Raising Polypays

It’s lambing season and as of April 9, Gerold and Robyn Van Heuvelen have around 230 new lambs at their farm in western Murray County. Gerold said they expect around 300 more before the season is over.
“We’re going to be in the middle of it for a while yet,” he said.
They started lambing around March 1. Robyn said they usually lamb for a few weeks, then have a week off before another round begins with a different group. They have three groups to cycle through, the last of those first-time mothers.
The couple raises the lambs for around five months or until they reach 130 pounds and then send most of them to market. They keep some for breeding purposes.
The Van Heuvelens have been raising sheep since 2005 when they bought their farm and moved there from Chandler. Robyn said both she and Gerold grew up on farms and they’d always intended to buy a farm of their own.
Even when they lived in Chandler, Gerold farmed with his father. Robyn grew up raising sheep and when the couple bought their own farm she said they decided to raise sheep because they thought it would provide a better return on investment than other livestock. She said that seems to have proven true.
They started with around 200 western ewes, but have since switched to raising Polypays. They now raise around 300.
Polypay sheep were developed in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the goal of creating a breed that excelled in “maternal characteristics including early fertility, prolificacy, aseasonal breeding and milk production,” in order to increase production, according to the American Polypay Association.
The breed is a mixture of Finnsheep, known for their prolificacy, early puberty and short gestation period; Rambouillets, known for their hardiness; Targhees, known for their fleece quality, large body size and long breeding season; and Dorsets, known for their mothering ability, carcass quality, early puberty and long breeding season. The breed name emerged in 1975, with ‘poly’ meaning ‘many’ and ‘pay’ referring to the return on investment from the animals, according to the American Polypay Association.
Polypays are bred for their meat and have little value in their wool. The Van Heuvelens have their sheep sheared for maintenance purposes once a year, but Robyn said the value isn’t enough to cover the cost.
“They get all matted if you don’t shear them,” Gerold said.
The Van Heuvelens said they’ve belonged to the Pipestone Lamb and Wool Program since they started raising sheep.
“We’ve learned a lot and gotten really good ideas,” Robyn said.
Some of the lessons they’ve learned from the program include ways to keep their lambs healthy, helpful feeding tips such as using self-feeders, efficient ways to set up their barn and ways to improve profitability.
“Even growing up with sheep, I learned a lot,” Robyn said.
They also have a contract to sell their sheep through Superior Farms through the Lamb and Wool Program.
Robyn said there is “a big push” for antibiotic-free lambs lately, so they try not to use antibiotics unless an animal needs it to treat an illness. Most of their sheep end up being antibiotic-free, which brings a higher market value.
The Van Heuvelens use an electronic identification system to scan a tag on the ear of their sheep when they’re sent to market to track which ones have been treated. The scanners also track weight, dams, sires, offspring and other information specific to each animal.
Robyn said farming is a lot of work and hasn’t always been easy. Lambing was particularly challenging when both of them worked off the farm in addition to farming, but about a year-and-a-half ago Gerold quit his other job driving truck for a local elevator to focus on farming. Despite the ups and downs of farming, the Van Heuvelens said they enjoy being around and raising sheep, and spending their time outdoors.
“It’s something we do together and every year you get new babies,” Robyn said. “We figure it’s probably better than sitting around at night watching TV.”
In addition to the sheep, the couple has about 60 cows and grows corn, soybeans and alfalfa. Robyn also works full-time as the chief financial officer for Murray County Medical Center.

The ups and downs of sheep

Sheep were once big business in Jackson County.
“Back in the 1950s, Lloyd Thornburg, who originally lived in western Jackson County outside of Lakefield, started the Thornburg Sheep Co.,” said Mike Kirchmeier, director of the Jackson County Historical Society. “He started out providing feeder lambs to area farmers, dealt in feeder cattle along the way, but also sold fat lambs, breeding ewes and bought and sold wool.”
Thornburg was an opportunist and promoter. Kirchmeier said Thornburg gave out his lambs in lots of 30 to farmers to be fattened up. He would then buy the fattened lambs back from those same farmers and turn around and sell them at market.
The scheme worked — for a while. The Thornburg family ended up owning the controlling interest in the First National Bank in Lakefield, as well as the Green Lake Bank in Spicer.
To help promote a thriving business that saw tens of thousands of lambs bought and sold back in that era, Thornburg helped establish Lamb Days in Lakefield, which was just as it sounds, a celebration of lamb production that at that time was big business in Jackson County.
“The Lamb Day celebration started in 1953 and was Lakefield’s biggest city celebration through 1956,” Kirchmeier said. “There was a big Lamb Day Parade with marching bands and floats. A queen was chosen each year and, unlike today at many city celebrations, the queen of Lamb Day back then rode on the Lamb Day floats during the following year’s parade.”
Thornburg married his wife, Cecile, in 1925. They had several children, but it was their son, Harold Thornburg, who ended up with controlling interest in the First National Bank.
Harold Thornburg moved to town in the mid-1950s and purchased a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home built in Lakefield in 1953.
Lloyd Thornburg’s Thornburg Sheep Co. was relatively short lived and Kirchmeier said no one seems to know for sure why it went out of business. Lloyd Thornburg died in 1975.
Like the story of Thornburg Sheep Co., the business of raising sheep over the years has had its up and downs as well. Sheep production peaked in this country in the 1940s and 1950s at more than 50 million head. By the year 2013, those numbers had slipped to just 10 percent of what they were in the 1940s.

Preparing to plant is a year-round activity

Snow-covered landscapes don’t exactly bring to mind the image of tractors out in the fields planting the year’s crops, but planting season will inevitably arrive.
It could, however, start a bit later than some would prefer due in part in some areas of record-setting snow falls in February, and soil still saturated by a wet 2018 fall. Rain on top of the still frozen ground last week did not help matters.
Lance Oye, who farms northwest of Pipestone with his family, said he prefers to begin planting by April 25 and usually is able to get in the fields by then. Last year that was not the case and he suspects it won’t be this year either.
“The snow we have now, a lot of it’s going to run off because the ground is frozen,” Oye said. “I think we’re going to have a lot of flooding issues.”
As is always the case, farmers are at the mercy of the weather. The best they can do is plan and prepare. Oye said much of that preparation for spring planting begins in the fall trying to get fall field work done.
“I do strip tilling and then we put the fertilizer down in the strip and we just leave it and then we go back in the spring,” Oye said. “Sometimes you have to freshen the strip up — most times not — and then you plant directly in that strip and your fertilizer is already down below there.”
Oye said his family was able to complete most of their field work last fall, but there is still quite a bit of ground that’s not been worked due to the late harvest caused by wet weather.
“I’ve got about 100 acres left to strip till,” he said.
Oye and his family grow corn, soybeans, small grains, alfalfa and cover crops including cereal rye, turnips and radishes, on about 2,500 acres and raise around 300 purebred Angus cattle. Oye also custom farms around 500 acres and works with another individual to custom strip till around 3,500 acres.
Oye said his family started planting cover crops about 10 years ago. He said cover crops improve soil health, provide food and bedding for their cattle and have increased yields. Oye said they start planting cover crops right after they harvest wheat or oats in early August. By spring Oye said the cover crops are “all kind of deteriorated and gone” and the fields are ready for the next crop.
The seed for spring planting is ordered in the fall. Oye said he works with an agronomist throughout the year to select the right seed and places an order in September. Seed selections can vary from year to year and due to factors including soil types and when they can get the seed in the ground. They might plant a variety of seed types for one crop depending on the various factors.
“I switch seeds as we plant,” Oye said. “I probably plant six to seven different hybrids of corn.”
Planning continues during the winter with a review of yield maps, an adjustment of seed selections, and an evaluation of fertility and chemical programs.
Oye said their planning also involves marketing year round, for which they work with a market advisor to achieve optimal prices.
“A good marketing plan can take you a long way,” he said.
Once the snow is gone and the fields are workable, Oye said it typically takes him around seven to 10 days to plant corn and five to six days to plant soybeans if the weather cooperates. Last year he said he was done planting by Memorial Day. This year, only time will tell.
“Plans always change depending on weather,” Oye said.

The best laid plans
Jackson flower business thrives through challenges, adds new license for state’s Industrial Hemp Pilot Program

When Dave Stubbe began working at the Flower Market in Jackson as a high school student, he recalled a time while walking down the aisle in one of the greenhouses when he said, “I will never, ever own a greenhouse, and especially not this one!”
Years later he would be eating his words.
“God has a sense of humor,” said  Stubbe smiling. “Don’t ever say ‘never’ to God.”
Stubbe had different plans. He was a certified mechanic and intended to work in that field, but an accident that smashed his hand required him to look for alternatives. His old boss at the Flower Market made him an offer, he took it, and in 1992 after he and his wife, Laura, were married, he became the owner of the exact greenhouse he swore he’d never own.
Now, many years later, he still enjoys going to work every day.
The Flower Market, located on Highway 71, has been around since the 1930s, but as with everything, it has seen many changes.
“Back then they grew a lot of their own flowers for cuttings,” Stubbe said. “You couldn’t call somewhere and say you wanted a French tulip, straight out of France, and have it sent to you the next day. Today you can call almost anywhere and get the flowers you want, because they’re in season somewhere.”
Many of the cut flowers we see in stores today are not from the United States, but rather are grown all over the world. Some of the things planted at the Flower Market are vegetables, petunias, and other plants that Stubbe termed ‘spring bedding plants.’ Some he started in January and others he’s planting currently. They all have different growth rates, so it’s an ongoing process.
Over the years the Flower Market has seen its share of hard times and losses, but they have always rebounded. On Dec. 26, 2009, followed by Jan. 10 and Jan. 20 of 2010, the business had a major disaster with the collapse of 13 out of 15 greenhouses. Stubbe thought there would be no way they could recover and he prepared to file for bankruptcy. After working with his insurance agent, however,  he learned he was covered for many of the losses. After much work and renovation, the place was back up and running.
They did lose a few of their bigger accounts, but Stubbe admitted that he’s happier now with a less hectic pace to his business. That’s not to say there aren’t still long hours and those are just around the corner. In April the greenhouse will be filled to the brim. Every spare hook will have a hanging plant, every table will be covered with trays, and from May through the summer Stubbe said it’s 24-hours-a-day work.
“Every year things change, every year there’s something new to plant,” he said. “Sometimes you want to plant the new things, sometimes you don’t.”
This year, they’ve taken on a new challenge. After undergoing the rigorous state licensing process, Stubbe has been licensed to begin growing hemp. He and quite a few others are part of the state’s Industrial Hemp Pilot Program. He’s not quite sure where the new endeavor will lead but he believes the interest in hemp-based products make the plant a good addition to his business.
Working in a greenhouse is not something that everyone can do, Stubbe said, but it’s the right work for him. He said his favorite thing is bringing plants to customers and seeing how happy it makes them.
“There have been many people who like to come and just walk through the greenhouses throughout the winter,” he said. “I think it’s the green, and the smell of the earth, but it really does make you feel better.”

Preparing Soybean Seed for Planting

A look at the seed conditioning and treatment process at CHS, Inc.

Gone are the days when a hole was dug in the ground, a seed was thrown in and a prayer was said in hopes of a productive yield.
The prayers may still be said, but with today’s agriculture, a lot more effort is put into enabling greater and more consistent yields for growers. Seed today, in this case soybean seed, goes through an extensive process of cleaning –– conditioning is the technical term –– and for some producers, treating before it returns to the ground to produce another season’s crop.
CHS Inc., a Fortune 100 farm supply company with several locations in southwest Minnesota including Marshall, Ruthton, Tracy and Pipestone, has been cleaning and treating seed for over 10 years. The company conditions approximately 425,000 bushels of seed a year, with the majority of its growers residing in Minnesota, South Dakota and Nebraska.
The seed arrives at the Marshall facility either directly from farmers who have contracted fields with CHS, or picked up by the plant in trucks equipped with a vacuum that sucks seed from storage bins into trucks for transport. Once the seed has arrived, the conditioning process begins. 
“Seed conditioning involves taking raw bushels from the fields and you remove all the sticks, chaff, all the unwanted stuff to make a clean seed that you can plant again,” said Mike Nybo, the Lead Seed Cleaner in Marshall. “If you leave all that stuff in it can plug the planter up and of course it doesn’t add to the quality and quantity of the seed.”
The pre-conditioned seeds are held in 12 bins outside the plant where it is brought in on a conveyor belt and run through a machine called an airmill that helps separate excess debris from the seed, as well as separate the seeds by size. Anything discharged at this point may become screenings, which can be used for livestock feed or other purposes, or be blended off with other grain. From the airmill, the seed makes its way up two floors to another machine called the color sorter. This process not only helps to separate the seed by its color, but it can also identify and discard stray kernels of corn that are mixed in or seed that may be infested with mold. After the seed has made its way through the color sorter, it is transported back down to the first floor where it is split between two gravity tables that sort the seed by its density.
“It [the gravity table] pushes all the heavier seed to the high side of the table and all lighter and smaller seed goes to the low side,” Nybo said. “On table one and two there are three cuts. The first cut will go to the bagging bin, the second cut will go to the third table for a second chance to make the cut for bagging before being discarded to screenings, and the third cut will automatically send whatever it has captured to screenings.”
The third and final table will send what has been given a second chance to the bagging carousel or to be discarded with screenings. Depending on the particular work order being filled, the seed will either be bagged and stored in the warehouse or placed in a storage bin until it is ready for pickup or delivery through Allegiant, CHS’s company wholesale seed brand.
Throughout the entire cleaning process, regular testing is done for mold or other issues, seed weight, and splitting or breaking of the protective skin on the seed. These tests also help plant workers determine how much seed they can clean on a given day or hour, because the quality of the seed, moisture content and a number of other factors determine how easily the seed will break, and in turn how fast or slow it can be run through the plant. If the size or weight of the seed changes, a new order or lot must be started in order to keep the seed size uniform in each package and order.
“When we have good quality seed coming in we can run anywhere from 400-500 bushels an hour,” Nybo said.
This is where the story ends for some of the seed, but a good amount from the Marshall plant is sent to the Ruthton location where it goes through a chemical treatment process that helps to prevent different kinds of root diseases that strike early in the season, such as fusarium, pythium and rhizoctonia root rot and soybean cyst nematode, which are the four main early season diseases for which the soybean seed is treated. These diseases among many other potential threats may cause significant loss in crop yields if not prevented.
“The pressure is getting high,” said Mitch Nelson, an agronomy sales representative based out of Ruthon. “Soybean cycst nematode is still the number one yield-robbing thing in soybean production. They’re culling 10-15 percent off the top before you even see any visual indicators.”
All of the treatments used in the industry are liquid and are sorted into a three-tier system categorized by what they treat. The first tier is a straight fungicide treatment, the middle tier is a fungicide and insecticide treatment and the final tier is a fungicide, insecticide and nematocide treatment.
Seed that is to be treated is held in storage bins outside the facility or in the large totes or paper bags that they arrived in depending on the work order. A computer board inside allows personnel to enter the number of units that need to be treated, which are then put into a tank that weighs the pounds needed to fill that order. Once the amount is reached it is transported to the treater where the seed is weighed again to tell the machine how much liquid treatment is needed. As the seed is sprayed with the liquid treatment it passes into a large drum that mixes to assure uniform coating. The color of the coating will depend on the company, with CHS opting for blue. The most in-depth part of the process is calibrating the treater. Each chemical used has a different density per gallon so the pumps are calibrated to flow only as quickly as needed for the amount of seed being treated.
After the seed has been fully coated it is transported on another conveyor belt. From there it is either re-bagged, or placed in a seed tender truck to be delivered directly to the planter.
Not all producers use treated seed. Nelson said once they do, they notice the difference.
“Year-in and year-out, treating has proved itself in yield,” Nelson said. “People have definitely said they’ve noticed a change when they went away from treating. It all depends on the customer.”
Seed treating has only been a part of the Ruthton operation for around four years, with much of it being done previously in the Marshall plant. Although there is a treater in every location, the majority of it is done in Ruthton. In the future, CHS plans to expand its seed conditioning operations with the hope of moving its soybean conditioning plant to its Pipestone location, freeing up the space in Marshall to process sunflower seeds.
“Our hope, although it is not set in stone, is to have it in the building we bought down in Pipestone where we are currently storing seed,”  said Terry Schmidt, a Market Development Manager with CHS. “There is more room there for the volume of seed that we process and it should help us to produce orders more quickly and efficiently.”