Skip to main content

Intern Facility Tours

I almost called them “field trips,” but that just sounds a little childish to me, like we’re in elementary school or something … don’t you think? 🙂 Anyway –

This last week the four other interns and I, who I will briefly introduce in a moment, went on two different facility tours. On Thursday we visited Global Ethanol, an ethanol plant located near Lakota, Iowa, and the next day we visited AGCO, an agricultural equipment company located in Jackson, Minnesota.

First, let me introduce the other four MaxYield interns. Below is a photo taken of the five of us at AGCO (and yes, I warned them that their faces where going to be posted on the internet!):

On the tractor, top left, is Kyle Frerichs. Kyle will be a senior at Iowa State University next year and is a SciMax Intern (MaxYield’s precision ag program).

Also on the tractor, to the right of Kyle, is Mercedes Dittrich. Mercedes is going to be a sophomore at South Dakota State University this fall, and is doing a shared internship with both MaxYield’s SciMax program and Premiere Crop.

Next to me, ground left, is Emily Schwaller. Emily also goes to SDSU and is a MaxYield 101 Intern, which means she gets involved in a little bit of everything MaxYield has to offer.

Finally, to the right of me (ground, far right), is Josh Bringleson. Josh will be a senior at Iowa State University and is a Seed/Technology Sales Intern.

Back to the “facility tours” –

Global Ethanol

At Global Ethanol we received an amazingly thorough tour of how an ethanol plant works – from where the grain goes in and ever step it takes to not only be turned into ethanol and loaded into a truck or rail tank, but also the other products which are a result of the process such as Distillers Dried Grains with Solubles (DDGS). At times it was loud and difficult to hear everything our tour guide was saying, but needless to say even if I heard everything, I would need to wipe to cobwebs of my chemistry book to fully understand the entire process. Fortunately, Global Ethanol’s Website explains how ethanol is made so I don’t need to get into the details. With that said, it was a very interesting tour. This particular plant has been running since November 2002 and operates every minute of every day of the year; of course there are shut downs due to unforeseen problems from time to time.

At the plant there is also a MaxYield office which deals with all the trucks coming into and out of the plant as well as all grain operations.


They aren’t green, but if you’ve ever had a love for agricultural equipment, you would enjoy a trip to AGCO. The AGCO Jackson Operations location has built numerous agricultural equipment, and mostly focuses on Terra Gators and CAT Challenger tractors. On our visit the main plant manufacturing facility assembly line, which builds equipment like the Terra Gator, was shut down for reorganization and improvement. There were still many employees in the welding and fabrication departments working diligently, but nothing was heading down the main production line. We received a tour through the entire main plant facility, viewing everything from where leaks are checked for using antifreeze at the end of assembly, to human and robotic welding, where raw materials are cut by lasers and where parts are clean, primed and painted.

Across an outdoor storage area is the Challenger Assembly building. This is where the “most powerful mass produced tractor in the world” is produced. This assembly building contains two assembly lines where the tractor itself, as it heads down the line starts at one end, takes a 180° turn, and is finished when it gets back next to where it started. After each tractor is checked over the make sure all components run correctly there is an onsite outdoor track and indoor test area so each unit can be quality tested.

The Challenger holds the world record for acres planted by planting 1,413 acres of spring barely in one 24-hour period.


North Eastern Branch Meeting–Grass, a Solution to the World?


Our beautiful world is confronted with unprecedented challenges: energy shortages, water contamination, food crisis, soil erosion, global warming…you name it. Anyone of those, if not addressed properly, would lead to very dire consequence for human beings. Changing mindset and discovering new technologies to solve the problem would always be a good idea, the archetypical example of this is our effort to find new genes for higher yield, better water usage and disease resistance. The other side of the coin is to optimize the way we manipulate the tools that are already in our hands. In this year’s North Eastern Branch Meeting of SSSA, CSSA and ASA (Soil Science Society of America, Crop Science Society of America and Agronomy Society of America), researchers cast their vision to a broader usage of grass—not just the lawn in your home yard.

Good agriculture will not be achieved by single approach, integrated solutions are always preferred, just like eco-balance can not depend solely on animal or plants, and you have to take all players into account. Grass is like a service facilitator, a linkage that can help generate integrated approach to the problems we face. Farmers using cover crops, such as red clovers, generally find their nitrogen leaching problem during the winter time is mitigated dramatically; crops ploughed down in spring may help them save precious dollars on fertilizers. Ground water quality, due to less contamination from nitrate, becomes more usable. In the meantime, water above ground is better managed by cover crop since they can no longer carry away nutrient rich topsoil.

You may wonder what people are doing with grass for generating energy when the petroleum price has fallen back to $2.7 per gallon. Well, many experts have predicted that our peak oil production worldwide have passed in 2008, a heavy oil dependent energy in the future is definitely non-sustainable. The current relatively low fuel price comes from the world financial meltdown, whose plummeting demand makes the price tag more appealing to the public. Grass, a very efficient energy collector, is favored by the industry. Not only having a higher energy production ratio (energy contained in the final product versus energy consumed in the production process) compared with corn based alcohol, they also can be grown on marginal land which is not suitable for food crops. Focusing on a grass-oriented livestock feeding system, will also mean less competition for food with human and better animal health.

However, grass is not the silver bullet, as pointed out by many professors; its relative importance should not be exaggerated. One of the concerns that I had after the meeting was that grass could be apotheosized after corn as the panacea for energy shortage, attracting unproportional and undeserved amount of social economic resource into it. A possible result might be that more arable land is converted to produce grass-based energy and food supply goes down correspondingly. Something too much is not good as well.

Pounding posts…

So my job hasn’t been all fun and games this summer … I’ve spent my fair share of time putting up seed signs; the worst part – pounding the posts into the ground. Seed signs are simply a plastic sign which displays the brand of seed and also lists the particular hybrid planted. We put these signs up in our “knowledge plots,” some of our small seed plots, as well as along client’s fields which neighbor a blacktop road. In our seed plots it is a simple way to compare varieties when we give plot tours. It is interesting to see, even from the road when you drive by, the variations in growth stage and color between varieties. When we sign a client’s field on a blacktop road we add a small MaxYield sign below the seed sign to let those driving by know that this particular field belongs to a MaxYield client. It’s also a nice way to get the MaxYield name out for people to see.

 I have spent a few days this summer putting in 100+ signs and posts each day. On Thursday last week, with the help of a few others, we put up almost 180 signs in a Croplan Answer Plot (which is what you see in the pictures below). Croplan has Answer Plots located all throughout the United States. Iowa has more of these plots than any other state and because we have offered a site within our territory we help maintain it and have an opportunity to take our clients out to it at any time.

Of course, on the brightside – I’m sure my basketball coaches would be happy to know I’m not just sitting at a desk all day munching on potato chips!


Potash matters—Wars of the Titans!

Potassium, along with nitrogen and phosphorus, constitutes the three most essential nutrients for crops. For alfalfa, a predominant legume forage crop for the dairy industry, sufficient potassium in the cell plasm means smooth and effective sugar transportation to all parts of the plant during the harsh winter. Potassium is supplied through potash, its fertilizer form. The origin comes from the burning residue of plant tissue or ash. Though fertilizer prices are generally influenced by energy prices, and the latter has dropped sharply since the outbreak of financial crisis worldwide, the current crude oil price has steadied at about $60 per barrel. This trend of the potash price hike seems irreversible. Within a couple of years, one ton of potash has risen from around $300 to a current price of $900! Without doing careful price forecasting and farm financial management, dairy farmers may face a dire scenario.

My internship research project this summer is to evaluate the current three widely used potassium management recommendation systems and compare their relative effectiveness; generating a feasible solution for alfalfa growers.

The three approaches currently used are:

1) Soil test

Take several soil samples cores from the field of interest and submit them to the soil nutrient laboratory (Cornell Nutrient Analysis Laboratory, or CNAL) for chemical analysis. The result tells how much potassium, expressed in concentration, like parts per million (ppm) or pounds per acre.

2) Potassium saturation (K%)

This also requires doing the same soil chemical analysis, but the focus is on the K’s relative level, in other words, K’s amount versus the summation of potassium, calcium, and magnesium—other major soil cations.

3) Crop removal

This soil test is free! You do not have to do any soil test to calculate your potash needs. Based on the previous harvest, let’s say 5 tons/acre, use the general rule of thumb of one ton of alfalfa can absorb 0.2 ton of potassium. Then you know you need to put 1 ton of K to replenish the loss, right?

Those three approaches all have very long history and are deeply entrenched in our recommendation systems. Cornell has been long dedicated to the first method, generating the Cornell Recommendation every year, which is distributed to farmers for free. This soil test and field trial proves that soil tests work well. The second method, proposed by a group of prominent soil scientists in the 1940s, says that an ideal soil, should have x% of Ca, y% of Mg and z% of K, and of course, xyz may vary a little bit based on years of modifications. The last one, intuitively the most practical one, is believed to be the most useful tool.

Different soil labs and soil consulting businesses may choose different approaches, which makes the whole system pretty chaotic. Basically, if you want to raise your soil’s K% to 5%, as recommended by some consulting firms, the cost will be astronomical (most of the fields here our area is around 2%)! Is it worth it? Maybe, but you also risk ending up with no extra benefit in yield after applying those expensive fertilizers. What about crop removal? Soil will supply some K, but water will carry some away, so you never know. I do hope that we can have some answers by the end of this summer.

Corn is Short for Cornell!

For the past two months I’ve been interning for the Nelson Lab in the Plant Pathology Department at Cornell. Our main objective as a lab is to understand the genetic basis of disease resistance in maize, with goals to reduce losses by breeding genetic resistance into maize. Our lab is only one of many with these same objectives and we collaborate with many others around the US and the World.

My job as an intern has required a very steep learning curve. I knew very little of genetics despite having taken Plant Genetics here at Cornell. No class can ever prepare you for the real thing. I was immediately thrown into PCR’s, Gels, and DNA extractions. The lab members were super cooperative and very willing to teach me how to perform these jobs in an efficient manner.

One of the greatest aspects about interning for the Nelson Lab is the involvement. By the end of the summer I will have been exposed to every aspect of running a research trial. We began by shelling the corn, bagging it, packing it, labeling it, bar-coding it, taking inventory, storing it, repacking it, planting it, and growing the corn.

Now that the corn is really taking off we have begun inoculating much of it with Northern Corn Leaf Blight, or Exserohilum turcicum. NLB is our primary focus this year and as an intern I have had the privilege of working with one of the Pathologists in the lab to culture over 400 Petri plates for our spore suspension and over 85 gallon jugs of sorghum inoculum.

The past two weeks have been occupied by stooping over 9 acres of little corn plants pipetting spore suspension and placing sorghum kernels covered in spores into the whorls. It may seem a tedious job, but we must infect the corn plants to quantify the resistance within the different varieties of corn. After only a few days we have already noticed flecking, which are the beginning of lesions, in the more susceptible lines. Soon we should notice a more drastic spread and true lesions developing.

Renewable Energy Field Days!

The field days I wrote about are finally scheduled! When I posted about the process before I wasn’t sure how long it would take. It turned into one of those situations in which you work and work and work and think you’re making no progress, but one day, without warning, you find yourself with your goal in hand! Our networking efforts produced some great results: three of the field days are co-sponsored. Sincere thanks are due to Richard Gast of Franklin County Cooperative Extension, Molly Ames of Jefferson County CCE, and Dick Winnett of the Finger Lakes Resource Conservation & Development Council. Richard and Molly are members of the Small Farms Energy Work Team.

There are four field days scheduled. See the Small Farms Program website for more information.

The current challenge is publicizing the field days. Violet realized that our press list was last updated three years ago, so she’s asked me to make sure that the contacts are current and to expand the list. While working on that project, I’ve brainstormed some other ideas for getting the word out. My favorites: posting fliers at county fairs, asking farmers’ market managers to tell their vendors, and listing the field days on the Ithaca Journal events calendar. Publicity has already gone out through the newsletters of several organizations and people are starting to sign up!


WHERE AM I?? Oh ya  Iowa.  

MaxYield Plot Tours – Round 1

Each season MaxYield has numerous seed plots located throughout their trade region. Many are simply trials of different hybrids planted in different farmer’s fields that are willing to help, but we also have two large “Knowledge Plots.” These plots include many different trials for both corn and soybeans including plant population trials, yield trials for different hybrids for corn on corn and soybean on corn stalks, as well as many different management strategies done by the SciMax Solutions team. SciMax uses the newest scientific principles to maximize the return on investment for the farmer. This mainly focuses on precision ag innovations and using them to maximize the pool of information farmers have like yield data, soil grid sampling and variety placement data. They provide solutions such as variable rate planting, foliar applications of nutrients (92% of MaxYield’s tissue tests show deficient levels of zinc!), soil sampling and nitrogen management.

Three different times during the growing season we have plot tours, where supper is provided and our solutions specialists walk growers through the field highlighting topics that seem most important so far in the year, and what each farmer should be looking for in his or her own fields.

We have already had one tour for both of the large plots this season and have seen some interesting stuff.

As I mentioned before 92% of our tissue tests show deficient levels of zinc in our early corn plants, boron is actually our most deficient nutrient, which is inadequate in 95% of our tests! Knowing when these micronutrients are needed by the plant is most important.

Croplan has already decided that next season all of their corn seed is going to be treated with zinc; you will not be able to get untreated corn. Zinc is important early in plant growth and we have been seeing difference in our fields between our non-treated and zinc-treated varieties. The picture below isn’t the best quality, but both hybrids are Croplan 4801VT3, on the left (to the left of the sign and the four rows on the right of it, up to the red line) is the non-treated corn and the zinc-treated corn is on the right (from the verticle red line to the far right). We can see an noticeable height difference, which we have been seeing throughout the lifecycle so far, just because there was simply a little bit of zinc next to the seed when it started to grow. From previous Answer Plots Croplan has seen a 7-11 bushel increase in yield due to zinc treatment, this boost is why they decided it was a “no-brainer” to treat all of their seed with zinc.

Of course this is just one of many, many topics discussed at our knowledge plots, I thought I’d spare you the information on corn nematode or soybean aphids! 🙂  For more on Croplan’s zinc coating visit: ADVANCE COATING ZINC ADDING VALUE TO CROPLAN GENETICS® SEED CORN IN 2009.

Welcome to Your Small Farm

The 2009 4-H Career Explorations were held here on campus from June 30 through July 2. Violet and I were asked to lead one of the focus groups, called Exploring the Small Farm Dream. On Wednesday, we visited Dilmun Hill (Cornell’s student-run farm), Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese, and Reisinger’s Apple Country. One group of teens recorded a video of the field trip. The highlight (of course) was getting the vans stuck in the mud.


Syngenta spends a bit more than two million dollars a day on research.  So what are they researching?  I work in the crop protection side of everything, so I will talk about that.  Syngenta Crop Protection has a product or products for pretty much all major crops.  Here is a little rundown of what we are working on this year: corn, soybeans, cabbage, tomatoes, potatoes, watermelons, squash, pumpkins, onions, carrots, turfgrass, crabapples, lilacs, cyclomen, asters, boxwood, phlox, pansies, and marigolds.  Some of this research involves the development of new chemicals or reformulations of existing registered chemicals.  Some trials are testing the safety of existing chemicals on new crops and others test adjuvants.  Sygenta is unique because the majority of its trials are conducted “in-house,” by Syngenta scientists.  Most other companies contract their work out to private researchers.  So if you are thinking about research, and you are looking to make some money, look into agricultural chemical research.

Skip to toolbar