Harvest combine ride along


Hop into the combine with Jeff and farmer Lee Thelen while they harvest corn.

September 23, 2019

Jeff and Lee sit in tractor cab.

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Harvest combine ride along transcript

Jeff Dwyer: Michigan boasts about 10 million acres of farmland and over 52,000 farms. That means that almost 1/6th of our state’s land is devoted to agriculture.

I’m Jeff Dwyer, director of Michigan State University Extension. Many people know our organization for our work in agriculture, but I’ll admit that coming from a background in human medicine, I didn’t know very much about the world of agriculture when I first started. Now I’m taking every opportunity to learn more.

I’m Jeff Dwyer director of Michigan State University Extension.

[Tractor engine starts.]

Today on Partnerships and Peninsulas, I’m riding along with Lee Thelen, a crop farmer in St. Johns, Michigan, while he harvests his corn crop.

So Lee, we’re sitting here in the cab of your combine and harvesting your corn. A little bit ago, we were talking about how Paul Gross, one of our Extension agents came out to help understand in this field how the soil in a certain part of the field where it’s producing particularly well and other areas that weren’t quite keeping up with. What are some of the other types of research that you worked with MSU Extension on?

Lee Thelen: I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve gotten to know a lot of people. Tim Harrigan is one of my favorite guys. He came out here and we did a lot of vertical tillage, so a bunch of vertical with him, and some manure work with him. My wife had a manure management day on one of our farms and Dr. Harrigan was in charge and we did some ammonia release studies. So when you apply ammonia, how much leaves in the first 24 hours. So we’ve done some of that. We’ve done a lot of yield studies. We’ve done studies on insects. We’ve had moth traps here for years and years.

My wife being a pretty good Extension agent, she’d bring a lot of this stuff home and say, “What do you think?” So we’d try it and say, “Sure, why not, we need to know.” So we’d do it.

Paul’s just an old friend. Him and I have a lot of fun together. When the field was doing this, I said, “Paul, what do you think?” My wife was changing gears a little bit here. Him and Marilyn came up with a plan to do some soil tests and check after this active carbon in these fields. And they nailed it. It was fun. We learned a lot.

The only challenge we got left is what I told Paul: we got to take eight or nine acres of that great dirt and we have to make the other 113 just like it. I said, “How are we going to do that?” They took it to heart, so it was really fun to learn that stuff and really see what’s going on.

MSU’s been quite a good partner with us. We’ve had a lot of good projects together. We just had a field day out here with the NRCS people. Smoke-bomb Frank who does the tile thing came out and put on a tremendously good presentation on how tile works with the smoke inhalation deal. It’s really neat. You can learn a lot of stuff just by watching. You learn a lot more when they put you in the driver’s seat and they say, “Here is what we’d like to do and this is what we want to see happen.”

It makes you think more. Makes you get a little more involved. Over the years – over 30-some years – I’ve been tied in with Extension, it’s been fun.     


Dwyer: That’s really fantastic and we certainly appreciate your willingness to do it because that’s how we learn and then we can share it with others. This is actually my first time sitting in the cockpit of a combine and there are computers and lots of numbers that it’s clear that you’re learning from as we go here. Tell me a little bit about as you’re looking at all of these numbers, the main three or four numbers you’re looking for that tells you how you’re going to market this corn and how you’re going to get the best yield financially for this corn.

Thelen: Forty rows away from a test plot we put in, and we put an excessive amount of fertilizer on a little strip over here because when we bought the farm that we’re on, it was really nutrient deprived. So we came in and put well over 600 pounds of fertilizer on and we had a phenomenal crop that year, and I wondered if it was from excessive fertilizer – which I’m highly against. You get too much ground water contamination. We did another test run over here with the fertilizer and did the same thing on a farm we’ve been farming for 30 years, hoping we’d get the same result. So right now, I’m watching varieties, watching the yield monitor, and watching the yield monitor compared to the type of dirt we’re parked on top of. And that’s how I learn what I want to do next. It makes it kind of fun.

You keep watching stuff and you do a little bit different procedural thing. You’ll put a little more fertilizer, a little less lime, a little different spray variety, a different corn, and you kinda watch to see what kind of bang for the buck you get out of it. You’re just looking for a great return on your money. You’d always like to have the most you can.

This particular field we’re thinking pretty seriously about putting some irrigation on it. You keep wondering about what the top end of that would be, you could put about 40 bushels per acre on here. My agronomist tells me I could do 50. The neighbor’s done some, he’s done about 35 pretty consistently. So I got to have a pretty decent target if I’m going to have an irrigation well. With the whole thing, I want to make sure I have a really doable target and get a good return on my investment.

Dwyer: We’re in this, I think you said 113 acre field, and you’re harvesting here. How many more acres do you have yet to go? We’re in this combine on November 8.

Thelen: We’re in a little bit of trouble, the weather’s been working against us pretty bad. This feels fairly soft. We’re doing this because we set this interview up. We probably wouldn’t be shelling a lot of corn today. The weather’s kinda got us and we’ll get done in time. Thanksgiving’s never been off the map, we have time before Thanksgiving, but you’d like to be done well before that. I think we’ll have good luck. 400 acres is about four or five more days. We’ll get that kind of good fortune. We’ll be alright.

I want to back up the bus a minute. You’re asking about people we’ve worked with. I’m going to go historically way back. When I first started farming, everybody knows a guy named Jim Kells, and Jim was the weed guy. Jim and I did a test out here in the early 80s with Marestail (a weed). I had a field that was Marestail from hell. Jim and I came out here and looked at it – that’s back when there was no Roundup or chemicals were kind of limited and expensive. Actually, we haven’t had a Marestail problem for years and years, but Jim and I go back that far.

I kid him every once and a while – he’s still at the college there – he’s quite a guy. I like him.

Dwyer: Well, I’m super glad you mentioned him because in my three years in this role, I’ve gotten to know Jim a bit and I like him a great deal. He’s really a terrific guy. What a lot of our listeners may not realize is that that’s what a land-grant university can do. You can have a scientist like Jim who’s doing great work and publishing in academic literature and those sorts of things, but he can bring his expertise right out here to your farm. 

Thelen: We can’t forget that there’s Karen Renner and a lot of other people, Chris Cristie, and all of these other guys – they’re very user-friendly. The guys will help you any time, any place. You can just give them a phone call – they’re recognize you’re name and they’ll take the time to do whatever you’re asking of them. So it’s pretty fun. I’ve got a lot of great friends. The people who work there are just a talented bunch of people. Good resources.

Dwyer: Well, we’re grateful for the opportunity to be in partnership with you. So Lee, I know you farm 2,000 acres here, and I want to talk to you about the different crops a little bit, but tell me how long you’ve been farming here outside of St. Johns and your family’s history here in this area. 

Thelen: From a lifetime standpoint, my dad and mom moved out here in 1955, and my father milked a few cows and raised crops until 1971. He had 240 acres and decided it wasn’t going to work. So he got a job being the for the Clinton County equalization director for 18 years. I always bailed hay and helped by dad – I always enjoyed it a lot. I went out and got a job after college and that was okay, I was in the ag community.

In 1980 and 81, everything fell apart and they were laying people off, so I was the last guy to get laid off. I kept farming a little bit and a little bit more because I always enjoyed it and never went back. So the early years were pretty tough in ’80, ’81, ’82 and 83 – the interest rates were high and stuff like that. But there was a 10-year gap from when he stopped and I started, so there was no equipment or nothing. Marilyn and I pretty much started from scratch. It’s been a great life. We’re operating with quality equipment, doing great things on great farms with great people – you couldn’t ask for anything better.

My kids - I have a daughter and a son – they may possibly come back. They’re discussing possibly coming back and enjoying this life. It’s been good to us. I like what we do. We no till 100%, I just like that side of it. With no till, I can farm 2,000 acres almost by myself. That was kind of the original plan because we had no money. You kind of had to do it by yourself. So that’s how we got to where we are right now. So like I said, it’s a great life.

Dwyer: Some of our listeners may not be familiar with agriculture or the specifics of a farm like this. Tell me about what “no till” means.

Thelen: No till means you don’t have a moboard plow or a chisel plow, or anything like that. You basically leave the dirt as it is so that the microbial activity – the worms the holes and stuff will give you percolation and give you the vertical movement of your fertilizers. Whereas guys with plows will come in and physically move the dirt to move the fertility.

No till has a little magical way that it works where the roots carry the trash down and the roots rot in place so we get a really good soil structure. We fascinated some of these labs before where you take a soil core in and Marilyn’s been to some of these training sessions where they ask you to bring a core with you. They put it in a fish tank on a teeter-totter to see how long it takes for it to break down. It won’t break down and they ask, “Where do you get this?”

And we say, “Out in the field, and we’ve got thousands of acres of this.”

So it’s been working. It’s been proving to me that no till is very good. We do use a minor vertical till early in the spring and then our planter is set up so that we can get our seed to soil placed in the right spot. No till takes a little bit of special equipment and a whole different mindset. You need to have the mindset that I call “Walking on water.” Everything you own has to have large tires and a light footprint and tracks. If it’s muddy out here and you shoot a deer, you don’t take the pick up to go get the deer, you better go get the quad or walk or drag it out. You really watch soil compaction a lot, and if you do a good job with it, it will do a good job for you. I’ve found it to work really well.

It’s a good financial savings tool. You don’t burn up tractors as fast using up a lot of tillage parts. You don’t use a lot of fuel. Our fuel consumption breaker is very reduced. I like it a lot but it’s not for everybody. You’re either 100% in it or you’re not going to do it – kind of like a religious thing – you either are or you aren’t.

Dwyer: That’s fascinating. In a typical year, you farm about 2,000 acres. How many crops do you typically farm?

Thelen: We’re kind of easy. We do corn, soybeans and wheat. We used to do beans, we did sunflowers for a while. We do rye once and a while and use it as a cover crop for ourselves. We’ll do a little bit of oats and we’ll save that for cover crop for ourself.

The last three or four years, I’ve had a lot of fun, we’ve actually raised our own raddish seed – that’s a game all it itself and it was fun to do that. So we make our own tillage raddish seed that we can use back on our farm. The reason for all of the cover crop seed is that if you have a wagon full in the shed, you’re more apt to use it than if you have to go out and buy some. You may hesitate, you may say, “Well, it’s too much money.”

But if you got a wagon of oats in the shed, you’ll put it on because it only cost you $4.00. So to have it there available kind of makes you more receptive to using it. So I like that. We’ve done a few things. We’ve got some feeder cattle and that keeps you busy off season. It’s fun and it gives you some manure.   

Dwyer: That’s fantastic. Well, it’s getting close to dusk out here, it’s absolutely beautiful. We’ve seen a number of deer, do you have much of a problem around here with your crops and dear. You’re laughing.

Thelen: We have problems with deer, turkey and this year we had trouble with geese. The DNR own all of them, and we actually have a phone number we call to tell them when there seems to be an excessive amount. They actually do react to it: they’ll put a few more permits out there, they’ll let guys take a few more geese that season, or they’ll extend the season for them. If you talk to the DNR guys and tell them you have an issue and you’re sincere about it – you’re not pulling their leg – they work with you too. We have all the same problems that everyone else has. Sometimes the neighbors’ cows are in here too, you never know.  

Dwyer: This is Partnerships and Peninsulas. My name is Jeff Dwyer. I have the privilege of being the director of Michigan State University Extension. My guest today has been Lee Thelen. Thank you very much for being here.