Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Corn in the backyard, 2016 -- week 1

May 1

The ground had warmed enough by the middle of April this year that many of the farmers in our area took advantage of the dry weather and planted their corn.  Farmer Wagenbach was included in that wave, and I not only witnessed his planting in the field behind our house, but I had a chance to chat with him a bit and ride along in the tractor on April 19 (more details on that in a future post).

I first noticed the plants emerging on April 29, so our first Sunday corn photo of the year was taken two days later. The plants were easier to see with the naked eye than they appear in the top photo, and the bottom photo illustrates why: they're only an inch tall so far!

After the seed went into the ground, we received a little less than twice as many growing degree days compared to an average year, so even though it has been cool since the plants have emerged, they had a warm bed in which to germinate. We'll try to keep a close eye on the crop again this year, and I''m sure we'll be amazed again at the wonder of plant growth.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Enbridge Flanagan South Pipeline Project, Part 2

A while back, I promised more photos and video of the pipeline project that visited our area in the fall of 2013. The Enbridge Flanagan South Project included about 600 miles of 36-inch diameter pipe intended to carry about 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day. After realizing what the project involved, I watched carefully each day so that I might witness the process of laying the pipe in the ground. Even though I've worked for Caterpillar for over 20 years, I had never witnessed the pipelaying process, and since it was available for viewing only a few miles from our house, I jumped at the chance.

This first video shows three of the four Caterpillar pipelayers on the job, and a couple of support machines that performed interesting, and very specialized jobs. The first hydraulic excavator visible, sandwiched between a couple of pipelayers, seems to be primarily occupied with moving the wooden piles that support the sections of pipe before they are lowered into the trench. As the pipelayers lift the pipe, the supporting piles of skids become unnecessary and are moved closer to the trench so the following pipelayers can more easily work around them. At the end of the video you can see another machine designed to gather the wood used in the piles and organize it for future use. That machine is featured more prominently in the fifth video.

This second video shows all four pipelayers working a little further down that same line with the support machines accompanying them as before.

In this third video, the pipelayers have moved on to a new section of pipe, so one can see how they slide their slings under the free end of the pipe and slowly move it horizontally closer to the trench where it will ultimately rest following the fourth pipelayer. Notice the excavator "cut in line" to situate itself between the second and third pipelayer.

The fourth video features the first two pipelayers most prominently as they lift this section of pipe off the skid piles and gradually swing it toward the trench. The excavator behind the second pipelayer can be witnessed clearing the path for the last two pipelayers, which are successfully bringing the pipe to rest in the trench.

The fifth video picks up where the last one left off affording us a better view of the last two pipelayers and the utility machine that follows them. Even though it's not manufactured by Caterpillar (nor do we make anything like this machine), it intrigued me for the many actions it performed in carrying out the single task of picking up the wood skids and organizing them. The Pisony SkidPro picks the skids off the ground, arranges them in neat stacks, and wraps steel bands around the whole bundle. The machine can carry several bundles before they must be unloaded, and although I didn't witness it, the grapple is then used to lift the bundles from the SkidPro and load them on a truck for transport to the next section of pipeline.

Since the pipeline has been operational well over a year now, it's amazing to think literally millions of barrels of oil have traveled through this pipeline in our neighborhood. Most of the clues of the pipeline's presence have vanished, while the benefits of improved oil movement from Illinois to Oklahoma continue to be felt in the oil industry around the world.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Images from Europe: Gimmelwald, Switzerland

We've read the story "Heidi" frequently enough to think the Swiss Alps sound like the most delightful place in the world.  Since our European vacation brought us within a few hours of the Alps, we planned to spend a few days in the mountains experiencing for ourselves what we've only experienced vicariously before.

Our short stay was centered around Gimmelwald, a town of about a hundred people over 1400 feet above the Lauterbrunnen Valley.  That elevation is significant in that it's impractical (impossible?) to reach Gimmelwald by car. The aerial tramway from Stechelberg to Gimmelwald is the easiest way to get there, and the picture below shows the Stechelberg Station in the valley a few minutes before we reached Gimmelwald.
As you can tell, the weather was wonderful on our arrival day, and we were quite impressed by the cliffs, peaks, waterfalls, and even the cable car!

We stayed at the Hotel Mittaghorn which is small and spartan, but oozing with charm and fantastic views.  Our room on the second floor had a little balcony from which we could look out over the Lauterbrunnen Valley to the Jungfrau, Monch, and Eiger peaks to the east.  I've been in the Colorado Rockies plenty of times, but the view from the hotel was bigger than anything I'd ever seen before. The mountains across the valley were too big to be observed in one view, and felt like they were just at the end of your fingers while in another world at the same time!

This picture was taken during one of our afternoon hikes around the mountain. This is not exactly what I envision when I read "Heidi," but it's pretty close.

This area came recommended by a cousin who has vacationed here, and by Rick Steves who wrote this flattering description of the area, which only strengthened our desire to experience the area for ourselves.

This image is probably my favorite.  Karen and Lily are in the foreground descending from a vantage point three hundred feet above the village of Murren (in the middle distance). This shot partially illustrates what impressed me most about these mountains: they're big, and they're right in front of your face! The Rockies and Tetons are impressive in a "majestically off there in the distance" sort of way, but the Alps are right there leaning over your shoulder! I'd be remiss if I didn't draw your attention to the abundance of vegetation in the Alps. We like green, growing things, especially when we're on vacation. We aren't big fans of any desert, and placing a mountain in the middle of one does little to attract us to either feature.

Murren was a comfortable walk from our hotel, and attracts more tourists than Gimmelwald. Even so, we still found it to be a pleasant village with wonderful views, delicious food, and enough souvenirs to satisfy our need. From Murren one can ride the cable car several thousand feet higher to the Piz Gloria restaurant at the peak of the Schilthorn. We didn't make that trip as the lower elevations proved more than satisfactory in whetting our appetites for the Alps.

We've only seen a small part of Switzerland, but we love what we've seen.

Friday, April 15, 2016

First mowing of 2016

A mild winter and warmer than average March caused the grass to green up early in our yard, but since April has been considerably cooler than average, we were able to delay the first mowing until April 13.  As usual, the back yard was probably too long, while the front yard was barely long enough to reach the mower blades.  Historically, the date this year was on the early side of the median, although almost 3 weeks later than the earliest.  Which got me thinking, "I wonder what determines how fast the grass grows in the spring?"  I don't have good data for rainfall in our yard, but since I do have approximate temperature data, I thought growing degree days might be worth investigating. Growing degree days (GDD) are calculated by the number of degrees Fahrenheit the mean daily temperature exceeds 50°F.  So a day in which the mean temperature is 56°F would produce 6 GDD.

In this chart, the green bars represent the first mowing date for each year, while the red line marks the cumulative GDD up until the day I mowed.  Initially I thought the number of GDD might be constant across the data set, implying that the grass is ready to be cut once it has received the right amount of warm weather.  Since an earlier date would probably require more GDD than a later date, it seemed the date and GDD were probably inversely related, hence the degree day data are inverted on the chart.  Although the correlation isn't horrible, the inconsistency across the data set convinced me something was missing. Maybe rainfall data? Maybe something else?

Does the date data correlate better to Heating Degree Days (HDD)? HDD are similar to GDD except they represent the magnitude of the mean temperature below 65°F.  A warm spring would have fewer HDD and presumably an earlier first mowing, while a cold spring would accumulate more HDD before the first mowing, presumably resulting in a later first mow. As you can see, the correlation is pretty close. The HDD data is limited to the days between February 1 and the mowing day, although when the month of January was also included, the correlation looked very similar. The variation from month to month is still unexplained, for instance, why wasn't mowing required earlier in 2009, 2011, and 2016 as the HDD data would seem to suggest?

Those are questions for another day (or another blogger), and even though I think we can correlate HDD to the first mowing date, I'm at a loss to see a method to predict the first mowing date. I guess that gives me something else to ponder until next spring.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Images from Europe: Colmar, France

Karen and I both have ancestors that lived in or close to the Alsace region of France, so including some time in that region on our vacation seemed a natural thing to do. The fact that the region is charming also influenced our decision. We spent the better part of a day in Strausborg, and several days in Colmar, which is known for its wines, canals, and well preserved old structures.

This was one of the views from our lodgings in Colmar: a quaint, winding, single lane street populated mostly by pedestrians, and one of the canals at the foot of our building barely visible at the bottom of the photo.

It seemed that delightful views like this greeted us around every corner in town, which is best appreciated on foot. Very observant viewers will have already spotted Karen in this photo. Even though she is out of view to the right, one can catch her reflection in the window on the left side of the street.

The canals in Colmar have earned the town the nickname "Little Venice," even though this is one of the few that appeared to be navigable.

This poster for sale in one of the bookstores in town offers proof that the Tour de France visited Colmar in 1949 and pictures dancers in traditional folk costumes of the region.

Finally, this image from our ramblings about town at dusk is one of my favorites, and illustrates the inviting nature of the town, even at night.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Images from Europe: Burg Eltz

We were fortunate to visit many memorable castles during our travels around Europe, and one of our favorites was Burg Eltz. Although it was located in the Mosel River Valley, it was not situated directly on the river like many of its neighbors. Instead, it is perched in a valley upon a 70-meter-tall rock surrounded on three sides by the Eltzbach, a tributary of the Mosel. Nonetheless, it serves as a classic example of medieval architecture, and is striking from many angles.

It's also significant that the castle has remained a possession of the Eltz family for over 850 years, and it was never destroyed. The structure has grown over the years, and once housed three branches of the Eltz family. More details of the castle's history can be found on the official Burg Eltz website, along with many more photos. We toured part of the castle, but were not allowed to take photos inside, so the interior photos on the official website are helpful in appreciating the beauty of the structure.

What you won't find on the official website are my impressions. The image above was taken from the steep path used to shuttle visitors to the castle from the parking area. Most visitors walk down either this steep path, or a more gradual walking path that takes a longer route through the woods before offering its own dramatic view of the castle. There are several inspiring vantage points along the shuttle route, such that one stops every few feet to capture a slightly different perspective of the fortification, convinced that the latest view might be slightly superior to the prior one.

This is one of our views of the courtyard within the castle where we waited for our tour to begin. While waiting, I studied the features of the buildings around us and marveled at the effort, craftsmanship, and expense that went into the construction. I was particularly amazed by the gothic oriel window on the wall in the left side of the photo as I began to contemplate the extra effort and expense necessary to add that feature compared to the simple windows on the opposite side of the courtyard. Look at the decorative stone supports beneath the window, the stone traceries in the windows, the ornate painting under the roof eaves, and the steep pitch and multiple facets of the roof itself. My first thought was, "Someone must have really loved his wife a lot to go to that much trouble to make her happy!"

On the tour, we learned the real reason why this feature was added to the home. The oriel window houses the private chapel connected to the upper hall or bedchamber of this section of the house. Since it was not deemed appropriate to have any part of your home above the chapel, the oriel window allows the chapel to have its own roof which is not covered by any other roof of the castle. Evidently the importance of having a private chapel attached to your personal chambers was worth the effort apparent in this impressive architectural element.

This view is one of the first we had of the castle as we exited the woods on our approach. First impressions are often significant, and this vantage point impressed us all. Little did we know that the structure would continue to impress us on closer examination. Although Burg Eltz is off the beaten path and an effort to find, we recommend it as a castle worth visiting and touring.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Images from Europe: The Mosel River

One of our earliest impressions of Germany was the Mosel River Valley. This scenic river flows from France, along the border between Germany and Luxembourg, and across the western side of Germany until it joins the Rhine River at Koblenz. This image was taken from the Cochem Castle above the city of Cochem, and is typical of the landscape along the 100 miles of river that we covered during our travels. The valley is dotted with quaint villages and majestic castles, but the most prominent feature is the abundance of vineyards on the steep slopes along the bluffs. The region is well known for the quality of its wines, and we found the local Riesling to be especially tasty. Although the region is a popular tourist destination, we found it quiet and relaxing in most of the spots we visited, and we could easily imagine spending more time exploring the towns along the river in more detail.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Corn in the backyard, 2015 -- Harvest?

Few things are monitored as closely on this blog as the crops that grow in the field behind our house, so I was surprised to see harvesting in that field weeks before I expected it. Although the corn was maturing nicely despite an abundance of rain early in the season, no variety I'm aware of would produce kernels that would be mature and dry enough for selling the grain "as is" after less than 16 weeks. Instead, we've been treated to a show unlike any other we've seen in the backyard over the past 8 years -- harvesting for silage!

August 21

What at first glance appears to be a regular combine that separates the grain from the rest of the plant, is a harvester more like a lawn mower than a combine, since the entire plant is cut down, chopped up, and loaded into the wagon traveling next to the harvester. That plant matter, which is still very green and moist, is stored in big plastic bags to be consumed by cattle later this winter. This field is now managed by a family that has several cows to feed, so about two-thirds of the plants were harvested as silage now, while the remainder of the field will wait for a few more weeks to eventually have grain harvested from those plants.

The view to the west on August 22

August 16

Since I hadn't posted photos of the crop on the 15th week, I've included these photos taken the Sunday before the silage harvest. More stalk drying is evident, and the kernels on the ears are peeking out from between the husks on some of the larger ears. The video below was shot after the silage harvest left a few ears untouched, which gave us a chance to examine the kernels up close.

As I noted in the video, these ears indicate the the harvest could be pretty good on the remainder of the field in a few weeks. The second video below gives a better view of how much corn is left in the field.

We'll continue to watch the rest of the corn until harvest, but since the view from the backyard won't change much, don't expect the typical reports. Thanks for visiting!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Corn in the backyard, 2015 -- weeks 12, 13, & 14

July 26

During the week before July 26, we received about 7% more heating degree days than normal, and the ears continued to fill out. Rain, which was plentiful earlier in the season, was more rare this week which probably contributed to the stalk drying evident in the top photo.

August 2

The week before August 2 was warmer yet, registering 210 heating degree days compared to the normal 177, which is almost 19% more. Rain was very spotty around the area, and it appeared that Farmer Wagenbach's field missed any measurable precipitation this week. Stalk drying continued at a normal pace as the ears continued to increase in size.

August 9

We received our first measurable rainfall in over two weeks on August 9 including a steady shower while I was taking these photos. Temperatures continued above normal, recording 187 heating degree days compared to the historical average of 173. Stalk drying is even evident in the close-up photo, as well as husk drying on the ears.

The cloudiness count is up to nine Sunday mornings this season in which the sun didn't cast a shadow during our photo session versus five in which shadows were visible.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Corn in the backyard, 2015 -- weeks 10 & 11

July 12

The tenth week of growth added another 6 inches to the stalk height bringing the average height of most of the corn to about 112 inches. Growing degree days were over 15% below the historical average, but the ears continued to grow while most them had not yet experienced pollination.

We had plenty of rain the week before these pictures were taken, including over two inches in a couple of downpours on Saturday. This image shows that even the stalks in the wettest part of the field are developing ears, and you can see the standing water still present on Sunday morning.

July 19

Although the plants added a few more inches to reach 116 inches tall this week, the real news is now at the ears. Many ears have grown nicely and dark silks were evident on the majority of the plants. Although temperatures were warmer than normal (217 heating degree days compared to the historical average of 182), they were evidently not too hot to deter pollination, nor was the rain too consistent to interfere either. Despite the challenges this growing season has provided, it appears the corn is progressing at a normal pace.

For those keeping score, we've had seven Sunday mornings in which the clouds hid the sun during our photo session, and four sunny sessions.