DTN Field Roundup

Farmers Eye Dry Weather and High Costs as 2021 Gets Underway

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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High input costs and continued dryness are top of mind for DTN Farmer Advisers this spring as they prepare for the 2021 season, even as some are still grappling with fallout from the pandemic. (DTN photo by Jim Patrico)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- Don't get left high and dry in 2021 -- those are the big concerns for farmers easing into the new planting season.

Input costs are starting to soar, egged on by robust commodity prices, and large swaths of the country are grappling with dryness and drought. Producers are hoping both trends weaken and mellow in the months ahead, DTN Farmer Advisers said in this year's first installment of the monthly DTN Field Roundups.

DTN Farmer Advisers, formerly known as Agronomy Advisers, are a group of American and Canadian farmers and ranchers who provide updates and insights throughout the season on farming and current events in agriculture. The cohort covers a lot of ground, with producers as far west as Idaho and Alberta, Canada, out to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, down to the High Plains of Texas and up through the Great Lakes territory.

Often the far-flung Farmer Advisers have a range of different experiences and problems to report; this spring, many are united in their prayers for moisture, a calmer input market and a year with far fewer surprises and tragedies.

"I think all of us have a heightened awareness of any black swan event that might swoop in," said Kenny Reinke, who farms in northeastern Nebraska.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which first disrupted lives and businesses almost exactly a year ago, is still top of mind for many, especially those whose loved ones have joined its grim death toll. Southeastern Idaho farmer Dan Lakey lost his father, Dwight, to the virus this winter. Now his family faces the painful double burden of grieving while also re-calibrating their operation to manage without their hard-working patriarch, who was the family's rock, Lakey said. "This spring is going to be unlike any other that I have experienced in my farming career," he said.


Dry conditions are widespread in the U.S. right now, and the farther west you go, the more dire the drought reported by DTN Farmer Advisers.

"It's dry, dry, dry, dry, dry, dry here on the Southern Plains!" said Mike Lass, a rancher and farmer from the Texas Panhandle. That's six "drys" for those of you counting. His wheat is in tough shape, and the next few weeks will decide if he keeps it for harvest or terminates it and tries to plant cotton.

Northeastern Colorado farmer Marc Arnusch fears his region is entering historic territory. "Our farm has experienced the driest fall and winter months many of us can remember," he said. "We depend a great deal on the snowpack that falls in the Rocky Mountains for the bulk of our irrigation water supply. We simply have not received the weather events we had hoped for and the prospects for storms in the near future are bleak."

Farmers from the Great Plains -- Kansas, Nebraska and Alberta, Canada -- echoed these concerns. But even growers farther east, from Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Missouri, noted the lack of moisture, as dry spots and micro-droughts are surfacing from the Great Lakes states down to the Mid-South this spring.

For some, the dryness has had its perks, from dry cattle yards to timely fall and early spring fieldwork and planting preparations. But it comes with unease. "I think we will be in good shape with moisture for spring planting as we like to 'plant in the dust,'" said south-central Minnesota grower Mark Nowak. "But the trend the last six months has been drier, and so there is some concern if we will get enough growing season moisture."

Only a handful of growers from Ohio and Maryland were still fighting too much moisture. Genny Haun's northwestern Ohio operation is still recovering from a wet fall that left them with rutted fields, late-harvested corn, ear mold and vomitoxin problems. Now, the recent wet winter weather has them running behind on fieldwork and field repairs. Farther east, Jennie Schmidt's diverse grain and vegetable farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland is still reeling from the deluges they received last year. "If it ever dries out, we will have to be doing some tillage to aerate the soil and smooth out the ruts created by stuck combines, stuck grain carts and all the other stuck equipment due to the 70-plus inches of rain we had from August through December," she said.


The steady climb in commodity prices that started in August of last year and has continued through the winter has been a welcome chance to lock in profits for many DTN Farmer Advisers, but it comes with strings attached.

"Now that markets are higher, it would seem everyone wants a piece of the pie," said east-central Illinois farmer Reid Thompson. That sentiment was echoed by growers from Nebraska, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado and Indiana, who are watching prices for fuel, fertilizer and rents climb recently. Thompson has seen a 30 to 50% increase in fertilizer prices since December, and although his chemical and seed costs have stayed flat, he has heard that chemicals like glyphosate are now also starting to rise in cost.

The dynamic at play is not a new one for most producers, added north-central Missouri farmer Kyle Samp, but it can be a painful situation to adjust to each time it rolls around. "One lesson I learned during the last period of high prices is it's hard to really enjoy them," he said. "There are many opportunities for relationships to become strained because everyone wants to participate, and at times costs can be out of balance. Lots of communication with landlords and suppliers is planned to make sure we maintain good relationships."


While most Farmer Advisers reported that they will be sticking with their usual crop rotation and acreage mix, quite a few are trying new things in 2021, from field testing new products, to branching out into new crops, to switching to more environmentally conscious practices.

In Ohio, a clean water initiative called H2Ohio has opened up potential financial support for farmers who are actively engaged in water quality improvement. Haun's operation qualifies for it, thanks to their soil sampling, variable rate fertilizing and no-till practices, and this year they are trying out sub-surface phosphorus applications.

Nearby, central Ohio farmer Keith Peters is signing up through Indigo Ag for carbon credits for all the environmentally friendly practices he uses, such as cover crops, no-till, side-dressing and injecting nutrients. Once Peters documents those practices, his newly issued carbon credits can be purchased by companies looking to offset their environmental footprint, and he will get a per-acre payment. The process was time consuming -- lots of data entry and field history reviews -- but he thinks it will be worth it. "The system is definitely still in its infancy, but what I like is it really encourages farmers to do these practices," Peters said. "Let's face it. Our industry needs to change because if it doesn't, it will be changed for us."

Over in Colorado, Arnusch is also experimenting with field trials and working toward reducing tillage and improving nutrient precision in their applications, and Idaho's Lakey is pleased that his farm will reach 95% no-till status this spring.

In west-central Minnesota, Justin Honebrink is trying out a new crop entirely, a perennial grain called Kernza. "The grain can be used for many things, and the stover makes for a decent cattle feed," said Honebrink, who is working with a local marketing co-op called Perennial Promise Growers Co-op to lock down a new market for the crop. "The best part is that it is a perennial grain and doesn't take many inputs once established," he said. With roots that can grow 8 feet deep and capture nitrates and other nutrients leaching through the soil, Kernza is also good at reducing tillage and erosion, as well as sequestering carbon and improving water quality, he said.

Several advisers are also going through the hard work of transitioning farms to the next generation. For Reinke in Nebraska, the process is made easier by his only-child status, but it remains time consuming. For others, such as Lakey, the transition has been forced upon them with the sudden loss of family and team members.

"With my father gone, my brother and I will be trying to farm our acres; we are going to have to hire some help," he said. "He may have been 75, but he put in just as many hours as my brother and me -- and was a wealth of knowledge. We are pretty uncertain going forward without him but we're going to give it our best."

Ohio's Haun also lost a beloved team member in January, and this year will be full of decisions for them as they consider how best to adjust and add to the operation, with the next generation in mind. "Our big overall goal in 2021 is to become more efficient and effective at what we are already doing," she said. "Farming is the biggest gamble we know, yet we wouldn't want to do anything else."

Read about where DTN Farmer Advisers -- and the ag industry -- were last year at this time: https://www.dtnpf.com/….

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee

Emily Unglesbee