It’s Just a Pencil

“It’s just a pencil,” they say.  “They,” are the ones who have no interest in understanding the history and development of not only a writing utensil but the advertisements placed thereon. For some folks, the pencil is a tool, precisely shaped and containing “lead” that is the exact hardness, or softness, for the task at hand.  They are willing to pay good money for quality and they’ll use every inch of it.  For others, it’s simply a writing instrument that can be bought in bulk and frankly couldn’t care less if it broke or was lost for eternity in the couch cushions.  For the purveyors of mechanical pencils, the smoothness of the action and an abundant supply of stick lead are the priorities.  But in today’s world of smart devices, writing instruments are falling out of favor as “notes” can now be recorded using apps or voice recognition. 

Tombow pencils featuring “high-density” graphite. 3H is the author’s preferred lead hardness for everyday writing.

Pencils were important to me early in life.  In second grade, I had an affinity for picking pencils up off the floor and putting them in my desk.  No, I didn’t bother asking my classmates if they belonged to them.  If it was on the floor, it was mine.  You might imagine a collection of pencils that filled nearly half of my desk.  My teacher noticed.  She promptly let everyone go through my desk to repossess their lost pencils.  I was devastated.  Only a handful of pencils remained in my desk.  I was sure my mother sent me to school with more than that but the argument was lost on the teacher.  Mrs. Stone was her name.  And I still have a strong dislike for her.

I’ve often wondered how modern pencils reached their exact shape and composition.  I took drafting and art in high school and quickly learned that the thickness of a drawn line matters and how the downward pressure you applied made a difference on the lifespan of the point.  This became very evident while learning shorthand.  Yes, I was the only guy in my high school class who took shorthand.  And, yes, I was faster than the girls and I took it at a rate of 110 words per minute.  PRIDE!  The thing I learned was that writing efficiency increased when you applied just enough pressure to lay the lead down thus allowing you to move the across the page quicker and easier.  (When applied to a pen, light writing pressure prevents the strokes from pushing through the paper and making it all harder to read.)

I also learned that pencils don’t really contain lead.  They may have back in the day but now they contain graphite.  If you’ve noticed over time, advertising and our day-to-day day conversations have lost the word “lead” (rightfully so) and either omit it or use “graphite” in its place.  Of course, some pencils don’t contain either but those are not real pencils in the eyes of the purist; they’re something else.  Oh, the erasers might have been made of real rubber back in the day, but no more.  Now they’re made of synthetic material that doesn’t smear the graphite and last a lot longer.  Given society’s attitude toward all things disposable, you rarely find a pencil anymore with the eraser worn down to the metal ferule and replaced with a push-on pencil topper eraser.

4H is the author’s preferred hardness for marking lines on wood. Hi-polymer topper eraser by Pentel.

Advertising on pencils has also evolved.  Some of the most memorable and effective marketing was employed by Ritepoint back in the 1950s and 60s.  Ritepoint was an advertising firm based in St. Louis, Missouri, but they were notable for the way they incorporated display tops on mechanical pencils and pens.  The photo below shows several gems featuring various agricultural crops.  The clear plastic tops contained actual seeds or commodities (such as sugar on the far right) but they also used castings that simulated containers or sacks.  An example is fourth from the left which is a sack of Pioneer Hi-Bred corn seed.  You can also find ones that look like oil cans (for various petroleum companies), soft drink cans and bottles, hot dogs and concrete blocks floating in a liquid-filled top and various other items.  So cool!  Their mechanisms were relatively simple and the inside of the barrel contained a place to store sticks of lead and an eraser, both accessible by pulling the top section off. 

A collection of Ritepoint display top pencils and pens. L to R: corn, soybean, popcorn, Pioneer Hi-Bred seed sack, wheat, vegetable seed, alfalfa and sugar.

You will rarely find writing utensils designed like this today.  In my world of agribusiness, marketing strategies mostly budget for pens of various designs and colors.   They are cheaply made owing to the disposable attitude mentioned earlier as well as the marketing objective to get as many as possible in the hands of consumers.  (Why spend a lot of money on an item that will get tossed into the trash or lost in a short period of time?)  Most advertising on today’s pens is a simple print stamp that wears off easily.  Of course, you’ll only find that out if you keep it around for longer than a few weeks. 

“What about advertising on today’s pencils,” you ask?  I honestly have no idea.  Hardly anybody gives them away anymore.  Apparently, they’re made only for elementary kids who can’t be trusted with ink or keeping their hands to themselves.

I want you to do well. ~PH

Goodbye to a Hybrid

An Essay on the Rise and Fall of Hybrids in the Seed Business

Since the beginning of hybrid corn development in the early 1900s, breeders have made step changes in product performance.  (A step change is where the new hybrid is not just a little better than the previous generation of products but so much better that growers will demand only that hybrid.)  These changes might encompass significant improvements in disease tolerance, lodging or insect resistance and of course, yield.  Sometimes the step change is extraordinary.  The seed industry has seen this over the years where a hybrid performs at such a high level that it takes traditional breeding programs literally years, sometimes decades, to catch up to it.  Pioneer Hi-Bred has a wonderful history of these, most notable being corn hybrid Pioneer® brand 3394 (early 1990s) and sorghum hybrid Pioneer® brand 84G62 (late 1990s).

Understandably, growers can become emotionally attached to these extraordinary hybrids.  After all, their success is tied to the performance of the products they plant.  Yes, it’s mostly yield that drives this success, but not just yield in one year – yield across multiple years.  In the seed industry, we describe a hybrid that yields consistently over time and across environments as “stable.”   As an experienced agronomist with over 20 years of experience, stable hybrids are few and far between.  These are the hybrids that growers request for many years knowing that the hybrid will perform and that they won’t have to worry about whether the latest and greatest new product will let them down.  In a business that’s often “year to year,” this stability is often welcomed.  It’s peace of mind.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on which side of the ledger you’re on, stability is not always the driving factor in selling hybrids.  It’s no secret that seed companies will literally introduce and drop a hybrid after only one year.  This speaks to the rapid improvements in breeding science but also the drive for yield and financial success in a very competitive market place.  So, hybrids that are stable – meaning, not always winning the yield contest but certainly above average – are not always in demand.  This makes life difficult for a seed company in deciding what to grow for the next selling season.

After harvest, a seed company must decide what hybrids to produce the following summer in order to have the seed supply needed for their customers to plant in the spring more than a year later.  To do this, they must predict what hybrids their customers will likely buy for the following year.  But growers often base their purchase decisions on the current year’s performance and don’t always consider previous years.  Weather plays a key role in product performance but no two years are alike and the best hybrid this year might not be the best next year.  As you might imagine, it’s very difficult to predict which hybrids will perform best when you don’t know what the weather will bring!  Given this, stability seems like a good thing, doesn’t it?

The complexity of growing hybrid seed is nearly overwhelming.  Below is an example of a corn hybrid that’s widely adapted (image courtesy of Pioneer Hi-Bred) that literally has 221 variations.  For this hybrid, there are nine versions of trait offerings for various market opportunities.  A few examples include a “conventional” version – no traits for the organic market; an herbicide tolerant version – no insect traits but needed for refuge acres and a below-ground insect protection version for areas with known corn rootworm pressure.  Next are seed treatments – various rates of insecticide, formulations, active ingredients, etc.  Then there are several packaging options of which the most common are boxes and bags but imagine various sizes of these units to accommodate field research needs.  My personal favorite is the last tier which is seed size – rounds and flats of which there are small, medium and large.  Depending on the hybrid, there can also be extra small and extra large.  Today’s high-tech planters can often be fickle about seed size.  Take my word for it, you can have all the right genetics, traits, seed treatments and packaging but if you don’t have the right seed size for the planter, you can lose the sale!  Seed size is mostly determined by genetics but can be manipulated to a certain degree by management.  Historically, hybrids have been dropped because they consistently produced seed that was either too small or too large.

This complexity in seed offerings for the grower has value.  A seed company is a business and assigns a cost to every one of the 221 variations in this example.  It must do this to keep track of production costs and understand what “value” each variation contributes to the overall picture.  So, what happens when a hybrid doesn’t perform to expectations and growers decide to move on?  Demand drops and now the cost of producing these variations starts to increase.  (Imagine growing seed based on demand that fizzles for one reason or another – you now have a bunch of processed seed sitting in storage that nobody wants.)   Again, this is a business.  Just as every company assigns a cost to each variation, they also assign a threshold cost where it doesn’t make sense to continue producing it.

As you observe sales of seed over time, you’ll notice that all hybrids have a “lifecycle.”  If they make the cut after the first year, sales grow for a time (they’re new and exciting), then stabilize (above-average but starting to fall behind), then drop (stable yield but just simply getting left behind by newer genetics).  Not long after the final stage, they are no longer produced.  The decision to drop a hybrid is not easy.  Typically, near the end of a hybrid’s lifecycle, production acres (the production fields where the male and female inbreds are grown to produce the hybrid seed) become more difficult to manage (small acreage needed at this point) and variability in production per acre tends to go up.  Thus, production costs also go up. 

Finally, regional differences (a hybrid does well in one area but not others) can often accelerate a product’s lifecycle.  This, honestly, is the demise of most hybrids in the industry.   When a hybrid is widely adapted –  grown on a lot of acres by a lot of producers – the production process is more efficient and frankly, more profitable.  But when demand drops quickly, as might be the case when a large growing area completely walks away from a hybrid, a decision to keep producing that hybrid must be evaluated even knowing that it might still be one of the best performers in other areas of the country. 

The seed business is complex, business-driven and very emotional.  Emotions around a hybrid can be strong as growers gain an affinity for something that feels like family.  Livelihoods thrive on the success of hybrid seed production and seed company employees often feel equally emotional at the loss of hybrids.  Given all of this, there’s an axiom about the seed business that I often share with customers: “Don’t fall in love with this hybrid. There’s a good chance it’ll be gone next year.”

I want you to do well. ~ PH

2019 Central & South Texas Agronomy Review

Peter Hill, Ph.D. and Adam Owens, M.S

Every year in central and south Texas, nearly 50 Pioneer® sales reps work with growers to plant and harvest over 125 corn and sorghum plots.  All of this takes place in a large region ranging from north of Waco down to the Rio Grande Valley.

In this summary, 2019 performance data of Pioneer® brand corn and sorghum hybrids are highlighted as well as research data on planting populations.  Corn rootworm hybrid performance is also highlighted as 2019 saw extremely high pressure in central Texas.

2019 started with a full soil moisture profile for the entire area.  Late winter rains delayed planting and field work except for a few areas in central Texas which managed to plant “early.”  Central Texas received excess rains throughout the first half of the growing season causing issues with nitrogen loss.  Heat unit accumulation was nearly ideal for the entire area up to the middle part of grain fill – then it turned off hot and dry.  By this time, the yield potential was basically locked in.  Overall, grain quality was some of the best seen in recent years.

Yields were well above normal for some areas in central Texas with others below normal owing to too much rain.  Further south, in the San Antonio area as well as the lower Gulf Coast, yields were outstanding.  Several farmers reported record level yields for both corn and sorghum in these areas. 

Wet years bring out the best in most hybrids but consistency across years and across acres is a challenging concept for the seed industry.  As always, planting a mix of products usually results in the least amount of risk across the farm.

As you study the findings in this summary don’t be afraid to reach out to your local Pioneer or Corteva sales rep with questions or comments.   Now, read on!

CORN – GENETICS

The tale of two years – 2018 and 2019.  Last year was a severe drought for most areas while 2019 was wetter and nearly ideal.  Unfortunately, hybrids that do well during a drought are not always the best when it rains.  Below are the Pioneer® brand hybrids with the most top three finishes for the last two years, ranked in order.

Other hybrids are available but this table shows why planting a mix of hybrids (by agronomics and yield potential as well as maturity) is important for controlling risk across the farm.  Take Pioneer® hybrid P1847VYHR (RM 118), for example.  Brand new in 2018, it was considered “average,” as were most full maturity hybrids.  This was because soil moisture ran out early and nearly all full season hybrids were below average (P2089VYHR a notable exception).  Yet, in 2019 it was one of the strongest performers.  Pioneer hybrid P1395YHR, a perennial favorite, fell down the charts as hybrids with higher top-end yield potential rose to the top.

Summary:  It’s easy to fall in love with the new releases from seed companies.  We always encourage customers to never plant more than 20% of their acreage to new products.  Spread the risk of product failure by mixing up hybrids and consider spreading out maturity to help manage harvest and mitigate timing of environmental stress.  Maturities with various traits are available from 103 CRM to 120 CRM. 

CORN – MEXICAN CORN ROOTWORM

Central Texas is home to a variant of the Western Corn Rootworm, called the Mexican Corn Rootworm (MCRW).  While it is found only in central Texas, it’s behavior is identical to that of the Western.   There is only one generation per year; adults emerge before or during silking, mate and then move down into the soil to lay eggs.  The eggs overwinter, larvae hatch after enough heat has accumulated and then feed on corn roots.  They develop into adults and continue the cycle.  MCRW is mostly an issue with continuous corn rotations. 

Do not confuse this specie with the Southern Corn Rootworm (SCR).  MCRW has one host only – corn.  SCR has over 100 hosts and overwinters as adults, not as larvae or eggs.  SCR can infest corn in any rotation and is best controlled with seed treatments.  Note that corn rootworm traits expressed in the plant HAVE NO EFFECT on SCR.               

Below is a drone image of a test plot near McGregor, TX.  The strips that appear down are lodged due to MCRW root feeding.  The strips that appear normal contain corn rootworm traits.

Summary:  Infestations of MCRW can SIGNIFICANTLY reduce yields and impact fields with as few as three years of continuous corn.  Scout fields before, during and after silking to evaluate adult beetle population.  Treatment thresholds are published and control can be effective.  Traits are not effective on SCR. 

TECHNOLOGY SPOTLIGHT – BLUETOOTH & GRAIN CARTS

Occasionally, a technology comes along that inspires confidence in conducting on-farm research while also serving a practical purpose for the farming operation.  What caught our eye this year was the Libra Cart Bluetooth technology by Agrimatics.  Grain carts are outfitted with unloading sensors and when coupled with Bluetooth allow the operator to see and record weights on smart devise.  For conducting on-farm research, you don’t need to stop and get out of the combine and grain samples can be taken just outside the cab door.

This system is a pragmatic alternative to GPS driven data management systems such as yield monitors coupled with computer programs.  From an on-farm research standpoint, ease of communication and real-time recording of weights make conducting large strip trials much easier to execute.  One feature is the recording of weights when unloading commences – you’ll never miss a weight that you forgot to write down!

(Source:  Agrimatics.com.  Please note, neither Pioneer nor Corteva AgriScience sells or promotes this technology.)

TECHNOLOGY SPOTLIGHT – DRONES

Pioneer maintains one of the largest drone fleets in the US.  Nearly every field and product agronomist uses a drone in day-to-day work during the growing season.  Proprietary software is used for taking stand counts and collaborations with DroneDeploy allowed for in-season plant health assessments.

Using drones in production agriculture complements other tools such as satellite imagery and in-field scouting.  The following are a couple of examples of how Pioneer agronomists used drones. The first is aDroneDeploy image showing degrees of crop stress using software that allows the grower to see a “live” map soon after flying. The second image shows an 80-acre field where 16 stand counts were taken in less than 20 minutes. Note the color designations that show deviations from what the grower planted.

DroneDeploy image showing degrees of crop stress.
Stand count for a large field, completed in less than 20 minutes.

PLACING HYBRIDS – RIGHT PRODUCT, RIGHT ACRE

In the seed business, rarely can you find one hybrid that does it all – performing best in drought; when it rains; and on every soil type.  Over 100 plots are planted every year in central and south Texas.  This helps Pioneer professionals to better understand product behavior and how to position them on your farm.  Here are the key factors that affect product performance and are key to understanding what might work on your ground:

  • Historic yield level
    • Dryland sub 80 bu/A
    • Dryland 80-100 bu/A
    • Dryland 100-140 bu/A
    • Irrigated
    • Other
  • Soil texture/drainage/terraces
  • Crop management
    • Fertility
    • Population/Row Spacing
    • Fungicide
    • Tillage
    • Crop rotation

While certain hybrids are widely adapted, most are not.  There are some that don’t like “wet feet.”  There are some that can’t tolerate foliar disease or high winds (brittle/green snap).  In fact, as noted in earlier sections, some don’t perform well when planted at high populations.  Make sure your Pioneer rep understands the “lay of your land” and reference the category chart that follows.

Get it Right

I’m about to head out the door into one of the busiest times of the growing season for the agronomist – planting. The soil temperature is rising, the sandhill cranes are migrating north and the calendar says it times to go. For the farmers and supporting personnel, it’s always the highest pressure time of the year – the need to get over the acres as quickly as possible with as few mistakes as possible.

Generally speaking, there’s an ideal planting date. It’s around January 15th in the Rio Grande Valley; February 15th around Corpus Christi; March 1st around Waco, an so on to the north. Research shows that “early” plantings are usually associated with the highest yields. However, there’s risk associated with pushing the envelope and planting too early. Remember that thing called the last frost/freeze date for you area? About the time you get comfortable with warmer than normal winters, you’re quickly reminded that you’re not really in control when it freezes and kills all the emerged corn a day before this date.

Replanting can be expensive but it’s often times minimal compared to the lost yield associated with “late” planting. I get it. This lower yield potential is why growers often accept the risk associated with early planting dates. (And it surely helps when seed companies offer up generous replant support!). Ultimately you have to decide what level of risk you’re willing to accept for your operation. It’s often a conflict between the calendar date and soil moisture available for planting. That’s right, the decision is not easy and to wait is one of the hardest things for a grower to do!

Needless to say, we have one chance to get this right. Yes, once. It’s one thing to look at your garden and say, “I don’t like the way the pepper plants are looking. Let’s pull them and start over.” It’s an entirely different thing to pull up 2,000 acres, each filled with 24,000 plants and just start over. Rarely does the replanted crop yield up to expectations. So remember – you, your family, your neighbors and your landlords will have to look at this crop for the remainder of the year.

So be patient. Let the soil warm up. Let it dry out properly. Avoid the temptation to till when it’s a little too wet. Make sure the planter is ready, seed is in the barn, starter fertilizer tanks are full, and more importantly, make sure you have the mindset of getting it right.

I want you to do well. God, bless our farmers! ~PH

Against the Grain

Woodworking has many parallels to life. Chief among them is “going against the grain.” As a woodworker, going against the grain makes my life much harder. If I rub my hand against the grain of a board to test the finish, I’ll likely get splinters. If I try to hand plane against the grain, I get tear out and it’s much harder to push the plane through the wood. Blades dull quicker and then I have to spend time sharpening. Frankly, it’s not a productive practice.

To avoid these issues woodworkers analyze the grain to check which direction it “travels through the board.” (In the picture, I’m making a leg for a sawhorse. I’m running the hand plane from the end where it’s sitting to the end closest to the camera. If I were to turn the piece end for end, I would then be planing against the grain.) If we read the grain correctly, working with the tool goes so much easier requiring less energy. As a result, it doesn’t seem like work; rather, it’s a joy that we’re not having to fight the wood and can look forward to the next piece.

Going against the grain in the professional world is equally difficult. It’s rarely rewarded and an awful lot of energy is expended explaining the attitude and approach behind it. I tend to find that folks with this tendency often times have great ideas but are stubborn and impatient in wanting quick results. They won’t take the time to articulate a desired outcome or process and can get angry when the results are “splinters” or “dull blades.”

Am I suggesting you always go with the grain and be like everyone else? Absolutely not. Rather, take the time to share your ideas and vision for success. Trust my 20+ years in the business on this. Fewer headaches, less angst and more productivity will be your reward.

I want you to do well. ~PH

I Nailed It!

You may know that I enjoy woodworking. I’ve been taking some time to learn more about traditional ways including joinery and hardware that was used throughout the 18th and 19th centuries (and likely earlier except records or publications from that time are hard to find). Excitedly so, I have found several books, magazines and “YouTubers” that practice these techniques and provide excellent information about them.

One of my favorite ways of joining boards is using cut nails (one style pictured below). They certainly are old fashioned but I’m here to tell you that if you ever have to pull an errant or bent one out – be prepared. These nails have significantly more holding strength than today’s wire nails. And with their wedge shape you almost always have to drill a pilot hole and watch the nail’s orientation to avoid splitting the wood when joining near the edges of boards. Wrought iron and rosehead are styles that are very attractive in the finished product.

You can find cut nails in places like eBay and Etsy but they can be expensive depending on the type. Tremont Nails (tremontnail.com) up in Massachusetts is the of the oldest existing manufacturers of cut nails and still uses some of the original equipment to produce them. So if you’re making heirloom boxes, crates, desks, bookcases, etc. and want that “antique” look, give cut nails a try. And yes, you can still use glue!

One of the techniques described in various placees is “clinching” which is not new to anybody but can be very effective in holding two pieces of wood together. What’s most commonly seen – that of driving the nail through two boards and then simply hammering the excess flat to the underside is not really correct. Sure it works but it could be even more effective. There’s an extra step that’s almost never used today – that of hammering the end to an angle before hammering it back into the underside. (You might ask, “do I ever use screws instead of nails?” Sure, pocket hole joinery that uses screws is as old as the hills and I use them in places that are hidden.)

Finally, I’m enjoying a book, “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker,” that was originally published in 1839. It’s in current production by Lost Art Press (in Kentucky) but has a wonderful chapter on the history of nails. Growing up in Indiana farm country I would often be asked to fetch a 6- or 8-penny nail but never gave it any thought as why “penny” was used to describe a nail nor what the relationship was to length. This book put it all together for me and below is a copy of the page that’s most informative.

So that’s it on nails and nailing. Frankly, I think I nailed it.

I want y’all to do well. ~PH

The Farmer’s DNA

Human nature is fascinating. I live in an area where it’s very warm most of the year and the growing season is over 300 days long. If you live in the great white north (i.e., north of the Mason-Dixon line), you might be envious. If you’re a native of the great white north, likely not. Your winters are cold. You were born and raised in it and that’s just the way it is. From what I can tell, most of you actually thrive in it. And the south is hotter than hell most of the year and the natives never complain – they sweat the year around and hardly wear any clothing. And they love it! I can’t really explain why but I believe it’s a DNA thing.

Farmers are an interesting lot and like all other living forms are driven by their DNA. Farmers born and raised in Iowa just want to grow corn, preferably with John Deere equipment. Farmers in Kansas – wheat and cattle and the occasional acre of sunflowers to support their state motto. Farmers in Oklahoma can’t really grow anything but cattle and oil derricks and the farmers in my part of the world, south Texas, just want to grow cotton.

Cotton. Lots of it. Wall to wall if they could have it their way. It doesn’t matter that it costs 10 times more to produce than any other crop. Nor that hurricanes or tropical storms will likely wipe it out three in ten years. Nor that every pest under the sun will find it and try to devour it. Nor that the bales sit at a cotton gin for months waiting to be ginned and the bank paid. Nor that cotton pickers cost more than my house (that’s saying something – my wife has expensive tastes and her own income, mind you).

I ask, “how about something easier and just as productive like corn or sorghum? Perhaps sunflowers, wheat, sesame or an organic crop of some sort?” Their response – “Hell no, we just want to plant cotton. That’s what we do best. It’s in our DNA.”

I want y’all to do well. God bless our farmers!