DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Farming in the arid West, Marc Arnusch has spent a career knowing his farm is always a drop or two away from drought. Nearly everything done on the Colorado farm revolves around water, or lack of it.
Those realities played out this past week as the farmer quickly seeded some fall wheat after receiving a small shower on his acres near Keenesburg. "We won't seed any more until we see what the skies offer," said Arnusch.
Meanwhile, in central Ohio, fellow farmer Luke Garrabrant often fights the opposite problem. Getting water to drain off the heavier soils he farms becomes paramount to being timely in nearly every operation from planting to spraying to harvest to spraying again. This week as he prepares to begin harvest, he wonders whether the whims of weather will play havoc with the end of the season, as they did the beginning.
Garrabrant and Arnusch have been participating this season in DTN's View From the Cab series. The weekly feature follows the farmers and their crops throughout the growing season. The two volunteer their time and thoughts on a variety of agronomic and agricultural topics. This is the 21st installment of the series. Find last week's segment dealing with landlord relationships and cash rent here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….
Read on to learn more about their thoughts this week on weatherproofing crops and the outlook for fall operations.
LUKE GARRABRANT: JOHNSTOWN, OHIO
Signs that harvest is fast approaching surround Garrabrant these days. Early planted soybeans are starting to take on a golden hue and the central Ohio farmer expected farmers in his area to begin opening a few fields in the coming week.
As for Garrabrant, he's been looking at the innards of his combine a lot lately. The bean head had already been readied for the harvest, but this week he began diagnostics on the corn head and found the bearings on the idler sprockets on the gathering chains were locked up. He was waiting for a shipment of new bearings to make the repair.
This week the young farmer also took possession of a new-to-him high clearance sprayer. The 2020 John Deere R4038 had a small list of things he wanted fixed, but the time frame on repairs at a dealership was far into winter. So Garrabrant settled for parts to make the fixes and doing the work himself.
The sprayer is an upgrade from his older sprayer. "It's got direct inject, larger tank capacity, booms fold easier and, in my opinion, has a better boom construction," he said. Add a nicer cab and some other new features like auto prime and auto clean out to the list of improvements.
Garrabrant has sold and traded several pieces of equipment this year. "The only thing I'm having trouble getting is polyurea grease. Since I'm 90% Deere, I use it on everything, and it's been a little hard to find. But I've had no issues finding parts -- so far," he said.
The weather outlook for harvesting in the Johnstown area appears mostly favorable for continued crop dry down and harvest, said John Baranick, DTN ag meteorologist. "One of the disturbances that moves through Colorado has the potential to generate some scattered showers and thunderstorms on Monday. It would be very easy for them to be missed from this activity."
Another chance come next week as another front moves through the area. "Models aren't too keen on a lot of precipitation with it, but I wouldn't throw out that chance yet. There might be some showers next weekend as well, but that is a long way out to mention anything of significance that could affect harvest progress. Overall, it looks like pretty good conditions," Baranick said.
That's music to Garrabrant's ears as he tangled with weather all spring this year. Part of the reason he'll be seeding some cover crops this fall stems from those spring weather headaches.
"I don't have any side-by-side trials, but cover crops helped establish a stand in a field of corn that had a 4-inch rain on it immediately after planting. Had it been conventional, or even no-till, I'm convinced it would have been a replant situation," he said.
He thinks he's also seeing the benefit of weed suppression from cover crops. Finding spray windows was almost impossible last year with frequent rainfall leading to delays. "I think I'd probably see a bigger benefit on weed suppression in hot, dry summers -- which was not the case this year.
"They should help lessen the effects of extreme heat and lack of rain at a soil level and help preserve spring-time soil moisture. I'm just experimenting with them, so those are theories at this point," he said.
Tile is the main thing used in this area to try to make crops more resilient. "The hardest thing we fight is getting the crop out of the ground," he said.
"We typically try to plant that third to last week of April, but what often happens is we get a week of cold weather the first week of May and it takes a toll on emergence," he said. "It seems like if we can get a stand established, we can work our way through the rest of whatever the season throws at us."
Garrabrant is running a full seed treatment package, including innoculants on soybeans, to help promote emergence, but he's questioning if it is enough. Some of the new biologicals and other products that help with early stress have him intrigued and wondering if they could help crop resiliency.
Meanwhile, one thing he doesn't want to have to fight next spring is winter annual weeds such as marestail. So far, he's got about 2,500 acres of fall burndown booked to spray, which includes his own acres and some custom acres.
"That's going to give me plenty of opportunity to work the kinks out of this new sprayer," he said.
MARC ARNUSCH: KEENESBURG, COLORADO
Arnusch's love for farming typically keeps him rooted in the field, but this weekend he's making an exception. His son, and farming partner, Brett, is getting married and all attention is on the nuptials.
"I can't believe he picked farming season to do that," Arnusch joked, while allowing that there's really no downtime on the farm except for perhaps the dead of winter.
Last week signaled the start of the 2023 season. "We had a little freak shower and it gave us enough moisture that that we were confident enough to drill one field of winter wheat," he said.
Intentions are to increase winter wheat acres, but Arnusch expected to hold off on further seedings until they received more rainfall. It's still a smidge early for wheat planting in the area -- more typical is mid-to-late October.
Baranick said there are a couple of disturbances moving out of the Rockies and into the Plains into next week. However, they often dry up on their way eastward and any showers that do materialize will likely be light in the Keenesburg area.
"In the middle of next week, we are expecting a cold front to move down through the Plains and it's likely to stall out. Models are still working out where this may occur, but this would give the Arnusches a chance at some needed rainfall for wheat," Baranick said.
Arnusch will take what he can get and remains optimistic. "We have the luxury here where if we do not get the rainfall necessary for wheat to emerge, we can move those acres to spring wheat or another spring crop," he said.
Still, the dry is haunting. This past week the farm had a final irrigation on corn and they may pull the plug on milo. The third cutting of alfalfa was baled. Several of these last irrigations came on farms that are served by irrigation wells that have ample supplies.
However, fields on water allotments have gasped their way through the summer. "We've stretched our irrigation supply as far as I've ever seen us do it this year," Arnusch said.
"I've been in drought most of my farming career, so it feels ordinary in some ways. And, I have seen it this dry several times in my career, but we had more water to address the problem in those times," he added.
What is necessary in these hot dry times, he's found, is patience. "What has served me well over time is an ability not to panic. We continue to stay flexible and try to have the tools in place to go to the field when we can.
"We try to be good at calling audibles and changing the plan. We try to be innovative and figure out what fits on the land at the time," he said.
Take milo, for example. This is the first year the crop has been planted on the farm and so far, Arnusch is impressed. Granted, he's not itched his way through the harvest yet and so far, pests haven't gotten the memo that they could be feasting in Prospect Valley.
"I think milo is going to be a very core part of our dryland and maybe our irrigated acres moving forward," he said. These new milo acres have left Arnusch's father scratching his head in amazement.
"We know that our water availability and the likelihood of receiving moisture is become more limited all the time. If we can grow a nice crop in both environments (dryland and irrigated) and if we do a nice job with the marketing and take risk off the table to be profitable, then it seems to have a fit in our crop mix," he said.
The likelihood of making a dryland milo crop is much greater than corn in this area. On the irrigated acre, corn easily out grosses milo, Arnusch noted. It's on the net side of the ledger where milo starts to shine -- especially since it requires less investment, which further reduces exposure if weather events such as hail hit.
"If market values continue to hold where they are today, milo is going to be a foundation crop for us moving forward," he said.
While milo can help stretch water, Arnusch believes it is necessary to look beyond crop selection to help weatherproof any crop. "A good soil fertility program is key to our strategies for dealing with drought.
"Potassium, for example, is what we call the poor man's drought guard. We feel like if we have it placed correctly, and deeper in the root zone, we can at least give our crops some time in the face of dry conditions," he said.
Reducing tillage is another key to adding resiliency, although cutting back can be a challenge in this region where resistant kochia thumbs its tumbleweeds at many popular herbicides.
Playing with plant populations is another way Arnusch Farms looks to conquer dry conditions. "I know when I have ample water supply, we can push corn populations to 40,000 to 45,000 seeds per acres, where on a limited water farm, we drop to mid-20,000s," Arnusch said. "Cereal crops will fluctuate from 500,000 to 550,000 seeds per acre to over 2 million, depending on the water resources."
The early native corn traits aimed at identifying hybrids that sip rather than slurp were tested early on the farm. "They still aren't a substitute in my mind for balanced fertility and overall management," Arnusch noted.
New tools that allow scientists and companies to dig deeper into genetic secrets hold promise going forward. "In wheat, some of the drought genetics coming out of Argentina and Australia look promising. Drought genes are the Holy Grail for any grower who deals with limited water environments," Arnusch said.
"I'm hopeful that we're turning the corner in many of our ways of genetically manipulating and managing crops -- both in terms of doing it and acceptance. I'm hoping we aren't fighting the same water fight until the end of my career," he said. "Imagine what we could do if drought wasn't our limiting factor!"
Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.Smith@dtn.com
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