It’s just a red hoop. It’s exactly 28.25 inches in diameter, but it collapses into a ring roughly the same size as a dinner plate. Most agronomists and crop scouts have something like it in their vehicles. And every farmer should, as well.

The hoop is a device used to measure plant stand. And when it’s used correctly, it yields data from which large-scale farm decisions could be made.

The value and complexity of information it provides belies the fact that using it is as simple as standing at a random point in any field, tossing it into the air, counting the plants inside its radius and inserting that number into a fairly straightforward calculation: for the hoop in front of me, I’d multiply the number of plants inside the hoop by 10,000 to get a plant stand/acre count.

There are more than one million soybean plants growing on the small, 15-acre field east of our house, each one of those plants is about six inches tall and each one of them is actively converting last night’s rain, today’s sun and the nutrients in the soil into the development of proteins for a market that, hopefully, will remain hungry for them.

These plants are at a crucial stage right now. They are growing because conditions are ripe. But these same conditions apply to disease and pests and weeds, as well. They are a few months away from being market-ready. There are a multitude of things to watch and hope for between now and a paycheque.                                                     

Assessing my plant stand at multiple locations in a field will tell me if I hit my seeds-per-acre target. It will give me a sense of my seed mortality rate (seed mortality is common), and force me to contemplate possible reasons for the loss, if there is any. Seed quality could be a factor. Cracked seeds due to the kinds of planting equipment used could be another. Weather and soil conditions, too. The possible causes and the various combinations of those possible causes leave a lot to consider.

Tossing the hoop on my land forces me to connect dots that could benefit my farm.

This is the time of year for the distribution of information. Crop scientists and farmers are driving down rural roads the country over to look at fields, scouting for disease, trends, drowning, drought, hail damage, anything that stands out, really.

The amount and kind of information available to me as a farmer is only limited by my capacity to access it.

In 2012, when my wife and I moved back to the farm, I pitched a column to Grainews, a national agriculture-based newspaper. The premise was simple: I, a person in his then early 30s, would be learning the mechanics of running his family farm after having been away from it for about 15 years.

The column ran — and is still running — and it works because I’m the scapegoat through which seasoned farmers can find answers to questions they feel too ashamed to ask at the coffee shop.

While assessing plant stands and scouting for certain kinds of diseases may seem obvious or pedestrian to some, for others the simple act of doing or thinking something new could open doors and change the course of an entire operation.

As farmers, we are the implementers of the information and science available to us. It’s important to our farms, the markets they operate in, and the agriculture industry as a whole that we remain fresh, informed and aware. There are just a few of us on the farm. If we don’t want to learn, no one will tell us otherwise.