Drive for 10 minutes in any direction in the Finger Lakes region and you will pass by at least one farm, and usually many more on the fertile ridges between the lakes. There are more than 7,600 farms in the Finger Lakes region – about 46 percent of the total land area. We can easily recognize the lakeside vineyards, but just back from the lakes are hundreds of dairy, livestock, produce and crop farms and greenhouses that make up the backbone of the Finger Lakes economy.
If you grew up in or near a city like I did, you might find field crop and dairy farms a little hard to figure out. Here are some insights about what goes on at field crop farms in the Finger Lakes, facts you can share with visitors and family members while enjoying a ride in the country.
The Corn Crop
Farmers grow corn on about 300,000 acres in the Finger Lakes region. Very little of the corn you see in the fields is sweet corn for humans. It is mostly a combination of grain corn, which may be used for an assortment of corn products, and silage corn, which is chopped up and stored in tall or bunker silos. Silage is fed to dairy cattle on many farms. It is a complete plant food, using the entire plant, not just the grain. About half the corn grown in our region is grain corn, the rest is silage, with small patches of sweet corn around.
Corn yields are often higher when farmers completely till the soil before planting. Tilling adds oxygen to the soil, improves soil drainage and texture, and disrupts the growth of weeds. Fields with heavy clay soils are usually plowed in the fall and on dry winter days, so the ensuing freeze-thaw process breaks up the large clumps naturally. Sandy or gravelly soils are plowed in the spring, right before planting. Farmers will continue working a plowed field with additional implements to create a smooth seedbed for planting.
Corn seeds are planted at various times in the spring, depending partly on weather conditions and partly on the type of corn to be planted. Grain corn is usually planted in late April into mid-May because it needs a set number of days (70 to 120) to mature. All grain corn is usually planted by the end of May, but a cold wet spring could force a farmer to grow an alternate crop, like soybeans or sorghum, which have a shorter harvest period. Silage corn is planted as late as early July in upstate New York. This corn is intended to have a high level of dry matter at harvest time (fiber and protein) and lots of nutrition for the animals that eat it.
After growing to maturity, grain corn is harvested for either high-moisture grain or dry grain. This will dictate whether the corn is harvested in early September or left standing into late autumn. Each day, farmers inspect the progress of the corn crop to decide if the time is right for harvesting.
Silage corn is not picked but chopped off just above the ground. The entire plant is shredded into bite-sized pieces and poured into a truck to be hauled to the farm. At the farm, the corn silage may be packed into a tall silo or into a low concrete bunker. Corn silage will actually ferment a bit in the silo or bunker, creating an acidic condition with low oxygen to preserve the nutritional quality. It is important for oxygen to be minimized. On bunker silos, used tires weigh down the massive rubber tarps to prevent lifting by the wind.
Recycling in Action
After grains and grass are fed to dairy cattle, each cow unloads about 120 pounds of manure per day – a lot of thanks for the work that went into growing the feed! A lot of thanks for the work that went into growing the feed! Nonetheless, farmers can use manure to return nutrients to the soil. The manure you see being spread on fields is a massive recycling effort on each dairy farm. If you have noticed a rather pungent manure odor in the last few years, it is probably because the farmer had to store a liquid form of manure, in compliance with environmental laws. This stored slurry is nutritious for crops, but anaerobic microbes have imparted a more fetid bouquet to the manure. Someday soon, we expect this smell will be reduced with odor-control technology.
Hay Is for Feed
Hayfields are common where corn is being temporarily rotated out of production or where heavy soils make tilling impractical. Hayfields dominate the farm scenery of the Finger Lakes, covering more than 350,000 acres. Hay is a combination of grasses (like timothy and orchardgrass) and legumes (like alfalfa and clover). It is meant as a feed for livestock, unlike straw, which is the dead stems of grain crops to be used for bedding. Hayfields stay in place for a number of years, occasionally requiring rejuvenation and overseeding.
The decision to harvest and bale hay can be tricky due to the inconsistent weather we experience in the Finger Lakes from year to year. Typically, farmers will take the first cutting of hay early in its maturity to maximize the tastiness (as far as the livestock is concerned) and nutritional content. After hay is mown, it is usually raked and turned in long windrows to dry as quickly as possible. Then the hay is baled into square, round or wrapped bales. A hay bale acts as a container for all those stems, preserving the nutritional quality and making hay easier to handle and store.
Whether a farmer chooses to use square or round bales depends on the type of farm, their livestock-feeding equipment and their storage space. The large, old, red, wooden barns we all recognize are meant to be filled with thousands of small hay bales in a dry and protected environment. Large wrapped bales can be left in the field, saving on storage space. Unwrapped bales may be covered with a tarp or stacked to maintain good quality. A good harvest of hay makes a big
difference in winter feed expenses.
The farms you pass in the Finger Lakes make up a small but important part of the food system we all rely upon. These farms also keep our region scenic, help reduce residential property taxes and provide jobs to thousands of our neighbors. We can thank farmers for the daily effort they make by understanding and appreciating what they are up to in the field.
by Jim Ochterski
Jim Ochterski is an educator with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County in Montour Falls.