A friend of mine has a Web site and writes a column there, as well as for a couple of other outlets. He's a guy by the name of Chuck Offenburger and he used to be a columnist for the Des Moines Register. One of Chuck's recent entries detailed some farm neighbors of his near metropolitan Cooper, IA, who were beginning the soybean harvest. The surprising part for a lot of people, Chuck included, was the technological way in which you determine if your soybeans are ready to be harvested. In the business, we call that condition being fit. If your beans are fit, you can crack the pods open fairly easily and then bite into a bean. If it's really hard to bite through, your beans are ready to go. If you chip a tooth, you probably should have been going for a couple days already. Of course, peer pressure being what it is in agriculture, few people get that far behind their neighbors when everyone else is having fun with their toys.
Some people have dental power that apparently borders on scientific. At dryer school last year, I heard a great story about fitness. (Yes, I go to school to learn how to run the giant machine to technologically dry my corn to a precise moisture level once it's harvested. It's an all-day event with hands-on activity, a big meal, lots of learning, but no recess.)
Charlie, our instructor, told us that a moisture tester is the best investment you can make with a dryer like the ones his company sells. Not just any tester, though. You need to buy a good one. Charlie had one brand he favored, which was about $600. If you're buying propane to dry your corn, you want to know exactly how wet the corn is when it comes out of the field, and you also want to know how dry your dryer is getting it when it's finished and ready to be stored. If it's too dry, you've spent more money than necessary. With petroleum-based products priced as they are, it makes sense to buy a $600 moisture tester.
That is, unless you're like one of Charlie's customers. That guy could bite into a kernel and tell Charlie how wet the corn was. This guy was always within a percent of being right. I can probably tell you whether your corn is 32% moisture or 12% moisture by biting a kernel, but I can't take a bite, get a wistful look in my eye and then pontificate with half-point precision and tell you whether it's 16% or 17% like Charlie's friend, Doc Holliday, could.
Charlie was skeptical, so he had Doc "test" several different samples at different moisture levels. The guy was always within a point or less, regardless of how wet or dry the corn was.
That's talent. Oh sure, maybe not the kind of thing a guy has at the top of his profile on Match.com, but it still sets him apart.
But can he do the same thing with forage? Forage is a totally different ball game. We're not necessarily talking hay here, either. If you ask anyone in academia what it takes to make good hay, he will tell you that it's as much of an art as a science. Making excellent dry hay is far more dependent on the exact weather conditions than anything. You need low humidity, sunshine, a breeze, and some time. You also need the right balance of all of those factors. Run short on one and perfection is hard to come by. Get them all together in the right mix, though, and it doesn't get much better than that from a vocational satisfaction standpoint.
Making decent silage isn't quite as difficult as making dry baled hay, but it's still not a cakewalk. You can grab a handful of fresh silage and get a ballpark idea of how good it is in the moisture category, but it's still hard to be kernel-crunching-accurate like Doc Holliday.
One solution is relatively easy if you have a few tools. It ends up feeling like a trip back to 7th grade Science class, but it can be an effective alternative to mailing a Ziploc bag to some lab and waiting a few days for results.
A good science nerd starts with some equipment. For my first silage experiment, the first thing I needed was a scale. Not a bathroom scale, either. That's Health class. We're in Science now.
A scale capable of weighing in grams is what I needed. As luck would have it, I had one of those. Gotta calibrate my planter's insecticide accurately, so a gram scale was already in stock.
Then, as a tip of the hat to the Home Ec staff, I needed a paper plate. Believe it or not, as a single guy, I had one!
Keeping with the 7th grade theme, the next item was in deference to the teacher's lounge. We needed a microwave. One university resource even goes so far as to recommend a microwave with a rotating turntable.
Microwave that's both hoity AND toity enough to take your food on a trip!
Oh, and of course, our lab rat for the experiment. That would be a sample of silage. I had grabbed a random handful of silage from several locations in the pile dumped from the load I had chopped moments before. Sure, I could have waited until the next day, but I wanted Doc Holliday accuracy. Time was of the essence.
To begin the experiment, you take your paper plate and weigh it. Then you zero the scale so that the paper plate's weight is not included in the story problem.
Yes, a real live story problem, just like the ones your teacher told you you'd have to do some day in real life. And, no, not the one with two trains leaving Chicago and Los Angeles.
So you take your eco-friendly paper plate and place 100 grams of silage on it. Not 99, not 101. Do yourself a favor and make it 100. This is 7th grade Math, not Calculus.
Now pour yourself a big glass of water. Pop that puppy in the microwave, back in the corner. Put your 100-gram plate of silage next to it. Shut the door, hit the buttons to cook it for a couple minutes, and then sit back and contemplate.
"I wonder if Doc Holliday can bite into silage and get me results like he does with corn."
"I wonder how much he'd charge me if he could."
"I wonder if this is how fancy restaurants make collard greens, or is it just Red Green who does it this way?"
"For a vegetarian, this is like a steak dinner. I wonder if I'd get through a second serving before I gave up and killed myself."
"Will the clerk at the grocery store look at me funny if I ask, 'Does Glade make anything to get the smell of baked lettuce out of my house?'"
By that point, your microwave has dinged and gotten you somewhere back to reality. Take your sample out of the microwave and put it back on the scale. Make a note of the weight.
Then repeat all of the steps above several times. Keep doing it until the weight of your sample stabilizes at one weight for a couple of samples in a row, or when your sample bursts into flame, whichever comes first. If the latter, remind yourself that you have instantly and effortlessly found a way to get rid of the baked lettuce smell from your house.
Take the remaining sample (or ash, as the case may be), and subtract its weight in grams from 100. That will give you your moisture percentage.
Then, depending on the math you came up with, you can either sit back and relax for a couple more days until the silage is fit, or you can go to bed right away, because you've gotta be up at dawn to start chopping some silage before it's so dry it flies through the air like confetti, doesn't land in your wagons, and your cattle are forced to either starve to death or eat that baled candy that could be sold to someone else for huge money.
No question, beans are a painfully dull crop. The real fun is in forage!
Guy No. 2