Lost In His Work
A Nebraska producer continues to adapt his crops and methods to his land and markets, and in the process is reminded how much he still loves farming.
By Tharran E. Gaines | Photos By John Peterson
As both a farmer and a partner in his family’s manufacturing company, Robin Olson wears a lot of different hats. On any given day, he may be an electrical engineer, agronomist, machine designer, market analyst or plant manager. Fortunately for Olson, all things work together to give him an advantage few other producers share.
In addition to farming around 2,600 acres north of Atkinson, Nebraska, with his son Joseph, Olson and his three brothers own and operate Olson Industries, an Atkinson-based business that was started by their father, Ted Olson Sr., in the 1960s. The company’s first product was a center pivot irrigation system, a newer version of which is still built today. In addition, the diversified company, which has about 50 employees, builds and markets airport lighting, trash containers in a wide range of types and sizes, and galvanized steel utility poles. They also do custom manufacturing, which has worked to Robin’s advantage in the design and modification of his own tillage and planting equipment.
“Farming, for me, is a release from the manufacturing business,” he admits. “As a child, I grew up on a farm about 40 miles northeast of here before our family moved to a farm [closer to] Atkinson. So, it’s something I still enjoy. Since my brothers and I are all farmers with mechanical backgrounds, it also helps us see the ag manufacturing business from our customers’ viewpoint.”
Ridges and a Root Slicer
Each spring, Olson says he starts his cropping program, which currently includes corn, soybeans and popcorn, by using a root slicer to remove the corn rootballs leftover from the previous year’s crop. The 24-row machine basically consists of a custom-built toolbar equipped with commercially available root slicer units. Each row unit includes two discs that come together in a “V” to slice through the root crown and lift and remove the rootballs at speeds up to 12 mph. As a rule, popcorn follows soybeans for a year and then the field is planted to field corn for two years before it goes back to soybeans.
“You want popcorn to be clean, which is why we put it behind soybeans,” Olson says, noting that the crop accounts for anywhere from 130 to 520 acres annually. “Popcorn takes more management, but one of the reasons we started planting it in the first place is because the smaller seed, which also has more value per pound, takes a lot less bin space. It used to be that it was also contracted at a fixed price, which meant that I already had 20% or so of my crop marketed and all I had to do was worry about raising a good crop. “When it comes to field corn, though, I’m actually planting on the top of a ridge that I made the previous year with a cultivator of my own design,” he explains. “There are several reasons I like to plant on top of the old row. First, I put the fertilizer on the same part of the ridge each year, so it’s in a zone where each successive corn crop can use any carryover. After I’ve gone through with the root slicer, the soil is also really mellow, which means the planter row units don’t bounce up and down at all.
“Finally,” adds Olson, “the mellow soil on top of the ridges tends to warm up quickly for faster, more even emergence. Plus, there’s usually enough reserve moisture in the ridges to save one or two passes with the irrigation pivots.”
Planting, Fertilization and Guidance
For the planting operation itself, Olson relies on a 24-row White Planters™ Model 9824 that he modified for his specific needs. In addition to equipping it with implement guidance to supplement the tractor’s Auto-Guide™ system on slopes, Olson designed a fertilizer delivery system that places dry fertilizer 2 inches deep and 2 inches to the side of the seed furrow.
“I had to make a manifold that could accommodate the White Planter’s forward-folding planter frame,” he says. “I also had to design a fertilizer distribution system for each wing of the planter, along with stainless-steel piping to get fertilizer down to the rows,” adds Olson, while explaining that the fertilizer supply is pulled behind the planter in a Montag Manufacturing 9-ton fertilizer hopper on an autosteer cart.
Cultivation with Wands
A few weeks after corn plants emerge, Olson uses a cultivator of his own design to control weeds, while throwing soil up to rebuild the ridges for the following season. While the cultivator uses commercially available row units, Olson designed the folding bar and outfitted the system with its own guidance unit. In this case, it uses crop wands that sense the plant rows through contact with the developing stalks, which, in turn, actuates the guidance system to keep the cultivator between the rows.
“We’re still using the tractor’s guidance system to follow the furrow,” he says, “but this just provides an extra layer of protection in case the planter drifted downhill a little bit on the slopes.”
In the meantime, all additional nitrogen required by the crop after planting is applied through the center pivots—most of which were built in the Olsons’ Atkinson factory. “Due to our sandy soil, you can’t put on much more nitrogen than the plant can use within a few weeks,” he says. “So, we’ll put on three to four applications of nitrogen through the pivots, starting at the two- to three-leaf stage.”
Thanks to his unique cropping program, Olson has seen corn yields steadily increase to a point where the average annual yield is between 230 to 240 bushels per acre. However, this past year, he saw his best yields ever at 260 bushels per acre.
Olson isn’t one to quit looking for new techniques or opportunities, though. This past fall, he put in his first cover crop behind soybeans to protect against wind erosion over the winter. It certainly can’t hurt, he reasons, and it might just benefit the popcorn that’s due to follow.