In an average year, according to a Lincoln personnel recruiting firm that specializes in the practice, around 100,000 high-school and college kids spend about a month every June and July participating in a Midwestern rite of passage: "detasseling corn."
The annual practice is as old as the invention of hybrid seed corn, the most common form of corn seed used by commercial farmers today. Seed-corn companies produce that hybrid seed by forcing two strains or breeds of corn plant to mate with one another, producing an offspring seed that then carries the best traits of both parents. Detasseling, the practice you're witnessing when you watch teams of teens walk the rows of cornfields or ride above the plants on elevated platforms, is the final step in ensuring the quality of that seed.
When Costco Wholesale Inc. announced plans to build a chicken processing plant near Fremont, some in the agriculture industry hailed it as a rare chance to reintroduce some poultry farming back into a state that now accounts for only half of one percent of the nation's production, giving farmers a chance to earn as much as a 7 percent to 8 percent return on investment, according to the company. But critics of the plan were quick to caution potential growers not to trust the company. The Fremont plant's poultry, like 90 percent of all poultry raised in the United States, would not be purchased from farmers on the open market, but instead would be raised by hired farmers tending company-owned birds, using company-supplied feed.
Under such a system of raising farm animals "under contract," as it's called, "...there is no way that you can tell whether a poultry operation is going to cash flow your loans and make any income,” attorney Lynn Hayes, program director for Minnesota's Farmers Legal Action Group, told a public meeting in West Point.
But contract farming, in which an independent farmer invests to build barns and then works under contract for a specific production and processing company, has become virtually the only way to raise meat chickens in the U.S. and is also the system under which the majority of U.S. pork is now raised.
If it's such an oppressive system, why would any farmer trade his independence to work under such a system? Why do farmers do that?
Like any economic system, contracting has its bad and good. One study, for example, shows it likely did contribute to the demise of many hog farmers in the 1990s, mostly because it spread the market risk that was concentrated on the packing plants across the packer and the hog producer. Another suggests the continuing market concentration of poultry businesses has probably caused small—but economically meaningful, nevertheless—reductions in the compensation growers receive.
However, a recent USDA research review suggests that despite sharply increased concentration in many U.S. agricultural markets, most research finds it hasn't had much impact on farm prices. Most agricultural processors, the resarchers note, have their own interests to protect, which usually represent large investments that must be protected over the long-run. For that reason, they realize they can't short their producers forever without driving them out of business. Although they may favor one grower over another, it's in their best economic interests to pay enough to keep their favored ones in business to ensure a stable supply of commodities. That increased coordination between producers and processors reduces costs of production and opportunity costs of inputs, moves information about consumer demand up and down the chain more effectively than traditional cash markets and ultimately increases total returns to producers and processors. The integration of the chicken industry and it's contracted pay-for-performance based structure has saved consumers well over $1 trillion since 1980, according to one estimate.
Listen as these producers explain the benefits of contract feeding in this video supplied by the National Chicken Council.
When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a 500-page draft report in June arguing the nation's second most popular weed killer poses risk to aquatic plants, fish and wildlife, farmer groups across the nation criticized the agency's call for increased limits on use of that pesticide, atrazine. The U.S. Corn Growers argue EPA's new recommendations are excessively cautionary, are based on science even the agency's own advisors argue is flawed, and contradict more than 7,000 previous scientific studies that have found atrazine safe. According to Decatur farmer and Corn Growers President Larry Mussack, the new EPA usage limits would cut average field application rates down to one cup per acre, a level that would make it virtually useless in controlling weeds in a large portion of the Corn Belt. EPA would thus effectively eliminate the pesticide from the market.
Right now, farmers apply an estimated 36,000 tons of the chemical in about 200 different registered products every year to kill and control weeds in corn, sorghum and other crops. Why do farmers like Mussack use so much atrazine?
It's versatile. Farmers would likely have to resort to more complicated herbicide mixtures because some of the alternative products don't control as wide a variety of weeds that atrazine does, at least not as effectively. The one atrazine product would have to be replaced by two or more different products to get the same weed control.
Atrazine has actualy allowed farmers to use less chemicals, because of that effective versatility. Banning atrazine will not lead to less herbicide use; it will likely lead to more, and more use of chemicals with even higher potential to impact the environment than atrazine.
The Nebraska Corn Growers is urging farmers and other stakeholders to enter public comments on EPA's proposal. If you'd like to tell the retail grocer's side of the story, you have until Aug. 5 to comment on the proposal.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in early May that Nebraska comes in third nationwide in the amount of farm-ground acreage the government pays farmers to leave unplanted and idle. Behind only Iowa and Washington in the program, this state will idle almost 775,000 acres total, an area roughly 1.5 times the size of all of Lancaster County.
To some, it has raised the perennial question: Why does the government pay farmers to not grow crops?
As is often the case, Internet mythology about food and farming has overshadowed some of the fact. The U.S. farm program began during the Great Depression of the 1930s as a limited safety net to help support the income of farmers who were being driven from the land by the thousands. In its early and following years, it did provide some forms of "set asides," in which farmers were subsidized to reduce the supply of crops in order to help make them more scarce and thus hold their prices up. And some vestiges of that supply-control mentality does exist even today, most notably in voluntary programs in which farmers of various commodities either pool funds to buy out other farmers to keep supplies down or voluntarily restrict production per farm.
However, with the passage of the most recent federal Farm Bill, in 2014, the U.S. government—for the most part—got out of the business of paying farmers directly to support crop prices on the whole. Instead, the farm program transitioned to the goals of turning the regulation of ag commodity prices back over to the market to determine price through supply and demand, and then making aid available to help farm owners adjust to that market, most notably in the form of subsidized insurance against crop losses in bad years.
The only real remaining government program that still pays farmers not to plant is the U.S. Conservation Reserve Program. The more than 30-year-old program pays landowners an annual rent over a contract period of from 10 to 15 years to leave land the government considers environmentally sensitive out of crop production. It also makes cost-sharing funds available to help landowners pay for conservation improvements like planting grasses and trees and protecting streams and rivers. The United States currently enrolls about 23.4 million acres in CRP—down from its high of about 36 million acres 10 years ago and nearly the maximum the government will be allowed to pay for by 2018, according to the Farm Bill.
The government's goal in paying farmers an average of about $94 per acre in Nebraska is to return that environmentally vulnerable ground, which in many cases shouldn't have been plowed in the first place, to a more natural state by replanting land cover that was removed during normal cropping. In the process, the CRP hopes to improve water quality, prevent soil erosion and restore wildlife habitat. And in some cases, CRP is still recognized to play a smaller, but still important, role in giving farmers a source of income for protecting those acres and discouraging them from selling them for non-ag uses like housing developments and golf courses.
Are taxpayers getting their money's worth?
Nationwide, the CRP has been credited with reducing soil erosion by nearly 224 million tons a year, or about 6.8 tons per acre enrolled. By reducing erosion of that soil which often carries excess nutrients that can cause problems in nearby waters, the CRP has also significantly improved those waters. Research estimates it has cut the amount of the polluting nutrient nitrate by 90 percent, sediment and herbicide by 50 percent and phosphorous by as much as 30 percent in some farm regions. Also, by converting row cropland into native grasslands and trees, CRP has given nesting cover, wintering habitat, and plant and insect feed to numerous wildlife species.
A 2012 review by a pair of Oregon State rural social scientists of the CRP's selected economic benefits estimated enrolling an acre of land in the CRP improved the value of that acre by an estimated $58 per year, in 2011 dollars. Naturally, most of that value accrues to the owner of the land. However, annual benefits from the reduced soil erosion and increased recreational opportunities amounted to another roughly $49 per acre. The researchers cited studies estimating that only about 10 percent of that $49 goes back into the pocket of the landowner, with the remaining 90 percent accruing to society as a whole. They suggest those figures demonstrate that, although the performance of the CRP could be improved, the average national CRP rental cost of $52 per acre in 2011 provides benefits that outweigh its costs to taxpayers.
Q Seriously, I know Nebraska is a big cattle-ranching state, but this is not the wild, wild west anymore. But you still see cattle with brands burned into their hides? Why?
A You're right. Branding young calves every spring carries remnants of the ranching heritage of cattle raising. But the practice also has an important purpose on today's ranches--so important that, according to USDA estimates, almost half of all cattle and calves across the nation are still branded.
For more than 500 years, burning a distinguishing mark into the hide of large animals like cattle has been a common, easily visible means of distinguishing their ownership. That system of identification was--and still is--especially important in the western U.S. states, where cattle still graze on large areas of publicly owned lands. On those large tracts, it's not uncommon for cattle owned by one person to get mixed into herds owned by somebody else. Branding makes a quick and permanent way to separate those cattle out and return them to home herds.
But in Nebraska, almost all our grazing land is privately owned, so that kind of mixing is less common. In Nebraska's case, although the purpose of branding remains to identify the owner of a herd, that identification is predominantly to help prevent modern-day cattle rustling.
How big is the problem? The Nebraska Brand Comittee, a division of the state government tasked with overseeing cattle brand registrations and enforcement, reports that for the five-year period ending in 2013, the commission's hired criminal investigators brought 15 felony convictions over more than 400 cattle valued at $338,000, with an additional three cases pending over another 113 head. And although not all were stolen, the committee also reported it recovered 810 cattle for their owners between July 2015 and March 2016, valued at nearly $1.25 million, by using their brands.
The recent record-high cattle prices have made cattle a lucrative target for thieves. Unlike the case with most stolen goods, which are typically sold for pennies on the dollar, if thieves can escape the eyes of brand investigators, those animals can usually be sold for full market value. That black market has led several states to tighten up their penalties and beef up their own brand-inspection systems. In December, Kansas formed a new office to investigate livestock theft. In Oklahoma, penalties for cattle theft now rival criminal assault, and a team of special rangers targets rustlers. Like 13 other states, Nebraska has brand inspection laws, requiring cattle sold in the western two-thirds of the state to be branded and that brand to be inspected by one of the agency's brand inspectors before cattle can be sold or hauled out of the region.
Branding remains the only meaningful, permanent means to ensure cattle remain identified by owner. Plastic ear tags, the second most common method of identifying cattle, can be cut off or lost during grazing, leaving livestock auctions with little or no means of knowing that an animal has been stolen. Although branding is still done the old-fashioned way, using irons heated in a fire pit or barrel, other techniques have also been introduced, including electric branding irons and freeze branding, which uses extreme cold to kill the cells in the hide that produce pigment, rendering the brand in white.
You can see all the brands registered in the state of Nebraska at the Brand Committee's online directory, here.