Monday began with a rain shower in the St. Louis area. No planting at the Jerseyville farm for the next two days, I thought. After getting settled in at work, I sent an email to the crew at the farm, asking, “Do you think you’ll get in the fields later this week?”
To my surprise, the farm planned on hitting the fields. Research associate Joe Kinser replied immediately, “We caught a shower here this morning, but I think we will plant a few small fields in the 1 to 4 p.m. time frame at Jerseyville today. Let me know when you’re planning on coming out.”
After a quick check of schedules with videographer and photographer Chris, I decided this was my best chance to experience my first planting. Chris and I each drove home to change into quasi-proper farm attire: jeans, baseball cap and tennis shoes (and yes, I realize that I need a good pair of boots instead of Asics for the farm). Then we hurried over to Jerseyville.
The weather had improved quite well—sunny, mid-70s, good wind—to dry the fields. The planting crew was more than happy to be outside planting than inside doing paperwork. It was around 2 p.m., and there was enough planting to finish out the day—a 4-acre field and a 1-acre field.
Research planting is quite a bit different than conventional farm planting. The plots are planted as two rows about 23 feet long. The trial seeds come in small packets containing approximately 100 seeds, and two people—in this case, Pat Kalaher and Sean Evans—sit on the back of a planter with a box holding the packets (if you collected baseball cards, it’s a box very similar to the ones that held hundreds of cards and all of your doubles of Jose Oquendo, Jody Davis and Greg Gagne).
When the planter starts, Pat and Sean dump one packet into a tube, one on each side of them. The tube siphons the seeds into two rows to be planted. They have about 7.7 seconds to reach into the box, grab a packet, rip it open, dump the seeds and then throw away the packet. About 15 feet separate each plot in the field. If Sean and Pat take more than the 7.7 seconds, the plots will creep into the extra space, and the field will not be uniform.
For all the computer technology involved in this process (GPS, automatic trips to signal the planter to begin planting a trial, etc.), the most important part hinges on humans for precision.
In the tractor cab, Joe Kinser’s job is a bit easier this year. The tractor has autosteer, easing some strain. In previous years, Joe had to steer the tractor and try to keep an eye on two monitors—one that keeps track of his progress in the field and the other that tracks each seed in each plot. Now, he can pay better attention to the plots to ensure each one is planted correctly.
The 4-acre field took about an hour to complete. I think the crew said they go about as half as fast (2-3 miles per hour) as a conventional planter.
While Chris and I waited for the 1-acre field to be planted, we visited a field of planted in the past 7-10 days. Site Manager Wally Bates gave us a couple quick lessons in germination, soil compaction and how the site selects fields for the trials. This field has some products trialing the nitrogen use efficiency traits, which are designed to help plants use nitrogen more efficiently by either boosting yield under normal nitrogen conditions or stabilizing yields in low-nitrogen conditions. Here’s an image of corn that just emerged that day:
The afternoon was going about as well as it could—for me and the planting team. Then, before we left Jerseyville, we were reminded that Mother Nature holds the cards. Lightning strikes created spokes across the sky. Chris and I bolted to outrun the storm. Minutes after we left, a hailstorm hit the site. That’s not a good thing for corn fresh out of the ground.
This . . .
After a check of the corn on Tuesday morning, the Jerseyville farm team reported the emerged corn did not avoid hail damage. Leaves were either torn completely off or damaged. The good news is the growing point is still underground and the farm team thinks the corn will recover.
While the differences between a research farm and conventional farm planting are easy to see, the technology and hard work behind each are the same. I still want to visit a conventional farm for planting, but this experience was well worth it to continue my ag education.
Monsanto employees will be following the 2010 crop season from beginning to end on the Monsanto.com Crop Season site.