Partnership yields honey and educational opportunity

On the north and west part of the Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU) campus is a 40-acre wildlife area that was created in 1998. It includes prairie land, deciduous woodland and some coniferous land.
“It kind of has a little bit of all the major biomes in the state,” said Alyssa Anderson, a biology professor at SMSU.
The wildlife area has trails and is home to deer and birds. Since 2019, it has also been home to honey bees.
The idea to have honey bees at the wildlife area emerged around 2017 when Bill Reilly approached SMSU administrators and asked if he and others could keep bees at the wildlife area because they couldn’t do so within Marshall city limits. SMSU Dean of Arts, Letters and Sciences Aimee Shouse said the university thought such a partnership had “great academic potential.”
She, Anderson and other SMSU staff started working with the Southwest Minnesota Beekeepers Club, of which Reilly is a member, to figure out how to make it work. Shouse said SMSU was able to allow people to keep hives on its campus because they could be used for educational purposes.
The bee yard is located in the north and east part of the wildlife area where there is a line of trees that creates a windbreak.
“I love that we have it,” Shouse said. “Somebody just had a great idea, talked to somebody at the university and we were able to capitalize on this great idea.”
Reilly said SMSU has been a great partner to work with. He said he donated funds to help with the fencing and signs that were posted around the bee yard.
SMSU mows and maintains the area and the local beekeepers who keep their hives there manage and keep up their hives. Ron Prorok, president of the Southwest Minnesota Beekeepers, said there were about 15 hives at the wildlife area the first year and about 20 in 2020. The hives are maintained by about 11 beekeepers.
The beekeepers said they share the honey from their bees with friends and family and sell some at farmers markets. Reilly said he’s also made some limited bottles labeled Mustang Honey in honor of SMSU, which he gave to administrators at the university as a thank you and for a few other occasions.
Anderson said the bee yard is a great addition to the wildlife area and a great teaching tool for her students and others who visit the wildlife area.
“I teach an insect ecology and diversity course and we went out and had a nice tour from Bill out there,” she said. “We haven’t used the yard directly, but more for observational studies in terms of ecological processes and the benefit of bees and other pollinators.”
Anderson said her students conduct observational studies on pollinators in the wildlife area as part of small lab projects. The students monitor how much time bees or other pollinators spend on certain types of flowers, the types of flowers they visit and other activities.
Anderson teachers her classes about the importance of bees and other pollinators and the benefits they provide to society. She said pollinators contribute upwards of $20 billion worth of service to the economy in North America every year with their pollination of crops such as almonds, apples, sunflowers, alfalfa and more.
Anderson said she also teaches her classes about problems that bees and other pollinators are facing due to land use change, habitat degradation, climate change and other ecological issues. Anderson said she would eventually like to get into beekeeping herself.
Anyone who is interested in setting up a hive at the SMSU wildlife area can call Prorok at 507-401-6227.
For those who were wondering what happens to the bees during the winter months, Reilly said they form a ball about the size of a volleyball around the queen and move their legs to generate heat, keeping the queen at around 91 degrees. The bees, except for the queen, rotate from the outside to the inside of the ball and over the winter some die off. By spring the ball might be about the size of a softball, he said.

Liepold finds success in malt barley, buckwheat

Southwest Minnesota is not typically thought of as a barley supplier — let alone for craft beer companies in the southeastern United States — but Okabena farmer Larry Liepold hasn’t let that stop him from turning an experiment into a profitable third crop with a short cycle.
“In 2017, we felt that we needed to find a double crop in southwest Minnesota,” Liepold said. “It was a trial for us, and we didn’t see the results we wanted, so we stepped away from it.”
The next year, Liepold discovered his experiment had caught the eye of someone from warmer climes.
“We got a call from a gentleman in Georgia who was opening the first malthouse there and he needed a supplier,” Liepold said. “We negotiated a contract with him and put 30 acres in.”
Barley is a fast-growing crop, Liepold said, so it can be planted in spring and harvested in mid-to-late summer. Last year, Liepold hit the jackpot.
“Looking at the rest of Minnesota, we compete well with barley,” Liepold said. “The north took a longer time to get theirs in this year.”
Because the barley is used in food production, typically for craft beer, it needs to meet certain standards. That can make investing in the crop risky, so Liepold found a workaround — selling barley that didn’t make the standard for human consumption as livestock feed and selling its straw for various purposes.
“We found quite a few livestock farmers who want barley, especially for their sheep and goats,” Liepold said.
The straw can be used in a number of ways, but Liepold has found landscaping companies like to use it to prevent algae growth in residential ponds. The quality of barley straw can rival and even exceed that of more conventional straw sources.
“When the straw is introduced to ponds in sunlight, as it breaks down, it changes the pH of the water and doesn’t allow algae to grow,” Liepold said. “We secured a contract with a landscaping nursery in Minneapolis and we are preparing to sell the straw as a pond treatment.”
Barley isn’t the only unusual crop Liepold is growing; he’s also tried buckwheat, an idea that came to him from a list of potential crops in which his malthouse client was interested.
“My son came across a company looking for buckwheat growers and the malters in Georgia had buckwheat on a list of crops they wanted,” Liepold said.
In the end, the buckwheat went well until an October freeze led to serious losses for the fragile crop.
“I was ready to give it up, but we had one week that October where we were able to salvage a third of it,” Liepold said.
Looking to the future, Liepold said continuing the buckwheat depends on when the barley is planted, but the barley is something the farm will continue to grow.
Liepold said farmers need to think hard about market research and plan carefully before investing in a third crop but added it can be profitable and beneficial to the business if done right.
“Third crops are excellent, but you’ve got to make sure that you have a market,” Liepold said. “As farmers, we do very little with market studies, but if you start a third product you’re responsible for your own marketing and product research.”


Small, but mighty
The contemporary workhorses of farming operations, skid steers continue to evolve

Especially around this time of the year, young children of farmers across southwest Minnesota are likely expecting small scale tractors and wagons, and other various farm equipment toys, to appear under the tree Christmas morning – hoping to emulate, in play, the tasks older family members perform on a daily basis.
As the toys representing the machinery used to perform those various tasks has become more intricate and detailed, so too has the actual equipment used by those helping feed the world with crop and livestock operations.
Although one of the smaller pieces of machinery farmers now rely on to perform a multitude of tasks, once done manually, skid steer and track loaders have become the workhorses of contemporary farms.
“There aren’t many farms left with livestock that don’t use a skid steer,” said Titan Machinery’s (Pipestone) Curt Fey. “They’re handy and have so many applications, quite a bit more uses than people might realize.”
And along with their popularity and versatility, in performing duties ranging from simply moving a payload to drilling a posthole, these mighty machines continue to evolve – increasing in maneuverability and operator comfort.
“The improvements in the cab (cabin) of compact skid steers and tracks is everything,” said C&B Operations’ (Pipestone) Jeff Wacker. “Having heat and AC (air conditioning) in the cab allows guys to spend more time in there and be comfortable. It’s amazing how much time they’re in them.”
Certainly, having a comfortable cab to work within offers no excuses to Minnesota farmers in regard to getting work done, despite the great fluctuation in temperatures throughout a given year – making anytime a good time to climb in and get the job done.
“I’ve driven them long enough I could do it in my sleep,” said Phil Raak, who operates a family livestock and crop enterprise five miles southeast of Jasper that’s been in the family for generations. “I was in a skid steer the other day for 10 hours, non-stop. It would be a lot of work if I had to do it with a pitchfork. Skid steers are probably one of the best innovations for the farm economy; the second would be the cordless screwdriver.
“We’ve got three of them; one we use 100 percent with the dairy, cleaning the allies the cows live and sleep in. The second we use mainly for loading and unloading straw… filling extra wagons and cleaning out different pens, and– in the springtime – it goes out to the fields to help with rock. The third, smaller one, just three-foot wide, we use to get inside the smaller rooms.”
While improvements to the physical comfort of the operator of skid steers and track loaders within the cab have evolved, so too have controls of these machines – including the auxiliary hydraulics for attaching the many task-specific implements available to owners. Those implements can literally be as specialized as you like, now days, and innovation in controls allows multiple users to jump into a skid steer and begin working, regardless of their preferences and/or training.
“In the past, you had guys who liked foot controls, guys who liked either H-pattern or CAT controls, and we can order these now where you push a button and go from CAT controls to H-pattern to foot controls, depending on who you have working for you and what they’re used to,” Wacker said. “It’s unbelievable what they’ve come up with. You can control how responsive you want the hydraulics. If you’re working up close to a barn, you can set it up so it’s not so jerky. If you’re going across a yard/field with a heavy load on front, maybe liquid manure, you can push a button and use Ride Control, which tweaks the shock absorption within the hydraulics… gives you a smoother ride and might help keep you from spilling.”
And getting spun around to perform any one of these many tasks is easier and has become less of a safety issue – along with being able to communicate intentions.
“The addition of a back-up camera is pretty new and it’s really helpful,” Fey said. “There have been so many recent innovations with these skids; mechanical vs. electric controls, being able to adjust the sensitivity of those controls, and the ability to move back-and-forth with them. Radios have become standard, where not long ago they didn’t have radios. Like most technology in equipment, they’ve done a lot to improve skids and I’m guessing there will be more improvements down the road.”
Certainly, performing multiple tasks with the same piece of equipment is of great value, as is the ability to change the operator without skipping a beat.
How about overall speed?
“They used to be a slower machine,” said first-generation farmer Jeremy Smidt, who farms, corn, soybeans, and alfalfa, has a herd of 60 Red and Black Angus and cross-calves 800 head of Holstein a year about 10 miles north of Pipestone. “Now, many of them have two speeds and you can go a little faster moving/loading feed. That’s really handy; you can get more done in a shorter period of time.”
However, like nearly all technologically advanced equipment agricultural or otherwise, there are pitfalls when it comes to the maintenance and repair. Gone are the days of rolling up one’s sleeves, grabbing a wrench out of the toolbox and making ‘simple’ adjustments to an engine or an axle. As specialized as the equipment they repair, service technicians rarely make house calls.
“It’s just like tractors and cars, the more technology that goes into them the more you can get out of them; the flip side is the more technology you have, the less hands-on maintenance I, as a farmer, am capable of doing to them,” Raak said. “It’s like car trouble, when the warning light comes on you take it in, plug into a computer and it tells what’s wrong. Same thing with modern day skids, they’re mostly dealer-only service. It’ll leave you dead in your tracks if you can’t figure it out and have a back-up plan.”
Although both have large immediate families, neither Raak nor Smidt can rely solely on their children to help be part of that back-up plan when equipment breaks down, despite the knowledge they possess.  And don’t think these younger, extremely knowledgeable ‘farmhands’ aren’t up to speed with operating equipment – including the mighty skid steer.
“I’m 55-years-old and have been driving them since I could reach the pedals,” said Raak, who employs about 15 at his operation. “I have five boys and every one of them knows how to run them. I think I’ve taught them well.
“I have three out of college and two in high school; my goal in life was to give them every opportunity I had, so if they wanted to choose to continue in the agricultural business, they didn’t have the excuse they didn’t have the assets to do it.”
Whether it’s the Case SV280B or SR210B, Titan’s best-selling skids in Pipestone, the John Deere 324G that has proven the hot ticket for Wacker and his crew at C&B or the Bobcat 595 Smidt picked up at Bobcat of Brookings (S.D.) there’s no doubt skids, wheeled or tracked, are an invaluable piece of equipment to modern farming operations. Improvements in maneuverability, ease of control, operator comfort and safety make today’s skids a must have on just about every farm
Still, a recent trend has seen the compact wheel loader begin to be more sought after in cattle farming. With greater lift ability, bigger lift buckets and more visibility due to its cab sitting higher, the compact wheel loader might just provide farmers with the additional edge they’re looking for to make a good year even better – not to mention being a bright, shiny gift to go under the… outside, among the trees!
“Either would be a great Christmas gift,” Wacker said. “Farmers have had a good year, a good growing season; spring to fall was perfect, they got things in early, good rains all summer long and good heat. In the fall it didn’t rain, so they could get crops out quick. And prices were good. We’re seeing a lot of buying going on right now.”