Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Farmers: The Ultimate Recyclers

Environmentalists would like to believe they invented recycling. But the nation's farmers have been finding ways to effectively use resources for centuries.

Straw isn't the "cash crop" when you're harvesting wheat. The goal is to separate the grain from the straw and the chaff, leaving only the kernels which are transported to the elevator for sale.
Usually, the straw is scattered behind the combine with the combine's straw spreader, which distributes the residue (and creates a cloud of dust and straw that experienced harvest helpers avoid by standing upwind)!
Since our combine is still in the shop and I don't have a photo of the straw spreader when it's not in action, here's an illustration that shows some of the parts:
Illustration credit:  http://www.thisland.illinois.edu/60ways/60ways_1.html
On one wheat field, Randy took off the straw spreader so that the straw would be laid down in windrows. He then baled the straw into 20 big round bales.
We'll use the straw as bedding next winter for cattle. Before a snow storm, the guys spread some of the bales near a windbreak (like the trees in the photo below). It helps give a place for mama cows and babies to have a drier place to congregate.

We always hope that the mamas who deliver during a snowstorm will be smart enough to give birth on the straw for a little protection from the elements.
Sometimes, they do just that.

The straw itself doesn't have much nutritional value, though it can be used for roughage. Since we grow alfalfa, we use the alfalfa hay as cattle feed, and the straw bales are used only for bedding.

We weren't the only ones baling straw during and after harvest this year. With stacks and stacks of straw bales in the area, Randy assumes that some people are planning to add anhydrous liquid ammonia to the forage. Ammoniation is a method of treating low-quality roughages to improve their nutritional value for ruminant animals, like cattle. It involves sealing the straw in a gas-tight, enclosed container and adding anhydrous liquid ammonia. At about 21 days, the chemical action is complete, and the product can be used for feed. Randy assumes that some of the people who have put up straw bales are planning to use it in that way.

Others may add a molasses-based, protein rich formula to the straw bales in order to create a feed for cattle.
Many of the people putting up straw put it into large square bales (probably more accurately called rectangular bales!) rather than round bales.
They look like a Lego building project sitting at the edge of stubble fields.

Even if the straw doesn't end up in bales (like the majority of our wheat fields), the chopped up straw is residue on wheat fields. The residue helps put nutrients back in the soil and increases organic matter. The straw residue also helps control wind and water erosion.

Recycling at its best - all on Kansas wheat farms! 


  1. Kim, I apparently didn't have a clue as a farm wife. Most of what I did was farm-wife things in the house. I learn so much from you!! I really enjoy your posts!!

    1. Thank you so much, Jane. Blogging has caused me to ask more questions, which is a good thing.

  2. You're absolutely right about the wisdom of prior generations in their recycling skills. But...recent generations, not so much. Are environmentalists really guilty of acting as if they invented recycling or are they just urging it to a generation that seems to have forgotten the wisdom of their ancestors. I'm a big believer in the effectiveness of farmers and environmentalists working together on their common goals, but I do sense a frequent tension that they aren't partners. What do you think?

    1. I don't necessarily disagree with you. I think that farmers and environmentalists want the same end goal. I think that they don't always agree on how to get there. I truly believe that the vast majority of farmers do care about the earth and realize that they must treat it well. Besides being the right thing to do, it's vital to their livelihoods. Do I think that some activists have a distorted and inaccurate view of modern farming practices? Absolutely. One of my goals with this blog is to tell the story of modern agriculture and why we do what we do. Thanks for the food for thought and for your comment, Lynda!