Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Firewood and a Follow-up

Some times I write my posts the night before so that I can get them up early. Sometimes I write the in the morning because I don't have time the night before. But, today is one of those situations where I didn't have time last night (because we were putting up fence) and I don't have a ton of time today (because I need to go cut firewood). But, I will say that it is a perfect day to cut firewood ... it is a bit windy, but the snow is falling and that is my favorite time to be in the woods.

Before I head out though, I wanted to take a few seconds and follow-up on yesterdays post regarding Allan Nation's wheat cost/price blog post. If you haven't had a chance yet I encourage you to check out the comments because there was a lot of good discussion in there. Including some evidence that the numbers might be off a bit from the real world ... or at least some peoples real world.

The most interesting thing I gleaned from the comments though was a great realization of how much the system has changed. It was mentioned a few times in the comments about different crop/livestock rotations that farmers use or have used in the past, but I know in Iowa those have mostly left. What I'm not sure of is the system of corn and bean buying only lead to them leaving or if it was the other way around.

For example, many farmers here in Iowa (even in the best black dirt central Iowa land) used to have a good rotation of alfalfa, beans, corn, and maybe even some wheat or oats. Many of those same farms had cattle also and they would graze their corn fields after harvest or rotate to a pasture now and then. Things have changed now. Most farms rotate every other year between corn and soybeans (and nothing else). They have moved the cattle off the farm so they no longer winter graze their corn fields (plus, they have taken down a lot of the fences so they could plant a few more rows).

We have gotten to the place that if a farmer wanted to raise and alternative crop (anything besides corn and beans) they might have to drive a ways to sell their crop. This makes crop diversification very difficult, and I'm not sure how this sort of system would even be fixed...

Anyways, just a few thoughts from yesterdays post. Thanks so much for the great discussion! Now, I'm off to the woods...


Rich said...

There are probably a number of reasons for a change in the crops or crop rotations over the years.

As I mentioned, my grandfather (actually both grandfathers) grew a number of different crops in the past. But, the crops and rotations changed significantly over the years between WWII and the early 1980's.

The Federal Government's intrusive Farm Legislation always plays a role in crop rotations. I might be mistaken or have the facts turned around, but in the '50's and early '60's, the amount of certain crops that could be grown was limited (i.e. only so much of available cropland on the farm could be planted to wheat), so other crops (oats, barley, etc.) were grown on the remaining cropland. At the same time, people were encouraged (or bribed with subsidies) to grow something like cotton.

So, you would be more likely to grow a variety of crops under this type of system, even if it didn't always make economic or agricultural sense.

In the late '60's and early '70's (before the grain embargo), the Farm Bill restrictions changed, the value of wheat went up, beef cattle were worth more (and so more winter wheat pasture was needed), and so wheat became the main crop with a little barley grown to provide grain to supplement the cattle.

When Grandpa first switched to continuous wheat growing, he didn't have any problems with weeds (cheat, ryegrass, winter rye), because it had been controlled with the previous rotations and/or the weeds weren't as common then as now. His fertilizer applications were almost nonexistent, also possibly due to the previous rotations (a slight modification of Argentina's system of crop rotation). So at the time, it worked to grow continuous wheat in this manner, he was able to make a decent profit from continuous wheat due to the combination of moderate grain yields, extremely low input costs, and adequate grain and beef prices. With the conditions he faced, it wouldn't have made sense to continue growing oats, barley, or cotton instead of wheat.

Now, it makes sense to change to something slightly different to address the problems that I face today. But changing now doesn’t mean that it was a mistake to do what was done in the past, or that what was done further in the past was a superior way of doing things; it just means that agriculture is a dynamic instead of a static pursuit.

Of course, if the Federal Government (and state and local governments to a lesser extent) would stop trying to micro-manage agriculture, we would all be better off.

Rich said...

If you are interested in different crop rotations, etc. there is a book that details a number of different farmers around the country available online (and in print) at:

A handful of other online books are also at:

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