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In spite of the less than hoped for prices for their livestock and 2016 grain (so far), the 1650 (or so) attendees at the annual Pork/Corn/Soy Expo held last week in Wisconsin Dells were a rather happy group.

Perhaps it was because the event got farmers out of the cold and blustery winter weather for a couple of days, maybe it was the chance to meet and talk with other farmers with common interests but for-sure it was the record corn and soybean yields most of the crop farmers harvested last fall.

200 bushels per acre

Grain grower after grain grower told (actually bragged) about the 200 bushels of corn and/or the 60 bushels of soybeans per acre they ran through their combines and stored or sold.

“I never would have believed I could raise 200 bushel corn on my  farm,” a farmer friend commented. “I may never do it again during my life but I’m proud to have done it this one time.”

“Wait a minute,” I countered, “you dad would have said the same thing about the 140 bushel corn yield of his day...that is almost a crop failure today.”  “Maybe so,” he replied, “but, I’ll never forget 2016 for its perfect weather and resulting great crops.

Listening to the experts

A wide array of seminars both general and enterprise specific ranging from “Corn and Soybean Outlook  and Probabilities of Price Recovery in 2017”  to “Pork Quality Assurance” drew full houses as did many of the breakout sessions featuring production, management and marketing subjects.

The 130 commercial and educational exhibits were crowded shoulder to shoulder during break periods as growers looked into new technology,  computer programs, equipment, seed, financing  and  you name it.  As I‘ve written before, no farm show offers technology aimed at using more labor or management innovations aimed at less yield or less profit.

Precision farming seems to be the watchword in today’s crop farming:  Foot by foot information of the fertility, soil type and composition of farm fields that is used to manage field operations.  Farming is all about using data, with no more cropping based on history, tradition or “by guess and by golly.”

New and complicated

New programs and terms are everywhere: Ag Leader Technology, based in Ames, Iowa, claims to be “a pioneer in precision farming for 25 years offers a host of products including “AgFinity, Incommand and “Compass” displays that carry information from automated steering to variable rate planting to yield monitoring.

It’s too complicated for me, but top management farmers learn, understand and use the dozens of hi-tech  programs and equipment available now and coming down the road.

The subject of autonomous tractors ( a tractor without the person, relying instead on remote control, and sensors) was being discussed by a group of farmers. “I don’t understand this at all,” one said. “I can’t wait to get on the tractor every spring, that’s a main reason why I love farming.” “And,”  another voiced in “ the advertising says that ‘if the tractor detects an obstacle like a big rock or fence post, it alerts the farmer who steers it clear,’ I’d rather be on the tractor in the first place.”

Time will tell if a driverless tractor sells - I guess that in the horse days, farmers didn’t think a tractor would work either.

Talking in hallways

As always and as at all farm conferences, hallway talking was a major activity during the program breaks with the recent presidential election a major subject of conversation.  The talk I heard pretty much centered around giving the new president a chance to get acclimated in his new job.

“You know , Trump has only been president for a couple of weeks,” one farmer says.  “That’s hardly enough time to get his office organized.”  “I agree,” another said. “And, some folks criticize him for being a successful businessman - that’s good, we don’t want a failure as president.”

Record production

Back to the early conversation with a farmer who was proud to produce  200 bushels of corn per acre.  I suspect there are a lot of grain growers who feel the same way, after all, it was a record year for corn and soybean production in Wisconsin and nationally.  Final USDA figures tell the tale.

Wisconsin farmers produced  573 million bushels of corn versus 492 million bushels in 2015 with an average yield of 178 bushels per acre, compared to 164 bushels last year. There were 107 million bushels of soybeans produced, compared to 92 million a year ago, averaging 55 bushels per acre, compared to the 49 bushel average last year.

And it wasn’t only in Wisconsin that corn and soybean records were broken: The USDA  confirms record U.S. corn and soybean production in 2016. The corn production of 15.1 billion bushels averaged 174 bushels per acre compared to a total of 13.6 billion bushels averaging 168 bushels per acre last year. U.S. corn production in 2015, was 13.602 billion bushels with an average yield of 168 bushels per acre.

Soybean production totaled 4.3 billion bushels with an average yield of 52.1 bushels per acre in 2016 compared to the 2015 production of 3.9 billion bushels with an average yield of 48.0 bushels per acre.

It’s difficult to fathom millions (or billions) bushels of corn or soybeans, but believe me, that’s a lot of grain.

Just 10 years ago                                                                          

Out of curiosity, I looked at corn and soybean data from 2006 (10 years ago) and found Wisconsin farmers produced 400 million bushels of corn averaging 143 bushels per acre in 2006 and a new record for soybean production of 72 million bushels that averaged 44 bushels per acre.

In short, Wisconsin raised its corn grain production by 173 million bushels (from 400 million to 573 bushels) and soybean production by 35 million bushels over a 10-year period.  Much of these increases came from added acres coming during the decade when milk production also boomed - truly an amazing decade in Wisconsin farm progress.

They do it

How do farmers cope with the changing and more high-tech equipment they have available today. I’m often asked by city friends how a farmer can own, manage, finance  and operate a modern farm — whether it is a dairy, livestock or crop farm — that involves so much technology and knowledge.

My answer always centers around the basic principle that to be a successful farmer one must be smart, very smart and understand finances, technology, employee management and be able to understand and select the management tools that will be used. Business conferences and trade shows are where the ideas may be planted and then the pondering begins. After more research, talking, listening and thinking, a decision is made — or maybe not. That’s farming.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.

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