Wheat After Corn
August 26, 2013 5:41 PM   Subscribe

I want to know more about the first picture on this page (right click and view for full size)

I am studying Horticulture, Organic Agriculture, and Local Food Systems at the University of Georgia, but I am actually using this image in an English class. I was not raised on a farm, and so I would appreciate it if someone would comment on any and all details in the picture that I might be missing. For example, is the dust mainly composed of eroding soil? What is it like to operate a combine, and how much does that type of work typically pay? Does this look like a good harvest?

I posted this question on the No-Till Farmer forum, but the forum is not very active. Do y'all know of any good farming forums? The first couple results on Google looked a little seedy (pardon my pun).
posted by gray17 to Grab Bag (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you don't get the answers you want here, I'd check with MonkeyToes.
posted by cashman at 6:00 PM on August 26, 2013

Best answer: Most of the dust comes from the chaff and straw which the combine dumps out the back. Bear in mind that the straw has been through a system where it gets knocked about a lot and so creates a great deal of dust and bits. If you stand near (well, less than 50 meters) you can see and feel it quite obviously. Some could come from the weight of the vehicle on dry soil, but that depends a lot on the soil.

I can't see any deadspots on the field they're harvesting, which is a good sign, but beyond that it's hard to tell how good the harvest is from the picture.

Also, those pictures show a huge amount of machinery. There are at least 15 combines and trucks in the second picture--millions of dollars worth of equipment. The fields also seem massive (though maybe more typical for South Dakota). This is industrial farming at its biggest and best.
posted by Thing at 7:21 PM on August 26, 2013

Best answer: "wheat after corn has its challenges" means that the previous year they grew corn which may cause issues with disease (rust), nutrients, and moisture. Corn takes a lot of moisture and nutrients out of the soil and in many areas of the great plains, moisture is the limiting factor. Nutrients can be replaced with fertilizer, though it costs money, so that's also a challenge.

It's hard to tell if it is a good harvest for the area, and a great harvest in SD is a terrible one in eastern WA for instance. SD average wheat yields are 40-50 bushels per acre, currently selling for about $8 a bushel, roughly $0.15 per pound.

Operators typically make on the order of $3000 a month with long hours. It's a seasonal thing - operators start in Texas and keep moving north to Saskatchewan. Food and housing are covered. Historically, people doing this have been young farm kids who already know how to drive a combine and may have a CDL. The work of driving a combine itself is not physically difficult - they are quarter-million-dollar machines with very comfortable climate controlled cabs. Harvesting crews tend to have the newest combines since they wear them out fast and need to be reliable.
posted by splicer at 8:51 PM on August 26, 2013

I don't have time right now to give you a detailed answer, but I can sure tell you a lot about harvesting and operating combines! In fact, I'm heading out to get my combine ready right now. MeMail me if I forget to come back and write about that picture.
posted by bluebelle at 7:40 AM on August 27, 2013

Best answer: Sorry for the delay!
The dust coming from the backs of the combines is most definitely NOT eroding soil! That's the whole idea of no-till farming -- you never till the soil, you just seed directly into the stubble from last year (so there's all those dead plant stems from last year standing around) and those stems plus the chaff spread from the back of the combine serve to mulch the soil and protect it from blowing away. That being said, I have no idea how you do no-till corn production. The corn stalks are huge and corn headers don't chop the whole plant the way a straight-cut header does. (The header is the big wide low thing in front of the tall green machines in your picture -- the header detaches from the machine and you can put different headers on to harvest different crops -- a corn header for corn, a straight-cut header for wheat like this, or a pick-up header for crops that are cut into swaths or windrows before combining.)
With regard to what it's like to be a combine operator like the guys in your picture, I think it's more of a trucker or rig worker lifestyle than it is a farmer lifestyle (I am a farmer not a custom combiner, but I've combined with custom guys on my farm). You're constantly on the go, and depending on the outfit and the weather, you might spend more time moving your equipment between jobs and waiting for good weather and fixing breakdowns than you do driving your combine!
Custom combiners have a reputation among farmers of being "rammy," or really aggressive with their machines, pushing them to the limit. Sometimes this sacrifices the quality of the harvest, or causes extra breakdowns, but the custom guys are under a lot more pressure than the farmers to get done so they can move on to the next farm. All the custom guys I've worked with spent a lot of time BS'ing on their CB radios or phones with each other. They thought us farmers were BOH-RING. :)
The combines themselves have all the bells and whistles. You can see the operators each have a lunch cooler in the cab, but the newer combines have built-in coolers and satellite radio and auto-steer and everything. But it better be comfy because when the weather's good and the machines are running, you might pull 16-hour days and only stop to fuel up, or take a leak off the side of the machine, or change a setting on your header.
One farming forum I read is Combine Forum, but that's farmers, not custom combiners.
posted by bluebelle at 9:25 PM on August 29, 2013

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