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!

The Root of the Matter

Plant roots are amazing. They anchor the plant into the soil and provide the main mechanism for nutrient and water uptake. They can be fibrous in structure, as in corn and sorghum, and they can be a taproot, as in soybean and alfalfa. While we normally focus on the above-ground plant (you have to admit, it’s much easier to evaluate vs. digging and washing), the underground portion – the roots – is really what matters most in realizing your crop’s full yield potential. You can fuss over genetics, fertility levels and subsoil moisture but if the root mass isn’t healthy enough to take advantage of it, then it’s all beside the point. Here are some interesting facts about corn and soybean roots ( courtesy Dr. Sotirios Archontoulis, Iowa State University):

  • You can see up to 2.75″ of root growth per corn leaf with growth between the row being similar to in the row.
  • The average corn leaf number when the roots meet in the row middle (30″ row spacing) is around 6. This is why we discourage row cultivation after this point – you’re physically pruning the roots.
  • No surprise but soil moisture and water table presence are huge factors in root growth.
  • Root growth requires oxygen and will stop growing when soil moisture levels reach around 97% (near saturation).
  • For corn, 65% of the total root mass is found within the top 12″.
  • Bulk density over 1.80 g/cm3 usually inhibits root growth. In context, we can have layers in the field, natural or man made, that are high enough in bulk density to prevent root growth.
  • Excess nitrogen does NOT encourage root growth. Most crops will cease root growth in the presence of excess nutrients. Call them lazy if you want but applying more nitrogen usually only encourages more above-ground growth.
  • Finally, root growth ceases around flowering. That’s it. No more.

Without question, roots matter. Of interesting note, when plants are healthy, the ratio of roots to shoots really doesn’t correlate to yield. That is, more roots doesn’t mean more grain. HOWEVER, anything we do that compromises root mass health can and usually does impact yield.

So as you begin to prepare or even finish preparing fields, evaluate whether the pass you’re about to make is necessary and whether it will negatively impact the soil in such a way as to possibly inhibit root growth. (Compaction is rarely a good thing and you’ll live with it the rest of the season.)

I encourage you to learn more about roots – in the beginning as the plants are becoming established; mid-season and during grain fill. Dig, wash, evaluate. While I cautioned in an earlier blog about “rinse and repeat,” root evaluation is an appropriate excuse for this strategy!

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

Wood and Emails

Procrastination can really stymie productivity. I’ve learned this over nearly 30 years of emails. I estimate that I’ve sent, received, replied and deleted the message equivalent of President Trump’s budget request for his wall – a little over 7 billion. (I can neither confirm nor deny that number but it’s impressive on several levels.)

Letting an email message sit when you know it needs to be dealt with is not productive. It can really eat at you as you ignore it for days on end, even while receiving more emails stating the obvious fact that you haven’t dealt with it. Meanwhile, you receive more messages and it snowballs from there. It’s not unusual to see folks’ inboxes containing over 1,000 unread messages. Apparently not ever looking at them eases the pain and reduces the suffering.

So what does this have to do with wood? Everything. As woodworkers go through the steps of creating a masterpiece, one of the steps is obviously preparing and cutting the pieces to dimension. BUT, often is the case where we run out of time to do anything else and the pieces sit. For a long time. Like several weeks. You ask, “why does this matter?”

I generally buy long boards at the lumberyard and then mill them down to size (i.e. cutting the pieces to dimension). In doing so, the various stresses within the board are often relieved and the pieces can then “move.” While more an issue when working with long boards and thicker stock that’s cut into thinner pieces, this can be seen as twisting, bowing, cupping or combinations thereof. When this happens, things don’t go together very well. And then all that has to be dealt with requiring time, patience and anger management strategies.

The one piece of advice that I’ve picked up from studying master woodworkers is to NOT let the pieces sit too long before assembling. This means, of course, planning your time accordingly. (Don’t cut all your pieces and then take a three week vacation and certainly don’t let things like the Super Bowl get in the way of progress.)

So what I’m really telling you? Don’t let your emails sit and don’t let your wood sit. Else, your personality will take on a hint of being warped or twisted. Just like mine. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have go figure out how to get a twisted board in a slot that I cut a month ago. ~PH

Rinse and Repeat

Earlier in my career I once shared with a colleague that I had 10 years of experience. He asked, ” is that 10 years of experience or 1 year of experience repeated 10 times?” His response caused me to pause and I certainly had to stop and think about just what I had learned over those years. Was I basically on a “rinse and repeat” cycle or, more importantly, did I waste time and basically rest on my laurels?

After that I decided that whenever I felt like I was “repeating” myself that I would step up and do something different so that the next year was mostly a new experience. Too, it was important that I find creative ways to share that experience with my farmers and sales team. Sure, it’s corn, sorghum and cotton, year after year. You know, rinse and repeat. While the weather may differ, they all basically grow the same year after year. So what’s interesting or new about that? If you’re an agronomist – everything!

I just returned from our company’s annual agronomy meeting (you might have noticed me on Twitter cowering under the sub-zero temperatures) and was surrounded by the largest agronomy team any seed company has in the world. From all over North America, over 300 agronomists shared research findings, teaching methods, and an infectious enthusiasm for the food and fiber our farmers produce. You may not realize it but while you might see only field agronomists like myself at your local meetings and such, behind the scenes are production agronomists who are responsible for thousands of seed production acres. They’re mostly taken for granted but they are a key reason why our seed has the highest quality tolerances in the industry.

Drone technology, satellite imagery, photometry, seed treatment technology, and how to possibly plant seed at 17 mph were all on the agenda (that’s not a typo, Ohio State researchers were pushing the limits of down force!). Of all the topics, my personal favorite was understanding the differences in corn and soybean root morphology. It was an amazing look at rooting depth, volume, growth behavior and the basic differences in nutrient and water uptake. We often hear that size matters but there’s something called a root:shoot ratio and it really does matter!

Every year at that meeting I’m humbled and reminded that there are a lot of passionate, smart people in our industry. I was surrounded mostly by agronomists but there are sales reps and company personnel that are equally passionate with nearly all possessing knowledge and experience that can help improve your position in life as a farmer. My advice is to reach out and take advantage of that. It’s included in the price of the seed. Don’t “rinse and repeat” and expect it all to be different.

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

Risk It All

Remember when I said I don’t farm for a living; rather, I work with farmers? Well, this is one of those blogs where it will be easy to say, “if you think you know so damn much, why don’t you farm for a living rather than sit around and tell us what to do?” That’s a fair retort. But I will ignore it for now.

Risk. Risk management. Crop rotation, tillage system, hybrid selection, planting date – these are the major components of your crop production plan that the agronomist knows and worries more about than other important facets of successful farming. Each has it’s own degree of risk and, depending where on the earth you are farming, that risk might be more or less.

Monoculture (producing the same crop specie on the same land for consecutive years) is known to reduce yield potential. For example, in the south, continues cotton can lead to establishment of root rot that can be difficult to manage in future crops. Continuous corn is almost always less productive than corn in rotation and can lead to establishment of corn rootworm populations – another problem that can be difficult to control. In trying to maximize profit it’s easy to see that future income potential could be jeopardized with the decision to plant continuous crops.

Within a crop, agronomists also recommend spreading out maturity and genetic diversity. NEVER plant all your acres to one hybrid or variety. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER. I get it that you might do that if you’re a smaller farmer with few acres; but for larger operators – NEVER. You know the land – some acres are more productive than others; some drought prone, some flood prone, etc. Plant the right hybrid on the right acre. Seed company personnel have knowledge and wisdom and usually know their products like they know their kids. Lean on them for help!

Dr. Matt Montgomery, Pioneer Hi-Bred agronomist up in Illinois, posted this image in a tweet that makes a key point. One of my recommendations every year in Texas is to spread out maturities. This can spread out harvest but more importantly it spreads out the timing of when the crop is flowering and filling seed. Regardless of crop, this is an important strategy to mitigate production risk that can be caused by excessive heat or drought – both very prevalent throughout central and south Texas. However, when the latter part of the growing season is favorable, fuller maturity hybrids almost always out-yield the earlier maturities, sometimes significantly. Balance expectations while also controlling risk!

We are in a very wet cycle right now throughout the eastern half of Texas and it’s likely going to push our planting dates later than desired. (For corn, crop insurance deadlines are usually much later than the ideal window for maximizing yield potential.) Also, with the wet winter, very few acres have been worked and when it does dry out there won’t be much time to do anything other than plant. Remember, the highest yield potential for the year almost always coincides with the first planting¬†–¬†SO DON’T MESS THAT UP. Take the time to get the seedbed right and hopefully you won’t spend the rest of the summer looking at an ugly crop and hating yourself.

Risk management is often associated with financial risk. That’s important but managing stress in our lives is also important. Think about how the factors I talked about affect your life – can we mitigate “personal risk” associated with stress by managing things differently, for the better. I believe so.

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