View From the Cab

Logistics and Labor Pains

Pamela Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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Farmers Reid Thompson of Colfax, Illinois, and Ryan Jenkins, of Jay, Florida, are reporting on crop conditions and agricultural topics throughout the 2020 growing season as part of DTN's View From the Cab series. (Photos courtesy of Reid Thompson and Ryan Jenkins)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- It's all hands on deck for Ryan Jenkins as the crop calendar moves toward harvest. However, the Jay, Florida, farmer is wondering if he might not need a few more hands.

Reid Thompson is feeling similar labor pains. Harvest logistics and finding qualified personnel are the two toughest things his farm faces each year, he maintained.

Jenkins and Thompson are participating in DTN's View From the Cab series, a weekly update on crop conditions and other aspects of rural and farming life. The reports, which began in May, will continue through the crop season.

This week the corn harvest is finally wrapping up in Florida, just as some corn reaches black layer in Illinois and the soybeans get a much-needed shot of rain. Meanwhile, both farmers are double checking equipment this week in anticipation of harvest and in the desire to avoid downtime when things do get rolling.

Read on to learn what challenges they face this fall -- and why, despite some worries about labor on the farm, they were finding reasons to celebrate this past Labor Day.

REID THOMPSON -- COLFAX, ILLINOIS

It rained on Abe Thompson's 4-year-old birthday and his father couldn't think of a better gift. "To celebrate, we played Legos while we watched it rain and it was awesome," said Reid Thompson.

By Tuesday, 3 inches of rain had fallen across Thompson Farms located in McLean and Ford counties in central and east-central Illinois. That's three times the amount recorded in all of August.

Will that rainfall be enough to make a difference? May-planted corn is sitting at one-quarter milk line and rushing toward half, he said. "This rain is gravy for those fields and should help put weight in the ear as it continues to push toward maturity," he said.

It's likely too late to add anything extra to early April-planted corn as it is mostly (with the exception of some replanted, drowned-out spots) at black layer -- the door that closes off flow of nutrients to kernels and signals physiological maturity.

"April corn was pretty much made before dry weather set in," he noted.

Soybeans will be the big winners from the latest gift of rain, he figured. As Thompson reported last week, droughty conditions had left the top third of the soybean plant struggling to fill. Farmers in some parts of Illinois had reported pods aborting one or more seeds to save others within.

"We had some soybean acres near Gibson City that were showing signs of real distress and we likely lost some yield there," Thompson said. "But, about 90% of our soybeans are still green and the cooler temperatures and this rainfall will really help them."

This week the farm crew is working their way to the back of the machine shed -- pulling out and hooking up grain carts. The grease gun is out. Tires are being kicked and checked.

"Basically, we're buttoning up and putting on final touches," he said. When harvest gets rolling, Thompson prefers to run the first few loads across scales to cross check with monitors. "We like to keep calibrated to 1% error or less," he said.

There's a new grain drying system coming online this fall at the farm, so that is both exciting and tedious as they try to keep combines, grain carts and semis all coordinated.

Like many farmers, Thompson finds securing seasonal help to be difficult. "Fortunately, we have an uncle who is willing to help out in the spring and fall and he recently got his CDL (Commerical Driver's License). We've hired a recently retired individual from our church to help run grain carts. We share a truck and a driver with a neighbor who doesn't start harvest quite as early as we do," he said.

The challenge is not bodies as much as finding someone with a CDL who is also willing to do seasonal work. "We're at the point where we could use a third semi, but if we had it, we'd still be down a truck driver.

"Bring on the fully autonomous grain cart," he said. "It can't come too soon."

In corn, for example, Thompson Farms run two grain carts with the driver moving between the two carts and the truck driver loading their own truck.

"There's no magic formula. Harvest, logistics and personnel are the hardest part of farming right now," Thompson said.

Thompson considers himself lucky in many ways, though. "The first 400 acres of corn we will harvest are within three miles of the farm," he said. It's when they begin to move further afield that logistics of moving and having enough bodies to do it become more problematic.

He and his father, Gerald, have purposefully scaled the farm to accommodate the son returning home. The 32-year-old farmer left a full-time position and a career with a farm management company to farm.

"I didn't look at it as I'll just go home and be paid for my labor. Rather it was, what can I do that results in enough profit so I earn my spot," he said.

Apart from the challenge of finding labor, that same principle has to be applied to the cost of adding paid employees, Thompson said.

Soybean harvest presents two slightly unique situations this year. Soybeans are heavily podded and some varieties set pods very close to the soil surface. He is already giving thanks for having a draper head to gather these low-hanging soybeans.

He's also growing XtendFlex seed beans for Bayer this year. At present, the soybean, a three-way stack offering tolerance to dicamba, glyphostate and glufosinate, does not have European Union (EU) import approvals.

"That's going to make clean out and storage a bit more challenging," Thompson said. "Fortunately, all of the beans are XtendFlex, but we will be doing everything we can to avoid switching between corn and soybeans to limit clean out times," he said.

Thompson finds seed contracts enticing enough to put up with the additional details of segregation and clean out. Farmers are also anxiously awaiting word as to whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will renew the labels for the dicamba herbicides designed to be used in the Xtend trait platforms.

"It makes it hard for planning for 2021," he said.

RYAN JENKINS -- JAY, FLORIDA

Farming is a labor of love for Jenkins, but over the Labor Day weekend he took time with the love of his life, Debra, to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary.

Now is the time to take that time because the coming weeks are fixing to get busy.

"This week we'll be concentrating hard on finishing up our equipment preparations -- getting our peanut pickers and diggers ready. We'll be doing more pod blasting on peanuts to check maturity levels," he noted.

Jenkins said some farmers in the area started digging this week as diseases such as white mold and leaf spot started showing up.

White mold is a fungus that invades peanut lateral branches in contact with the soil, as well as pods and pegs. White mold infections are driven primarily by high soil temperatures and humidity.

While Jenkins hasn't noticed signs of late-season disease in his own crop yet, it has forced some farmers in the area to begin digging even though even though peanuts aren't quite mature.

"There's a balancing act when disease starts to enter the field -- you have to decide whether it is more profitable to go for a higher grade or a try to hang on to yield," he said. "Once the vines start dying in the presence of disease, the peanuts will begin to fall off, or disease can cause leaves to defoliate and when you start to dig, you'll just get vines pulling up and the peanuts are left in the ground."

He said most peanuts mature around 130 to 140 days.

"We'll likely start digging next week if the weather holds and after that, we won't stop going until we're done," he said.

It's back to the sprayer this week, too, as Jenkins moves to protect later-planted peanuts from disease with fungicide. Cotton is also due for another round of growth regulator.

Tropical storms and hurricanes have been prominent this year, but the farm, located in the western portion of the Florida Panhandle, has so far escaped with little issue.

Rains stalled long enough this week that Jenkins hopes to finish corn harvest. He's running a month behind on that operation. He's had to wait for the corn to dry down in the field this year after the corn drying facility he patronizes suffered a fire.

"Yields are averaging around 180 bushels per acre (bpa) with some going over 200 (bpa). Our harvest losses increased with the in-field drying," Jenkins said. "We had more weed pressure this year too, especially from morning glory."

He also has a custom corn harvesting job to complete. Few farmers in the area have corn harvesting equipment, so he picks up extra jobs.

The labor force on Jenkins Farms is family focused.

His father, Rennie, is a full-time partner and invaluable asset. Oldest son, Cole, comes back from college to help when possible. High-schooler, Chase, arrives around noon each day as part of his school's on-the-job-training program. "That works out pretty well as we usually can't start picking peanuts until lunchtime because of the dew and the high moisture in the mornings," he said.

Peanut harvesting equipment tends to need frequent wrenching. Jenkins said repairs typically fall to him. "It doesn't seem to matter how much preventative maintenance we do. There's just a lot of moving parts and things to break," he noted.

A digger cuts the peanut plant below the taproot and a conveyor lifts the plant up and turns it upside down to dry. The plants remain facing up until moisture levels drop to around 15% to 16%.

The peanut picker or combine then threshes the plants to remove the nut from the vine without cracking the hull. Peanuts are then dumped into a "nut buggy" to be transferred to waiting trucks.

"Digging can be done almost any time of the day, as it isn't moisture dependent. So, I'm digging, when I'm not fixing or stopping to run the sprayer for some reason. Dad or one of the boys runs the picker and I have to find someone to run the nut buggy.

"It is very difficult to find workers in this area. Finding an experienced person is next to impossible," he said.

One thing he avoids is needing a person to transport from the field. Trucks fitted with specialized drying trailers are the property of the buying point. Peanuts are contracted well ahead of harvest.

Jenkins is delivering to a farmer-owned buying point, of which he is a shareholder. "However, I do not have to provide those trucks, trailers or most importantly, the drivers," he said.

Likewise, cotton harvesting has streamlined in recent years to be more labor efficient. Newer type pickers compress, and plastic wrap the cotton, into bales that can be moved later when labor is available. Eliminating boll buggies and employees to run the module builder has been a huge savings, Jenkins noted.

"Module building cotton pickers changed everything for us. Not only did it eliminate hiring additional people, but it eliminated hiring people that simply aren't out there to hire," he said.

Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.Smith@DTN.com

Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN

Pamela Smith can be reached at pamela.smith@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN

Pamela Smith

Pamela Smith
Connect with Pamela: