Learning by doing is a key to success — and enjoyment — for Dan Miller.
For 205 days a year, Miller is a mild-mannered farm management instructor at a local community college. He coaches farm families on everything from business planning to crop and livestock production.
During evenings, and for the rest of the year, he concentrates on his 600-acre farm near Spring Valley, MN, raising hay and grazing dairy heifers and beef cattle. More than that, this dad of six children also puts on a yearly program that growers and producers travel from other states to attend.
Last year, Miller hosted a full-day field event filled with speakers, field demonstrations, a tasty lunch and solid information on animal identification, biotech and grazing varieties, among other subjects.
A committee of dedicated individuals and entities, such as the Midwest Forage Association, local extension service and the University of Minnesota, helped organize the event. But Miller was obviously the focal point, introducing speakers, discussing grazing trial research done on his farm and talking about equipment.
By the end of the day, Miller was bushed. “Why,” he was asked, “do you go to so much trouble?”
“I like practical things, and then I'm always looking for feedback and ideas on different ways of doing things,” he says.
“The biggest thing is, I learn. I learn from speakers and presenters at the field day. And I learn things from the on-farm research. And if I can learn things at a relatively low cost, that's really good.”
Miller, who has also been an extension agent, sees that being an instructor and farmer is a good combination. “I am more effective at work because I know on a firsthand basis what's happening (in farming). And some of the skill I know from being a farm management instructor I utilize on my farm.”
He also doubly utilizes much of the knowledge gained from hosting his field days, whether they're the three-hour evening event he started with 10 years ago or the full-blown day affair of last summer.
To financially support his yearning to learn, Miller has received several “practical” research grants. Hosting field days to disseminate his results was a major component of those grants, he says.
The first study, done in the late 1990s, was a sustainable research demonstration grant from the state ag department. It looked at various grass and legume species for grazing and helped Miller decide what would work on a larger scale on his — or neighbors' — acreage. Another research project told him that there was little response to applying potassium to grass-legume blends on his land.
“When we started in 1996, I just thought it would be an interesting exchange of ideas,” he says of his first field day event. But one research project led to another — and more field days to explain results.
Several years ago, he studied the per-acre return on corn, soybeans and hay as well as on livestock. “We found the return to land and management for corn in Minnesota, for that three- to five-year stretch, was $140/acre. The return to soybeans was almost identical. The return to hay was $200/acre and the return to a dairy-heifer-growing operation, utilizing rotational or controlled grazing, was about $250/acre.
“So we graze more and raise more hay and less corn. Right now, out of about 600 acres, every bit of it but 40 acres this last year was seeded down to hay or grazing. Now with this corn bull market, maybe that's not so good. I'm watching and looking every day at futures.”
A current experiment with hard-to-establish kura clover was examined at the 2006 field day. The plot had been sprayed with various rates of glyphosate to suppress existing pasture. Then kura seed was no-till drilled into sod the spring of 2005. “This year it will be more obvious; you won't have to hunt for plants,” he says.
Miller spends time lining up speakers; he and his committee come up with a theme and work to fit other subjects in. He also contacts companies to do field demonstrations and believes in seeing equipment work. He bought an inline wrapper for making baleage after viewing one at one of his field days.
Some years he foots part of the field day's expenses; other years he finds sponsors. “I get money wherever I can,” he says. Last summer's lunch was paid for by the University of Minnesota through its animal identification program. The year before that, the local college was a sponsor.
Grant money also helps pay field day costs. He at times gets free seed for test plots, too. “The research, demonstrations and field days aren't moneymakers for me; they don't cost me much of anything except for time. But it's worth it. I enjoy it.”
To learn when Miller's next field day will be, check the Midwest Forage Association Web site this spring at www.midwestforage.org.