Each year the Capital Area Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) hosts a series of Farmer Discussion Workshops. The December 2017 series of workshops focused on insect basics and estimating machinery costs for better decision-making. Gatherings were held in Albany, Washington, Rensselaer, Greene and Columbia counties.
“We hold this event each year in each of the counties we serve,” said Aaron Gabriel, a soils and crops educator. “We try to come up with a topic that is based on the calls we receive throughout the year.”
Gabriel taught the basics of insect entomology and identification. Insect control is always a concern for farmers, but in 2017 the potato leafhopper in alfalfa crops was particularly problematic. “This was a good opportunity for farmers to learn about entomology and use that information in preparing for next year’s crop,” he said.
CCE’s Farm Business Management specialist Sandy Buxton led the business management portion of the discussion. “We receive a lot of calls asking for how to set a price for custom work and for record keeping,” she said. “The record keeping always seems to be problematic so we offered easy ways to get started.”
Nearly 50 farmers from across the five counties attended one of the workshops to learn the basics of insect biology and how to estimate farm machinery costs to make better decisions about repairing, renting and purchasing machinery. Below is a highlight from the series of discussions.
Insect identification is critical for controlling pest populations (PLH) in crops. Last season, high PLH populations were a reminder for how important field scouting is for optimal control. The potato leafhopper feeds on alfalfa, potatoes, soy beans and hops. The pest doesn’t overwinter in the northeast, but instead migrates to New York via storms.
“The 2017 storms blew the pest into our area and got out of control,” he said. “Most crops in our area had them.”
Left unchecked, the potato leafhopper (PLH) can decimate an entire alfalfa crop. The most visible sign, a yellowing of the plant, only happens after the damage is done.
“You have to catch them early for control,” he said.
The potato leafhopper is a sucking insect that removes plant sap from the vascular system of the plant. In the process of removing sap, it leaves a salivary secretion behind that causes hopper burn or tip burn. The characteristic yellowing or reddening of the alfalfa leaflets is caused by the secretion. The toxin reduces photosynthesis, stunts the plant, sometimes kills seedlings and creates a true crop loss. A reliable method for forecasting damage, early detection is essential for good management.
Gabriel encourages farmers to use a 15-inch-diameter insect net to catch and identify the bugs in the field. The number of potato leafhoppers collected in an alfalfa field indicates next steps. The action threshold varies depending on the height of the alfalfa. Planting a PLH resistant alfalfa is a viable alternative to insecticides.
There are a variety of insects in any field and being able to distinguish between insect types is critical. Farmers who are unfamiliar with the identification process or want to confirm an insect identification can use their cell phone to take a picture of an insect and send it to CCE for assistance.
Estimating machinery costs
During peak farming season, Buxton frequently fields calls inquiring about advice for pricing custom work. “It’s important to remember that setting a price is more than coming up with a rate for your time,” she said.
The fee also needs to include fuel costs, the cost of materials like twine, the opportunity of owning the machinery and the level of risk. If damage occurs to the equipment on a custom job, that has the potential of harming a farmer’s personal harvest.
In addition to providing insight on pricing, the farmer discussion group series highlighted the importance of record keeping. Tight margins for most farms mean that estimating machinery costs and maintaining detailed records is important for financial success. Buxton encourages all farmers to keep records, which in turn can improve tax filing and allow farm owners to make better decisions.
“If you understand how much you’re paying in repairs, you may see that the expense is greater than the cost of buying a newer machine with fewer hours,” she said. “Having good records can then help you justify a loan request with a lender and potentially negotiate a lower interest deal.”
Record keeping extends beyond tracking the purchase of supplies or the cost of repairs. It can help farmers identify loss in other ways. For example, understanding on-farm fuel consumption rates and tracking what is used from a bulk tank allows farmers to know if it is being used improperly. Some farms are good at keeping things locked up, but most do not. While it may not start out maliciously, Buxton has heard horror stories of people taking fuel, parts and other items from farms.
“Our goal with these discussion groups was to make people think and to encourage them to review bills carefully,” she said. “We also wanted to remind them that there are fixed and variable costs.”
For farmers who missed the Farmer Discussion Workshops, there are multiple opportunities in the New Year to attend workshops hosted by the Capital Region CCE. Below is an abbreviated list of upcoming events.
- The Capital Region Bedding Plant Conference will be held Jan. 11, 2018 in Troy.
- Managing Manure Systems Jan. 31, 2018 in Greenwich, NY.
- Capturing Money Using Quickbooks Jan. 10, 17 and 24, 2018 in Greenwich.
To learn more about these and other events or to register call 518.765.3518 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.