Gene Logsdon and Friends

Tire-Eating Cornstalks

In Gene's Weekly Posts on August 22, 2012 at 7:22 am

From GENE LOGSDON

I fantasize about genetically-engineering deer that would love the taste of raccoons or that would eat car tires so society would do something about surging wildlife populations. But now a true occurrence is taking place in Foolish Farming Today that not even a genius like Mark Twain could reduce to a more absurd conclusion. Agribusiness has succeeded in developing corn varieties that eat tractor tires. Do not laugh. This is not a joke. Corn stalks are so tough nowadays that tractor tires running over them repeatedly during field operations are wearing out faster than anyone anticipated and costing farmers big money.

The problem stems (I use that verb with malice aforethought) from a culmination of factors that result when greed is the only way left to make a profit in farming. Corn breeders have increased the strength of corn stalks over the years to the point where they have become nearly as tough and splintery as wood. Hybrid stalk strength was the salvation of corn in the early years when old open-pollinated varieties blew over every time the wind shifted. But the cure is bringing on more problems. Abrasion from these tough, strong stalks after harvest wears away the tires of tractors and combines that grind over them repeatedly. Some farmers want to blame GMO corn but of course the seed companies all piously say it is not their super-duper new varieties causing the problem, but someone else’s.

The reason it is hard to fault genetic modification alone is that farmers are planting corn much denser than they used to, upwards of 35,000 plants per acre which was once unheard of (and makes drought worse). That means a heap of plant residue on the soil surface after harvest, whether it’s GMO or non-GMO hybrids. These modern hybrid stalks, like wood chips, are slower to rot away into organic matter. The buildup becomes sort of like sandpaper for the tires to travel on. Where corn is planted continuously on the same ground year after year, the problem is worse of course, but even every other year in a corn/soybean rotation, the residue builds up faster than it can rot away. Also with all that ground cover, the soil is slower to warm up in the spring and the residue is harder to incorporate into the soil for a good seed bed. All sorts of new and expensive machines are coming on the market to chop up the stalks or crush them and integrate the residue better and deeper into the soil.

Exacerbating the problem now is the trend toward harvesting the stalks for turning into cellulosic ethanol, which is proving extremely problematical even without the tough stalk problem. Harvesting the stalks, leaves and cobs in large quantities requires more sophisticated and expensive machinery and the tough stalks are taking their toll on this equipment too. More passes over the field means more fuel and more soil compaction. And most worrisome of all, it means that organic matter is being removed from the soil. I wonder if what we did in the “old” days was not much smarter and more profitable: we harvested corn with binders (steel wheels that lasted a hundred years) and fed the corn fodder to the animals along with the ears. Any part of the stalk not eaten became bedding that went back to the field with the manure.

It looks to me like science has not only developed corn plants that eat tires, but also eat up the profit in corn production. Imagine corn varieties genetically engineered to consume hundred dollar bills. This leaves the door open for small scale corn production. As in the days of yore, a family could practice togetherness by planting and harvesting 10 acres of corn as a spare time, low cost, educational pastime. (The family that grows maize together, stays together.) Let us say corn goes to $10.00 a bushel by and by, as some are predicting. Ten acres at 200 bushels per acre is $20,000, not bad for spare time work done the “old-fashioned” way.  The other alternative will come when a robot-driven harvester heads into a five thousand acre corn field and is never seen again.
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  1. Gene, would that ten acres of family grown corn really be yielding 200 bushels per acre? Historically, yields up to 1940 were around 20 bushels per acre, steadily increasing to about 180 now. What’s a realistic ballpark for corn yield on a contemporary small farm using modern organic techniques?

    • Lee and Ray, there were yields on virgin soils of well over 100 bushels per acre. Averages of 20 bushels takes in all kinds of adverse events. Normally, even in the worst of olden times you could get 50 on better soil You could get 100 bushels per acre with Reids Yellow Dent today. That’s my variety but there are many others. You can use old fashioned varieties with modern fertility and cultivation methods and do okay. But I would advocate, shooting for 200 bushels and using low cost methods, a non GMO hybrid because of stalk strength. A realistic yield would be 110 bushels of Reids Yellow Dent and 180 bushels of hybrid. Gene

  2. The easy solution to this problem is to not plant GMO corn, pure and simple. It has not produced the desired results and has caused many more environmental issues that were never planned for. I get excellent yields with non-GMO hybrids and open pollinated corn varieties at 1/3 the cost of all the GMO hybrids. My cattle will also eat the stalks (they won’t with GMO) and I do not need to worry about putting a stalk through a tire. I never plant more than 27,000 seeds per acre.

  3. Reblogged this on Traditions & Skills of Every Day Life and commented:
    There are ALWAYS consequences to any behavior…and they are rarely thought about.

  4. My record for hand planting 2 acres of open pollinated irrigated corn is 300 bushels per acre Lee. This was with a 150 year old variety.

  5. Gene, Do you have any suggestions on what variety of feed corn should be planted using the old fashioned method you describe here? Also, I also raise mangels and sunflowers for livestock feed now and have been pleased with that for my livestock. Growing my own feed corn would be a next step, especially since it is really hard to find non-GMO corn nearby.

  6. I remember seeing a black and white picture from the early 1900s of a farmers family dwarfed by the 10 feet high or more corn field behind them. I wonder if these no doubt very unproductive varieties are still kept in some seed banks, they looked great.
    I thought the picture was from this web site, but I couldn’t find it:

    http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/index.html

    Seed companies are correct that GMOs have nothing to do with the woody corn stalk, traditional selection and hybridization did that. GM engineering is just introducing the Bt or r/r or whatever trait into existing varieties. I guess they could do it through GM engineering too, but it’s probably not worth the effort when so many varieties they can work from already have this trait. Kind of the same way the nanism trait was introduced to some grain crops via hybridization.

    I do believe the future of agriculture lies in robots, even for small scale farming, but miniature and light ones that are for instance assigned to weed between rows of the same field from planting to harvest, others that will add compost or mulch before the fructification stage, a moving and noisy scarecrow to frighten the deers for Gene, etc. I think it is especially important for organic farming, as it requires more expensive labor for some menial and repetitive tasks that are not exactly soul-elevating. It is also a great way to provide mechanical operations such as weeding or hoeing instead of chemical ones. It would leave more time for more rewarding and satisfying tasks for the farmer’s family and employees, as long as it still leaves room for social life on the farm.
    We already have all the technology today for making these robots, it’s a shame we don’t have them yet.

    And you need these custom robots, current combines could never harvest this 3m high corn or 4m high cannabis! ^-^

    • Clearly you are no farmer, the kind of farmer whose soul links directly to the earth, to the pleasures of work–fun work, menial work, all work. The kind of farmer who views work as life. Who knows life to be about the joining of the life of the hand to the life of the mind. Robots spreading compost? Lordy, I would rather spread compost then vacation, or eat, or couple.

      I can understand robots building bombs and tvs, lunacies both of them. I can understand robots on industrial farms, whose farmers are already robotic and whose practices have long been robotic And beside, that’s not farming. That’s all just machinery, noise.

      But robots on small farms, small organic farms? Better to be a robotic dentist, or to work in a condom factory. Better to weight 400 lbs and eat in malls.

      • You really love spreading compost! I freely admit to being less compost righteous and could probably be talked into letting a friendly little green robot make itself useful. I enjoy vacations, am a big fan of eating and bow my head in perpetual gratitude for the words “let the two become one flesh”.

    • Not a bad idea, robots . . . until the competition (big Ag), hacker, or plain dumb kids think they are having fun crack into the Operating System and turn the robots amuck!

      And I think as another posted, it is dehumanizing.

      Employees? What employees? Why have employees to pay, medical insurance to pay into, unemployment insurance to pay into, etc. when the farmer can have a whole batallion of robots doing the work! Heck, the farmer might never even have to leave his front porch, running the whole operation from his IPad and Wi-fi.
      Yep, technology sure does sounds great . . .

  7. Gene, your posts always make me laugh, smile and/or think; usually all three. This one was especially delicious. Thank you!

  8. Gene & Buggy Ridge, thanks for the info.

  9. I crossed Goliath Silo corn with Peruvian Morado corn last year. Stalks are close to 18 feet tall. Ears over 12 inches are filling out with purple kernels. Goliath silo corn leads all corn varieties in the amount of forage per acre. 50 tons per acre are possible. Sorghum-sudangrass does very well also for forage in dry conditions but one must manage it properly to avoid prussic acid. New GMO corn varieties are a waste of money.

  10. (The family that grows maize together, stays together.) LOL. Nicely done.

  11. Perhaps it’s time to go back to steel wheels on the tractor, like the good old days.

  12. I once planted an older variety of white hybrid sweet corn ( Silver Queen) using old seed I was given. I thought germination would be poor so I planted it thickly. I planted the seed in a horse corral that had not been used for a few years so all that good manure, urine and bedding was well broken down. I used a walking tractor with a ten inch plow and a harrow to prepare the seedbed and it was a beautiful, albeit small patch of corn. I think nearly every seed germinated. I have pictures of me holding a shovel at arms length pointed toward the sky with corn stalks going several feet higher still. There was plenty for both livestock and human consumption from a very small patch. I wintered goats, sheep, a cow and a sow on that patch with a small amount of supplemental hay. Interestingly, the sow would chew stalks and all much like a farmer chews a grass stem. I discovered this after I noticed baseball sized wads of fiber in the patch. The old girl would grab a stalk and plop her bulk down to chew the stalks much like I would munch on a sugar cane stalk when I lived in Puerto Rico. Obviously wear on tractor tires at plowing time was not a problem thereafter, given that the ruminants polished off the rest of the residue and deposited the manure in situ.

    Occasionally I’ve grown old open pollinated varieties including one that originated from an archaeological dig near Taos, New Mexico. It seems if the soil is in good shape with a lot of decomposed manure bedding residue and or plowed down pasture it holds water pretty well. Although in our climate I still need to irrigate with a sprinkler or soaker hose. I can’t give exact yield figures, but it’s safe to say that yield per unit of effort ; as in tilling, mulching, irrigating, harvesting etc. has consistently been nothing to complain about; whether seeding hybrid or open pollinated, sweet corn or Indian Corn or plain old dent field corn. I think this concept is best expressed as allowing the plant to express its genetic potential. If that is done Monsanto seems superfluous. The old time organic farmer’s quote of : “Feed the soil, not the plant” still applies.

    /jmt.

  13. Corn and the milk cow were the focal points from which almost all things depended on the farm when I was a young boy.I was always an admirer of corn as we still were cutting some and shocking it in the
    field and hand shucking the rest.Many great late Autumn days were spent in the corn field with my family and then unloading the corn in a slat sided long narrow corn crib.We planted the corn and cultivated it with an old Allis Chalmers B tractor and grew Macaslin Pole Beans and Pumpkins in the corn.My meat goats and cattle are pasture only so I had little use for corn lately but have gotten hogs,chickens,geese,pheasants and ducks so now I need to grow corn again or more like get to grow it again
    something very satisfying about growing corn and feeding it to livestock on a cold day in the Winter.I’m growing Wade’s Giant Flint Indian Corn it has a huge ear and multiple colored kernels and unlike the big corn growers I’ll be rotating corn with oats and wheat and a year or so of hay or sorghum and I save my seed from the previous years crop so I don’t pay $200/acre for my seed .

    • Gary,James and all of you above, what you all say is just so fascinating to me and also most comforting to learn I am not alone. Yes most of us small guys could have metal or even plastic wheels on almost all our implements including garden tillers. Rubber for all tires is just another example of, well, you know what. Gene

      • Thanks. I’m just going out to cut some hay with a scythe, maybe plant some Fall grain and harvest some Interlaken grapes to dry for raisins, but its hard to leave them alone when dead ripe. Soo goood; better than any grapes I’ve tried from the store as were the freshly picked ears of sweet corn I and my wife ate lastnight. This taking care of the soil business has its rewards and they don’t have much of anything to do with money, whether saving or spending such.
        We were inspired to continue in our soil improving endeavors by your Practical Skills book so many years back. Is there any chance you could reprint your Practical Homesteading skills book. Our copy is falling apart after much hard use. It’s much more useful and fun to read than the other homesteading books currently on the market, hence I want copies for my grown offspring and grandchildren.

  14. You’re definitely not alone and the ranks of folks like us is growing daily,there has been literally an explosion of what I guess I’d call homesteading activities here in central Virginia.Farmers markets selling directly to consumers are everywhere with new ones every year,small stock and poultry swaps and auctions have been having huge crowds with very good prices this year, 5 years ago you couldn’t give a chicken away.A friend of mine just had theAmish modify his New Holland 3pt hitch mower so he could use his team of work horses to mow.There is even a group here that lobbys the State Legislature and puts on Homesteading events called The Virginia Independent
    Consumers and Farmers Associations (VICFA)it has as many consumers members as farmers which to me says the city folks are even getting concerned about their food.Keep up the good work Gene think I have all your books.

  15. Dear Gene,
    You write a lot about the foolishness of big ag, and I believe it will continue to furnish you with a lot of fodder. I always get a giggle out of your blogs, but there is a sadness too, because it’s always so true.

    But being The Contrary Farmer, I have a question for you. With the publishing world being turned on it’s axis like most every other business, have you ever considered releasing an e-book only original with one of your publishers? You could do extensive photos and videos for demonstration. I know a lot of readers would grown, and I too love to hold real books in my hand…that being said, you’ve always been an innovator and I thought it would be great to see your work in an expanding format. Like Gary, I have purchased all of your books – several more than once because I keep giving them to potential homesteaders and urban gardeners. Keep the great work coming!

    • Jeannie, I have thought a lot about ebooks, but so far it seems better to do a regular book first and than ebook it. The huge question is if regular books are part of the future or not. Some of my books already are available in ebook form. Gene

  16. Gene, no need to genetically-modify deer to eat other ‘surging’ wildlife. Nature’s already done it. They’re called — erm, sorry about this — coyotes. And — even more embarrassing, sorry — erm… wolves…..

    “Whaaaat!” screech all the livestock farmers “How are we going to protect our animals if you quit persecuting those demons and allow them a completely free paw!” Er — like this, maybe:

    http://www.luckyhit.net/guardd24.htm

    http://www.denstarfarm.us/Denstar%20Web/Trash/LGD/LGD_Sec_One.html

    http://www.denstarfarm.us/Denstar%20Web/Trash/LGD/LGD_Selection.html

    • A friend of mine has a Kangal to guard her goats in Alaska. Twice it chased off brown bears who came sniffing around and she keenly watches anything flying – including airplanes! Very sweet tempered around people and the goats. Sweet tempered but fearless!

  17. The BT gene in gmo corn may have the unintentional consequence of slowing stalk breakdown. Heard of farmers applying nitrogen to speed the soils cataabolic relationship to the stalk?

    Oh, here is a link http://southeastfarmpress.com/grains/extra-n-needed-speed-decay-bt-corn-stalks

  18. Perhaps I missed this part, has no one noticed that the tires were left out of the discussion. Tires aren’t made the same as 30 yrs ago either. Anyone else noticed weather cracks from dry rot occur much faster in new tires than older ones? They are being made more cheaply, and from less petroleum products so that they will break down faster in landfills and are less costly to produce. The corn is half of the problem, don’t forget the other part.

    • Farmer Brown I hadn’t thought of that. I got the tires changed on my ancient pickup recently and the tire man was raving about the quality of the spare tire which I had him put on one the rear wheels. The truck is a 1981 model and the tire man says they just don’t make tires now like they did then. Gene Logsdon

  19. Gene,
    We currently raise pigs (Tamworths, Large Blacks, Red Wattles) I enjoyed your books very very much. How many bushels of corn would we need for 6 months over winter to feed our pigs? Notice we have 6 sows and a boar, these are not grower pigs, these are our breeders. We also feed our pigs haylege and they charge right thru it. (wrapped hay). Thanks for your input Gene.

    • Darren, It takes about 12 bushels of corn to fatten a hog to about 200 lbs for market. As a diet for sows and a boar, half that amount ought to do it with your other feed. The usual danger is that sows are overfed and get too fat for childbearing duties. Oats are a good feed for sows since they are not as fattening. Cheaper too. If your sows are grazing or wandering around the woods eating nuts and acorns, figure even less grain. Gene

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