By Patricia Grotenhuis, sixth generation farmer
Spring is a funny time on the farm. You know it is coming but you don’t know exactly when the weather will be spring-like. Regardless of the timing or conditions, you still need to be prepared. Through the winter, you work on cropping plans and fixing equipment. Cropping plans are what is created when farmers look at the fields they have available, what crops have been planted in previous years and what crops they want or need to grow in the current year and future years. The farmers will then come up with a plan of which crops will be planted in which fields and select the seed varieties they will be using.
To help maintain soil health, farmers rotate their crops, planting a different crop in their fields each year. This prevents nutrient depletion in the soil, and allows different root systems to grow through the soil. Crop rotation is also a form of natural disease and insect control, since the diseases and insects that thrive on one family of crops will not thrive on another. Pasture plans are less complex, but just as important. Over-grazing the land can leave it barren, so farmers often use “rotational grazing”, moving the animals to a different pasture every few days. It gives pastures a chance to regrow between grazing periods. As snow melts, you fix fences and pick up supplies. And then you wait.
Some years, spring comes early and there is a lot of good weather. Other years, a long, snowy winter delays field work, and then a wet spring delays it even further. Checking the weather forecast becomes more of an obsession than a daily chore, and the forecast changes as often as you check it.
Whether a farmer is preparing for their first year on the land or their fiftieth, they wait with anticipation for the first day in the fields to arrive, minds whirling. What will the year bring? When the weather turns nice, will it hold long enough to get all of the fields and fences done? Did I make the right choices for crops to plant this year? Will we find ourselves in a drought, or will it be such a wet year we’ll have flooded patches in the field?
Suddenly, the weather improves and the busy season starts. Even on a small farm, there is a lot of work to do. This year we planted our farm for the first time since buying it from my in-laws in January. The succession makes everything a milestone on the farm during our first season. For a few weeks straight, we were either busy in the field, or we were busy in the barn doing extra jobs to be ready for the next field day. Mothers’ Day was spent planting barley, Fathers’ Day was spent baling hay, other days were filled with spreading manure and cultivating. Then it was time to plant corn. After our corn was planted, we immediately started cutting the hay fields. Some was harvested while it was still wet, to be stored in our silos. It will ferment in them and become “haylage”, a nutrient-packed feed for our milking cows. The remainder was dried and baled, to be fed as hay throughout the year.
We’re finished field work for a short time now, at least until we cut hay again. Because hay is a type of grass, it will re-grow after being cut, allowing the farmers to harvest each field several times during the year. Fields are being monitored to watch for growth of the crops and for the amount of weeds a field might have. We have the fences up around the pasture, and the dry cows (cows who are pregnant and are not being milked until after the birth of their calves) and heifers (females who have not had a calf yet) are back outside. It does not mean we get a break, it just means the frantic schedule of the past few weeks has slowed to a regular busy pace.
Planting is one of the biggest milestones, this year. The seeds we planted represent our hopes, not just for this year, but for the future of our farm and our family. Now we have to nurture them into a reality. It will take more hard work, it will take precise planning, and it will take chance, because we will never have control of the weather or the markets, no matter now much we wish for it. We are up to the challenge, though, and so are all of the other farmers out there.
In farming, the outcome of our work is never a sure thing because so many factors are beyond our control. But, luckily for us, our parents instilled their love of working the land and caring for animals in us at an early age, so that now we can continue on as the next generation. Who knows? Maybe as our children grow up, they will also decide to follow in the footsteps of so many generations before them to continue caring for the environment and animals while feeding the world.