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OPINION

Learning something every day

John Oncken
The helicopter arriving from the field for a resupply.

I sometimes get in my car and wander around the rural countryside just to see how crops look and to get an overview of the agricultural scene. This is something my dad, with my mother and the three children, did decades ago. "Get in the car and we'll take a little ride," he'd say, usually on a quiet Sunday. "Let's see what's going on." We'd look at the crops and farmsteads as Dad commented on crop growth and any farming activity. 

Often times we'd stop when we'd see someone outside in their yard, and chances are they would invite us kids in for ice cream and cookies while the grown-ups talked. It was a sort of community togetherness – something that is rare today, what with social media, and nowadays we just don't "stop in" anymore. Too bad!

Taking a ride

I decided to take such a ride recently – staying home all the time is just my not my forte – but that's what the health experts recommend these days. My wanderings took me north and west towards DeForest, and what I saw was great corn and soybeans, second-crop hay cut and in storage and a rather quiet farming scene. 

Looking up

I was heading towards home on a narrow rural road when I noted a low-flying helicopter over a nearby cornfield. As I slowed to watch – obviously it was spraying the corn – it made a turn, crossed the road ahead of me and seemingly landed. Naturally I turned around to see where it was and saw it still in the air making a low circle. I pulled into the nearby open area, a machine shop of some sort with a big paved parking area, and got out to watch the still-circling helicopter.

"Watch out, there will be a big downdraft and you could be blown over," a member of the work crew warned me. And it was as the helicopter landed on a small platform atop the parked truck nearby that only my cap blew away. 

About to land on the small board spot atop the truck.
Reloading another 60 gallons of fungicide.

Refueling

The pilot remained seated in the helicopter while the two ground crew filled its spray material tank from a host tank on the truck. It took only a few moments and the helicopter was off to the field for another series of passes over the cornfield. He'll be back in 10-15 minutes, employee Jordan Odle told me, and you can get more photos if you need them.

I asked him to tell me about the helicopter spraying system. He told me, we're from MF Helicopters out of East Troy and will be spraying about 700 acres of corn today on this farm and on one near Marshall. We go from sunup to sundown if the weather conditions are right, and no, I don't know what the name of the fungicide we're applying is; the farmer provides it. 

Off again to the cornfield.

Since 2008

The next day I called Mark Frey, owner of MF Helicopters, who told me more. Although his business offers photography, instruction, parties, festivals, surveillance, search/rescue and sight-seeing rides, Frey says that aerial application is the biggest part of his business. He has been spraying for farmers since 2008 and has seven helicopters equipped for crop application use.

Frey says the copters fly about 15 feet above the corn and cover a 54-foot strip each pass. And yes, the downdraft from the rotors does force the spray material down and into the corn. He also says aerial spraying is a growing business.

MF Helicopters at East Troy, seven units lined up.

I was still a bit foggy about some of the details, especially about the fungicide sprayed on the corn, so I called Justin Storlie, an agronomist at United Cooperative in Deerfield. 

I asked him, how does a crop farmer know what and how much fungicide to use? Storlie replied that he probably doesn't, that's where we, as the consultant, cooperative and chemical supplier, come in. We analyze the crop and provide a premix of the chemicals to be used and applied at the rate of two gallons per acre. The helicopters hold about 50-60 gallons, so they can cover about 30 acres until refilling.

Storlie said it's near the end of the spraying season, during which his cooperative will have overseen some 4000-6000 acres of helicopter aerial spraying in addition to even more acres of ground spraying. 

Now I do know a lot more than before I saw that helicopter at work, but I can't figure out why I'd never seen such application before. Ground spraying and airplane spraying, yes, but I was probably never in the right place until now. 

Landmark Cooperative Services at Cottage Grove will be the home headquarters of the planned merged cooperative.

Notes of the now

  • The Wisconsin all-milk price for June was $19.50 per hundredweight, according to the latest US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Prices report. That was $5.90 higher than last month's price and $1.60 more than June of last year. All but two of the 24 major milk-producing states had a higher price when compared with May.
  • June production data for beef, pork, chicken and turkey show an 8.2% increase over the same month in 2019, suggesting processors have overcome the disruptions from earlier this spring.
  • Two more major ag cooperatives are looking to merge: Directors of Durand-based Countryside Cooperative (15,000 members and 500 employees) and Cottage Grove-based Landmark Service Cooperative (11,000 members and 275 employees) are seeking a merger on March 1 after the membership vote.  
  • Reasons given were the normal: Growing stronger together and safeguarding equities and driving value for its members. The new headquarters will be located in Cottage Grove with Landmark CEO Jim Dell as the CEO. The new organization will stretch from the Illinois border to north of Minneapolis.
The weather has been kind to the tobacco crop in southern Dane and northern Rock counties. Harvest will soon begin.
Corn is fully tasseled and looking great in most of the state.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-837-7406 or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.