Friday, July 10, 2015

The end of approximate farming

Mid-February 1996

A skill I have long been polishing is about to become useless, buried under an avalanche of technology. I refer, of course, to approximate farming. This actually comprises several different skills developed to answer the age-old agricultural question, "What's the score?”  

It used to be a world of round numbers - 80 acres, $2.00 per bushel or 1000 pounds. The first hint of change was the governmental accuracy of the now relabeled ASCS. Fields that we always thought of as 40 acres became 38.8 acres. For a while we continued to think of it as 40, since it was an easier number to work with, but eventually we started multiplying and dividing by 38.8. After all, hadn't we all just got our Electronic Calculators for $39.95 that displayed SIX digits?

Bookkeeping was done on seed corn pocket notebooks, using numbers like 250 or 45 - not 38,750 or 6600. We could figure in our heads what a 5 bushel yield increase would mean at the end of the year and come close.  Small calculations were found on the backs of envelopes and crib walls - cute little numbers that look like my son's sneaker budget now. Actual annual profit was revealed by our tax-preparer in February, like a doctor announcing the results of an operation. Amazingly, the system was sufficient for the day. 

Feed was measured in number of scoops per trough, not in hundredths of pounds per pound of gain. Chemicals were added by "glugs" per tankful.   Seeding rates were crudely adjusted by sloppy mechanisms, but the actual result was unknown anyway, since we had estimated the amount of seed as we scooped it from the bin.  

The most painful leaps of accuracy were yet to come. The first I encountered was the shaft speed monitor on a combine. One of the few good byproducts of combine seat time was being able to recognize what THAT sound meant, and what THAT vibration warned of. The combine became an extension of our own sensory system. The readings were actually feelings - THAT vibration meant the fan was too slow, and THAT rumble meant grain was probably going over the sieves.

But then a small box made the most inexperienced operator just as capable to detect something amiss. Symptoms were announced with numerical precision, bombarding us with data. Alarms sounded, lights flashed, and digits danced, eliminating any need for experience or intuition, leapfrogging the inexperienced to new levels of competence.

One of the most difficult skills to master was applying anhydrous ammonia accurately. Watching the gyrating pressure gauge, estimating speed from the jiggling 4020 mph indicator, and measuring volume by the wonderfully accurate (if even operational) tank gauges meant if you came within 20-30 pounds per acre you were a master operator. Wild fluctuations in temperature when applying really added that element of chaos necessary to make this job a guess when done right, and a breath-taking fertilizer bill surprise when done wrong.  

The cruelest blow to hand-grenade agriculture came just recently when I saw a demonstration of yield monitors. Of course, being on the trailing edge of technology (the cheap edge, I would also point out), I am years away from actually owning one of these electronic dazzlers. It still made my rule-of-thumb blood run cold.

Over the years, my faithful combine, Lou Ann, and I have developed various yield estimating axioms. I quote from my painfully researched notes: "Half-mile rows - drilled beans - no end rows - 1/3 up the cab window (bent bolt) per round = 53-54 bu/acre." Armed with that kind of empirical accuracy, I could do all kinds of long division (do they still teach that?) in my head and make an Official Field Estimate soon after opening it up. The actual accuracy was not very high, of course, but I could constantly recalculate, adjusting for assumed moisture, guessing test weight, number of light poles passed, etc. to get some kind of yield guess. Meanwhile Jan was estimating truck loads by how the springs handled the bump right before the bridge.  

These techniques were applied to sprayer tanks (halfway between the seam and the paint splatter is 300 gallons), fields (the fencepost just east of the splice is almost 20 acres), and bins (if you can't climb in the bean bin, there is at least 3450 bushels). All these yardsticks were obtained at cost of brutal experience, and now all can be duplicated by any dope who can read a digital display.

I don't think that is what really bothers me, though. What I really miss is being able to arrange to get the answer I wanted (or wanted to publicize).   Instant accuracy is hard on wild-eyed dreams.

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