Category Archives: machinery

Do Corn and Soybean Farmers Feel Like Hamsters on Wheels?


Flickr CC photo by Asad.

Though we always hear that there needs to be more investment in agricultural research, an agronomy student once told me that his professors are frustrated by the fact that nothing they can offer in the way of agricultural advice will be adopted by farmers unless it increases their profitability. And, usually that comes by way of reducing labor, increasing yields, or through policy.

We have a situation today where the efficiency of industrialized agricultural methods are being challenged because of ever rising input costs as well as ever growing global production competition as more and more of the developing nations adopt our industrial methods of production. Additionally, whereas the U.S. used to be the world’s corn exporting powerhouse, we’ve relinquished export market share since mandated ethanol policy went into effect.

In recent years, the agribusiness giants have done extremely well and many corn and soybean farmers have just ended a cycle of great crop incomes, too. We all know how well the S&P 500 has done in the past five years, but Deere has done even better:

In part recent farm-related profits have been due to government policies of direct farm payments and crop insurance, and in larger part, because of the biofuels mandates. But, it looks like that good time period is about to end. A recently released FAPRI study forecasts breakeven crop prices through 2023 for U.S. farmers.

Furthermore, during the five-year corn commodity price bull run we’ve just experienced, the profits went to the top half of producers, while the bottom half was left out; the top 10 percent of producers made 10 times the amount of profits than the bottom 10 percent.

Approximately 97 million acres of corn and 78 million acres of soybeans were planted in the U.S. in 2013. Let’s take a look at profitability from the farmer’s perspective by using data provided by Mike Duffy of the Iowa State Extension Service, who provides ongoing data updates for the input costs per acre to grow corn and soybean crops in Iowa. His data shows that the machinery costs for growing corn rose 420 percent in the 46 years between 1968 and 2014. The cost for seeds, chemicals, and fertilizers went up over 1000 percent. The yield in corn bushels per acre went up 77 percent for an overall cost per bushel increase of 347 percent over the past 46 years.

My chart below helps demonstrate the numbers:

And the following chart by Chad Hart of Iowa State helps us more in visualizing input costs versus returns of Iowa corn farmers (note the number of years that the average cost of production exceeds the corn price):

source: https://www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/info/agcycles/hart.pdf

Hart included this commentary with the graph above, “When we examine the average return to a bushel of Iowa corn over the entire time period from 1972 to 2012, it is a positive 5 cents per bushel. However, if you looked at 1972 to 2011, the average return was negative.”

Whereas the input providers can set their prices, the farmer-producer is always at the mercy of the markets. What the farmer has the liberty to decide, however, is his/her choice of methods.

As for benefits, a major economic benefit for the corn and soybean farmer comes from taxpayer supported policy programs which help to ensure that production costs are met each year. The new farm bill offers even greater support to the farmer when prices fall, putting a high floor under prices. Unfortunately, today’s policy also encourages farming on marginal land because of a guaranteed profit to the landowner.

Then, there is also the labor saving benefit of today’s row-crop farmer. Compared to the old rotational grazing systems, the grain farmer’s time commitments have fallen dramatically, offering a better lifestyle and the opportunity to work off the farm for additional income.

What does this all mean and where is the corn and soybean farmer headed?

First, precision agriculture may be another method to increase production, but it comes with a large price both in dollars and in trust of the technology, creating a new set of risks and challenges. Second, integrating cover crops into cash crops can make row-crop farming more ecological and more productive in the long run. And, third, it is expected that by planting closer together, and by further improving genetics, crop yields per acre can continue to increase, but that, too, will come with higher input costs of seeds, fertilizer, and machinery for farmers – which brings us once again to the hamster on the wheel situation.

The farmer who can reduce his/her input costs and produce a product of value, such as providing organic products to answer consumer demand, may do well, and, the younger farmer demographic is looking into new alternatives and ideas which challenge the status quo. Perhaps this is all best summarized by a CNBC news headline that I spotted over the weekend, “There’s a growing discontent around farming in America.”

Steam Tractor Videos to Kick off this Website’s New Design

It’s been awhile since I’ve featured steam tractors on this site, and I thought it might be a good way to introduce everyone to the new website design. Whaddya think?

The video, above, was taken in 2009 at my own Boulder County’s antique farm show. The 1907 steam engine has 22 horsepower and it performed threshing and plowing back in its heyday. It also ran a sawmill, pulled a scarifier for state road work, and provided steam for a chemical company near Valmont Butte. It was last used to thresh wheat in 1976. The video, above, shows this steam traction engine running a threshing separator.

AND

This above video from 2009 shows a steam engine tractor pull.

DIY Solar Powered Tractors

Solar tractors are around — if you pay attention. Supposedly, there is one here in my own Boulder County which I hope to seek out someday and make a post about, but until then this post offers a sampling of “what’s out there.”

Most solar tractors are do-it-yourself projects, happily taken on by the frustrated-would-be-engineer, and so each one is different and innovated by its unique designer.

In this post, I’ve put together a few links, which if followed, will give you some ideas of what a few of these innovators have created for their own personal farm use.


The above is a solar tractor at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market in 2008, taken by Mouly Kumaraswamy (FlickrCC). It looks as if its owner-maker is plugging the battery pack into a solar array system for re-charging, instead of putting panels on the tractor’s roof, like many other models.

On the Homesteading Today forum, the builder of the solar tractor in the photo above describes how he made the tractor, and there are other photos of this labor and back saving creation at the link. He calls it his P-Machine: P for Planting/Picking/Pulling weeds and Putting around the garden.

This (above) tractor is featured on the Solar Car and Tractor website. It is a heavier duty tractor, weighing 3700 pounds (with batteries), on a Ford 8N tractor model. With 12 HP, a 1300 pound battery pack lasts for about two hours, capable of plowing or harrowing a half-acre in that amount of time.

The same website also features another solar tractor using a Farmall Cub.

Mother Earth News, this month, includes a small solar-powered tractor being used on a 30-acre farm in Arkansas. Its innovator used a 1950 Ford scrap tractor for the frame. With its roof top solar array, it uses eight batteries and runs for two hours following an 8 to 10 hour charge. Its power is similar to a gas or diesel tractor, according to the owner, who says it is perfect for the needs of their small farm. Go here to see the Mother Earth story which includes two nice photos of the tractor. To watch a video of the tractor working, go here.

If any readers here know of other solar tractors that they’ve seen or read about, please add links or descriptions, in the comments below this post.

ADDITIONAL LINKS:
Permaculture Electric Tractors
Youtube video of Steve Heckeroth’s Solar Tractor
Youtube video of 1954 Farmall Howe Converted Electric Tractor