April is a transition month for the Minnesota farmers who produce our food. It’s typically when farm field work starts to kick into high gear as farm yards become a bustle of activity beginning the process of raising the year’s crops. But many people wonder “what are they doing?” when they see farmers in the field this time of year. The activity is all part of a process farmers have followed for generations, but have refined to a fine point.
Minnesota has a short growing season, so getting crops in as soon as possible is important to ensure the plants can soak up as many hours of sunshine as possible.
As winter’s grip slowly gives way to spring—very slowly some years—farm implements are readied for the busy weeks ahead. Equipment is lubricated and prepared, and sometimes repaired. Many farmers use global positioning system (GPS) technology to maximize their efficiency, so field and seed data are also pre-loaded to help the farmers keep track of important production information with precision accuracy once planting begins.
Last fall or in the early winter, the farmers decided what they are going to plant on their acres this coming season. Seed, nutrients and crop protection products were ordered so once the weather warms and the soil is ready to be worked, the farmer has what they need.
Once the snow has melted and the topsoil is dry enough, farmers use tillage equipment to prepare the soil and make a proper bed for the seed, which increases the likelihood of proper seed germination. In some cases, farmers who use no-till practices and equipment skip this step. Using specialized equipment, they’re able to plant seeds without any advanced spring tillage.
In many instances, nutrients like manure or fertilizer are applied to the soil to feed the crops as they grow. This may be done in the spring or fall. Crop protection products like pre-emergence herbicides may be applied to give the beans and corn a head start over their weedy competition.
In Minnesota, corn is typically the first row crop planted. Once the soil temperature reaches about 50 degrees, germination can take place and the small seed sprouts. Soybeans are typically planted shortly after the corn when soil temperatures have warmed slightly to between 55 and 60 degrees. Most years this occurs in late April and early May. Given winter’s stubborn grasp, this year it’s likely soybeans won’t be planted until mid-May.
Corn and soybean seeds are often coated with protectants that defend it against mold or other pathogens that can weaken the seed or even prevent it from sprouting. Depending on the temperature and moisture, within a week or so of being planted, soybeans and corn start to emerge from the ground. Then the rapid transformation takes place as the crops soak up the sun’s energy while sipping water and food from the soil to reach maturity in the fall.
Minnesota is the third largest soybean producing state in the nation, producing about 300 million bushels of soybeans, much of it used for food. Soy is a great source of protein and is rich in vitamins and minerals including folate, potassium and fiber. Because soy is low in saturated and trans fats and aids in lowering cholesterol, the American Heart Association has recognized soyfoods as part of an overall healthy diet. Recent research suggests that soy may also lower risk of prostate, colon and breast cancers.
In addition to food products, soybeans are processed into meal and fed to livestock as part of a protein-packed diet. In 2011, nearly 30 million tons of soybean meal was fed to livestock in the United States with more than 1 million tons used for feed in Minnesota alone.
Next time you notice tractors and equipment busily scurrying through the fields, you’ll know the process of growing America’s food supply has begun again. If you want to know more about the process, ask a farmer. Who knows, they may even invite you along for a ride.
Minnesota’s soybean farmers thank you for slowing down and being cautious around farm equipment on the roadways so that everyone can stay safe.