be a little hard to visualize all of it but one the Sheetrock goes on the rooms become clearer. What a change.

     The new master bedroom where the living room use to be.
     The bright sunlight coming in through the windows in my new kitchen/dinning room. As I sit here today the Sheetrock instillation is complete and the tape and texture crew is at work. Plans are that I could be painting the walls next week. It is amazing the transformation a house can go through in a months time. We have one more month until the first calves are expected to be born on the farm so we need to keep working on the house getting her ready for all the business farm life brings. This journey of transition has been stressful at time but oh so exciting and I know that there is a bright future in front of us on VerLan farm.