Crop Tour Day 11
We left the hotel in Omaha shortly after 6:15 a.m. and headed for our first tour of the day, Nichols Farms in Bridgewater, Iowa. Crop tour has stopped here for over 35 years! Along the way, we saw something unique to Iowa compared to the rest of the US. Within the topography are grass ways built in called terraces that help control the water on the crop fields and aid in minimizing water erosion.
The winds from Canada brought the wildfire smoke down to us, making it a hazy morning. We made a quick pit stop on our way to Loves and McDonalds to refuel the bus and our stomachs!
At around 8:30, we arrived at Nichols Farms and were greeted by Ross Havens, the marketing coordinator. Nichols Farms is owned by Dave Nichols and his sister-in-law Lillian. However, Dave is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the farm. The farm is located in southwest Iowa and is Iowa's largest Simmental seedstock producer. They run about 1100 cow-calf pairs, a mix of purebred black Angus, Simmental and South Devon.
Dave took his first Angus heifer to the 4H show at the local county fair, where he won champion heifer. He bred the heifer the next year and she birthed a bull calf, which had health problems and eventually passed. After bringing this calf to Iowa State University to be looked at, geneticist Dr. Lush discovered that it had the genetic defect of dwarfism. Jay Lush helped Dave create a breeding plan to eliminate this gene from his herd. Two years later, they advertised five bull calves that guaranteed no dwarfism gene for sale in the newspaper and their yard filled with potential buyers.
This was the start of the success that Nichols is known for today. They have been known for their “genetics for the real world” and their willingness to research and improve.
They were one of the first herds around with Simmentals, brought from Canada in 1976. One of their bulls, “Legacy,” can be traced back to many Simmentals as he was one the top leading bulls in the industry. They stressed the importance of the economics of having a black hide. This allows them to get certified Angus premiums for their carcass. By using three purebred homozygous black and polled breeds, they ensure this black hide for their customers.
As mentioned above, they run an 1100 cow-calf pair operation on 2500 acres of land that is a mix of corn, soybean, hay and pastureland. They run a cow-calf pair on 1 and 3/4 acres to 2 acres. They hope to decrease that to 1 acre per pair in the future.
They calve around the second week in March on pasture and wean their calves around October 1st. At weaning, the calves are brought to the bull barn where weights are taken, and vaccinations are administered, including a seven-way shot, micro-plasma, and they are de-wormed.
During weaning, they genome test 500 bulls; the bulls that aren't up to their genetic standards are then band castrated, and these bulls are then sent to a custom feedlot to be finished. Nichols Farms still has ownership of these steers, and after they are processed at the slaughter plant, they are sent the carcass data.
Also, at weaning they separate the replacement heifers and lower bottom heifers. They keep around 200-250 females, and then 150 of these are sold as replacement heifers to commercial herds, and 100 are kept in the herd. The rest of the females are sent along with the steers to the feedlot.
Along with the DNA information, they collect several data points, including birth weights, yearling weight and rate of gain. These all contribute to the animal's expected performance differences (EPD) number.
Nichols Farms has tried many different breeding programs. They have AIed the Angus heifers on a 7-day CIDR cycle, and it seemed to work well, so this year they performed the same breeding program on Simmental heifers. They have also AIed on a 14-day CIDR cycle and used MGA hormone in the past as well. They AI the heifers all at once and put them out with a bull to clean up any heifers that didn’t catch. The heifers are out with the bull for 63/64 days.
There are a lot of different traits Nichols farms looks for in breeding. A few examples are good deposition and structure, as well as longevity amongst their cows.
Nichols Farms focuses on keeping a solid relationship with their customers. They do this by continuing to provide them with the best matched genetics that will increase the efficiency and productivity of their herd. They sell 99% of their bulls to commercial herds, they do not focus on purebred breeders.
It was interesting how they focused mostly on selling bulls rather than heifers and cows. They use the replacement heifers to help other commercial herds increase their genetics.
Their typical customer is a commercial herd with around 100-150 cows. 70% of their customers are within 300 miles of their farm, and they ship cattle to many states and even Canada! They use the replacement heifers to help other commercial herds increase their genetics.
Every year in January they host a bull sale where they sell their top bulls. They run the sale as an auction, they split up the pens into the 3 different breeds and quality of bulls. The highest quality bulls start at a set price of $5000, then $4500 and $4000. The bidder with the lowest number gets to choose the bull he wants and the bidding starts from there. They also do online bidding as well and historically only half the bulls sell opening day. Although the customers purchase their bulls in January they don’t receive the bulls until April just before breeding season.
Nichols are firm believers in the importance of research and innovation. They have been instrumental in the implementation of technology in the beef industry.
Having conducted studies with around thirty research institutions, they have gained valuable insight into new practices regarding feeding, reproduction, and genetics .
Lately, they have conducted a feed efficiency study with the University of Georgia and a pelvic research study with the University of Missouri. Another trial they did on ultrasound technology with Iowa State University has been an essential resource for beef producers. There is potential for them to partner with the University of Guelph in the future!
They are also going to be starting a new exciting research project that will be looking into the methane and emissions produced by the cattle. They will be installing 2 green feed machines in a few weeks that will track this information.
One of their current goals is to find breeding lines resistant to Bovine respiratory disease. They are getting an EPD for this and will hopefully use these numbers at their bull sale in January.
Ross explained that they are maxed out on pasture ground as pasture land has doubled in the past few years. To expand, they would need to bring cooperators and expand their facilities on the farm while reducing the acreage required per cow-calf pair.
Nichols Farm consists of mostly workers who have been involved in the company for many years with the addition of a couple newer folks. They try to look for co-op students and interns but as most companies, finding good workers can be a struggle. Nichols has an employee retention program where, after a year, you can pick out a cow. This can help employees make up a good herd of their own or they can choose to sell to make some supplemental income.
Upon arrival at the Corteva headquarters in Johnston, Iowa, we were met by Dave Bubeck, who works in product development and seed research. Jeff Graham, the global plant breeding lead, also gave us a welcoming remark.
Corteva is a leading company in the seed and crop protection industry that was founded when Dow and DuPont merged. It’s the 100th year of breeding as an organization. Henry Wallace started breeding on this research farm in Johnston, Iowa. It is one of the longest breeding programs in the industry. Something interesting that they told us was that they had seen an increase from 100 to 170 bu/acre corn since they started breeding.
We had the opportunity to tour their Mendel greenhouse complex. This greenhouse is strictly for research, and their main client is Corteva’s discovery team. Around 500,000 plants go through the greenhouse each year.
They plant the seed for several years before getting it in research plots. This process takes over 10 years before getting the seed into the farmers’ fields, and 3-5 of these years are in this greenhouse. The breeders are looking at insect resistance, herbicide tolerance and yield traits. They are also looking at phenotypic properties such as green leaf tissue.
Their greenhouse complex comprises 4 acres, split into half statics greenhouses and half automation, where the plants can move. Moisture sensors are used throughout and will ensure the plants are watered as needed. As well, temperature, humidity and light levels are monitored. Two important technologies used in the greenhouse complex are their corn boiler and a water capture system. These two things have allowed materials to be reused. The corn boiler is used for some heat in the winter, decreasing energy costs.
There are 90 employees in the greenhouse, from people with high school diplomas to those with PhDs. They provide lots of training upfront to their employees to ensure they can complete their daily tasks precisely. The breeding program in the greenhouse consists of less than half corn and more soy than when they started.
We toured through their head house, where they get the most value out of automation. Robots are used to move plants around. Robots also take pictures of every plant, allowing them to make culls here to send better plants out for field research. This pull-out station makes the sampling process way easier.
Growth chambers are also used when controlled environments are required. These are good for double haploid breeding and other procedures that cannot be done in the greenhouse. The double haploid breeding process is very involved, which speeds up the breeding process overall, allowing the seed to get to the field quicker.
Each plant has an RFID tag to ensure tracking as they move throughout the greenhouse. Data is essential to Corteva as they base all of their breeding decisions on the data collected in the greenhouse. Data scientists can put data received from the robots into a usable form for researchers to analyze.
All the work in this greenhouse is with GMOs, with around 22 transgenic traits available for breeders to use. These include insect control, herbicide resistance and drought tolerance traits.
Corteva’s Johnston headquarters is about 400 acres of mostly uniform ground that is great for research. The whole farm is also irrigated with lateral boom. This farm was founded by Henry Wallace in 1926, who started the hybrid process in corn. Farmers learning about the stability of hybrids, causing Pioneer to take off.
Outdoor Plot Tour
We split into 3 different groups and took a tour around the plots outside. Each group looked at the soybean and corn plots as well as got a drone presentation. It was very interesting to see all of the new research going on between the new varieties and also to see how different varieties made for countries around the world reacted to being grown in the American test plot setting. We saw corn grown to about 16ft planted for Indonesia as well as some very sad looking Saskchachean corn that was not thriving in the American plot!
As the group reached the soybean plot we learned the power of predictions. Research takes a long time and so breeders are predicting what products need to be developed so that crops can yield in the future as climate and other factors change between the regions. The breeders said that there has been a 5 fold increase in yield in the past 100 years as farmers are working with less land availability, complicated climates, and changing technology. The goal in breeding is to increase yield so that we can continue to produce in the smaller amount of land that is available. We also talked about the use of drones in soybean crops. Having one drone pilot seems much easier, and gives higher quality results compared to walking acres and acres of field interpreting the data and qualities as you go. The breeders mentioned the value lost as you walk fields throughout the day and get tired versus the standard and accurate data that the drone will pull 24/7.
At the corn plot the breeders talked about the potential future for short stature corn. The benefits include standability and ease of equipment going through
the field. One group heard from Brian DeVries, a Corteva Corn Breeder, about his passion for his research in breeding. He shared his story about his Dad’s family farm and how Dad plants Pioneer seed. Brian has a true passion for improving the future of agriculture through his research to help farmers like his Dad be successful with their own crops for generations to come.
At the drone presentation the engineers and technicians talked about the use of technology and automation to improve efficiency and collect standard & accurate data day after day. A drone can take about 20 GB of data through digital imaging for one field. Data is analyzed and used for research and scouting. The use of this technology cuts out some labour and can easily scout fields without the operator having to even get out of their truck. Some technology is completely programmable to be 100% automated, others can be remote driven. We were introduced to Spot, who is a consumer-grade quadruped robot (pictured below). It is used to complete short missions collecting research data.
Mark Jeschke, a Pioneer Agronomy Manager in Iowa spoke to us about how the company tackles current research issues to educate farmers. One of his roles is writing articles for Pioneer’s Agronomy Insights book each year. He also went over the main issues that they will be covering in 2024, including tar spot of corn, corn rootworm management using RNAi, the effects of corn orientation in the furrow, and the effects of wildfire smoke on crop yields.
Sara Lira, a cropping systems breeder, talked to us about the importance of cover crops and how they can co-grow with another crop. She is looking at using cover crops to get two harvestable crops each year and continuous green cover. She has also been working on a winter pea breeding project, to breed peas that feed more efficiently. This is in collaboration with Montana State University to try different growing conditions for these peas. Her program is meant to breed cover crops to bring more value on the farm and increasing seed yields.
Both stops based all of their breeding decisions on a prediction. They collect a lot of phenotypic data, such as weaning weight or grain yield, as well as DNA information that is linked to other traits of interest. This allows them to come up with the expected performance of each cross. This approach originated in dairy cattle and is now used in many breeding programs.
Both stops also focused a lot on data. Each place had many systems in place that tracked different types of data so that the operators could see patterns and other correlations. Many decisions are made based on data so that each company can change, grow, and hold strong roles of innovation in their respective industries.
We heard a lot about the background and operation of each facility but we also gained a lot of insight about the passion and dedication to this industry and becoming innovators to improve the industry for future generations. Sara from Corteva noted that your job is not your life, however you should love what you are doing. We saw from everyone at Corteva, as well as from their seed plant the previous day, that all their workforce has a true passion for what they do, how they run the business, and the growth and future of agriculture. The crew at Nichols Farm had this same passion for their operations from the younger generation to the older. We thought it was very inspiring to see from Canada to the Midwest, company to company, we as farmers all share the same passion for what we do and make efforts to educate the new generations of the industry.