I gave Mark two choices: spring break or graduation. We were going to Florida one way or another to visit Michael. He has been at the University of Florida for the past two years and was set to graduate this spring. We had not made the trip to visit him yet and time was running out. Mark chose graduation. I reminded him that it was the first weekend in May – the head of corn planting season for us. He stood his ground and re-affirmed his choice of graduation despite the date. I clicked confirm on the airline tickets, and we were booked to fly into Florida May 1 and return May 5. I marked the dates on the calendar and flipped it back to the reality of winter in January.
    It turned out to be a good decision not to travel for spring break. Michael was buried in research and writing his dissertation. We were plunged in the deep freeze and buried by record snowfalls. We were all putting in long days trying to complete our projects to make it to graduation day.
    As the reality of our trip came closer, Mark started to question his timing. If we are gone, who was going to plant the corn? This has been Mark’s sole responsibility for the last 45 years. One spring, his dad decided it was time for someone else to run the planter, so Mark climbed on the tractor and headed out to the back field by himself to start planting. He wanted to make sure he had the hang of it by the time he was planting the fields next to the road for the neighbors to see. By trial and error, adjustments here and there, Mark started to figure out how to plant corn. He had no fancy monitors to alert him of when he ran out of fertilizer or seeds. He was climbing off the tractor every couple of rounds to check on the planting depth and population. He learned and survived his first planting season. There was enough feed for the animals that year, and he inherited a new responsibility.
    It looked like Austin was going to have to be ready to start planting for Mark this year, and that was OK. Or, was it? Was Mark ready to give up the reins on running the planter? As our departure date drew closer, weather forecasts were watched closely. It looked like it was going to be a late planting season. The ground was still too cold and wet to start before we left, but maybe by Saturday Austin could head to the fields. Mark and Austin worked on getting the planter ready to go. Mark wanted to take Austin and the planter out for a quick run to explain how the monitors worked, how to find the right speed and other words of experience, but the lessons would have to wait until we returned.
    Florida in early May is great. The snowbirds had migrated back north, and the college kids were back in classes. The sweltering humidity of summer was still a month away. It was a perfect 90 degrees and sunny, especially after a long and cold winter. We enjoyed tooling around the gulf coast and strolling along the beach on Honeymoon Island even though we were far from honeymooners.
    A Schmitt family trip is not complete without a trip to a dairy farm. Michael arranged for us to tour North Florida Holsteins where they milk 7,000 registered Holsteins. We picked the brains of the owner, Don, and his farm manager, JC, about sire selections, genomics, herd health and calf care. It was fascinating how Don moved his herd of 125 cows from the New York/Pennsylvania area in the early 80’s and grew to be one of the largest herds in Florida. We learned about experiments they are working on with calf raising and breeding protocols.
    Most of their freestall barns are open sided with massive fans and sprayers used to keep the cattle cool during the hot, humid days. The newest freestall barn is a tunnel ventilation system with closed sides. They feel they will be better able to control cow comfort in this type of system. Five hours of learning were never so much fun.
    Of course, the highlight of our trip was watching Michael walk across the stage to receive his Master’s Degree in Dairy Science, Genomics and Economic Analysis. He did his research on genetic traits and the economic impact or return on investment. It is way over my head, but I get the jest of it. With his scientific analysis of breeding and his father’s art of breeding, we demonstrate the big bang theory of art and science unraveling the mystery of how to breed good dairy cattle, and their discussions can sometimes end up in a big bang.
    Al and Austin held down the fort and things were running smoothly. Austin was keeping Mark posted on how things were going with daily reports.
    On Sunday morning, just as we were wrapping up our visit to Florida, Austin sent Mark a text saying he had started planting corn. When we had left for this trip, Mark was comfortable with the idea of Austin planting, but now that he had started on his own, Mark was concerned. There were many decisions yet to be made. What fields to plant first, what varieties and at what populations? They had not talked about any of these things. There were so many things Austin did not know when he climbed up on that planter to start putting the crop in the ground. It was almost history repeating itself.
    I reminded Mark that Austin could not plant that many acres between milkings to cause too many problems. If the corn was in the ground, it would come up, and there would be feed for the cows, which is the whole purpose of growing our crops. It would be OK. He knew that was true. He and the farm survived when he started planting corn, too. But, he sure wished they had discussed and developed a game plan before Austin headed out to the fields.
    The next morning during milking, Austin let his dad in on a little secret. Yes, he had started planting corn, but he only put a few kernels in the ground by hand just to say he started planting corn. Mark was relieved. There was still time to have those discussions and make those final plans. Time still to share his observations and little knacks of getting the crop off to a good start. Mark put in the corn crop and turned the reins over to Austin to put in the soybeans. Step by step.
    We were able to finish planting our crops by May 18, but I think we may be one of the few. As soon as they parked the planter, the rains and cold temperatures returned. Now, we wait to see how the crop will emerge. I am in Illinois for a long overdue family visit and high school graduations. Flying over Iowa and driving the back roads of home, I see very few fields worked. Some corn was planted back in April. Those fields are stitched with faint green rows, but the corn is struggling to grow. There has been so much rain between here and home that there will be many new lessons learned this planting season regardless of who is in the planter. Be safe out there.
    Natalie, Mark and his brother Al, farm together near Rice, Minn. They milk 100 registered Holsteins under the RALMA prefix. Their four children are grown up and all involved in agriculture with hopes of someone returning to the farm. For questions or comments, please e-mail Natalie at mnschmitt@jetup.net.