View From the Cab: Farmers Talk About Lessons From 2022 Season
Decatur, Ill. (DTN) -- Harvest 2022 may be a wrap for Marc Arnusch, but the next step is interpreting what practices worked, those that didn't and applying gained knowledge to cropping systems going forward.
The Colorado farmer went into the current crop season in a prolonged drought with grim prospects of reversal. "By April, things looked dire and we made the very tough decision to not fight Mother Nature. We idled a bunch of our acres and purposefully decided where to channel the water resources we had."
Arnusch quickly adds that the market aligned to allow such strategic moves to be a win. "I'm preparing myself for the day when we don't have the water or the favorable market environment. Stay tuned because I'm not sure what the answer to that scenario is yet," he said.
He has been reporting in this season, along with Ohio farmer Luke Garrabrant, as part of DTN's View From the Cab series. The diary-like reports give readers an inside look at many of the day-to-day aspects of farming. The farmers volunteer their time and comment on many of the social and cultural topics critical to rural life. This is the 29th installment of the series.
Garrabrant has also been taking much of what happened during the 2022 season to heart. As a 26-year-old farmer who works as an independent operator, he found himself rushing to catch up after weather delays pushed planting into late May on a high percentage of his acres.
He's already started streamlining operations for next year by backing out of some labor-intensive specialty crops to concentrate on core commodities. Even small things like fall herbicide burndowns are aimed at making sure everything is ready to go when spring waves the green flag for next year.
This week Arnusch talks about why his winter wheat crop is on a diet. He gives some post-election thoughts and talks about why his entire farm staff will be taking time off over the holidays. Garrabrant discusses why he wants to plant soybeans earlier next year. He talks about how poultry manure has become a hot commodity. And he reveals the place where he can put aside his need to be constantly moving and totally unplug.
LUKE GARRABRANT: JOHNSTOWN, OHIO
Seeing those final kernels of corn flow through the combine came as a relief this fall for Garrabrant. There have been years when harvest has stretched into cold and snowy Decembers. Thankfully, that wasn't the case this year, but the harvest was still something of a slog with a slow-to-dry crop.
"It was quite a year to record every move I made," said Garrabrant of his participation in the View From the Cab project. "The wet April and most of May made me feel as though I was rushing to catch up all season."
He isn't about to complain about the frequency of precipitation that fell once he finally got planted -- particularly when so many parts of the country suffered with drought. However, it made baling hay more than a headache. Even wheat harvest had several rain delays.
Those crops have exited his plans for next year. He's picked up more corn and soybean acres for the 2023 season and upgraded equipment to handle them. Hiring labor in the region has become problematic with expansion of industry -- another reason he's shifted away -- at least for now -- from specialty crops.
While mild weather and plenty of rainfall may have been ideal by most standards, the corn and soybeans needed more heat units to hit top end yield potential, he noted. Yields were highly variable, and the reasons why weren't always apparent, he said.
"We had a lot of cloudy days, especially when the crop was filling. If I could have changed anything about the season after we got planted it would have been to have a little more heat in August and early September," he said.
Getting soybeans planted early, or at least by late April, tops his list of goals for the coming year. On average, indeterminate soybean plants add one main stem node every 3.7 days after the first trifoliolate appears until seed development begins. An earlier start to the growing season results in more stem nodes for flower, pod and seed production. That, early start, made the difference on top-yielding fields this year, Garrabrant figured.
"On corn, I also think there's a lot of merit to planting into a warming trend," he said. "Corn stands seem to be more vulnerable to those cold, wet rains that we often get in mid-May."
Still, he can't complain about insects or diseases. Even weeds seemed to behave themselves this summer.
Weeds rarely take an entire season off though. Fields that were harvested in late September or early October are already greening up with bluegrass and some runaway marestail. Garrabrant was hustling this week to get fields sprayed with fall burndown applications.
"Bluegrass can really be a mess come spring if we let it get a foothold. I've got some new-to-me fields this fall, and I want to make sure I've got them in good shape. Fall burndowns will really help next spring, especially if the season turns wet again," he said.
Garrabrant has always depended on chicken litter as a large part of his soil fertility program. He's equipped to apply it and do custom application. However, this year he has concerns about how much of that product will be available and at what price.
"I used to be able to get litter for $20 per ton and the most recent price I was quoted was $65 per ton. I'm still hoping to use that product, but there's competition for supply too," he said.
With so many unknowns in agriculture these days, he can't help but wonder what surprises the coming year with bring. "I think it will be interesting to look back at the articles we've done and see how things have changed," he said.
"What I've really enjoyed is learning about how farmers do things in a different part of the country," he said of Arnusch's contributions. "It has given me perspective that everyone has challenges, but a lot of similarities at the same time."
With experience comes growth and this year has also yielded an increasing appreciation for his farming father. "I find myself seeking his ideas more and more, especially as the climate we are in keeps getting more complicated -- from urban sprawl to inflationary costs. We haven't always seen eye-to-eye on everything, but I value his opinion and he understands what it takes to grow a business from the ground up, because he also did it," he said.
Garrabrant said growing up on the farm, he sometimes begrudged that the work never seemed to end or there was seldom a day off. However, these days he often finds himself falling into that same work pattern. The to-do list is always long -- whether it is something to do with the farm business or chasing a toddler or remodeling a farmhouse or taking the responsibility for yet another dog that's been dumped his on doorstep.
"The biggest challenge I face is I feel like I always need to be working," he said. The gift to himself and his family this year, he said, is to take a little time. The beach is the one place he finds he can unplug and temporarily cleanse his thoughts before tackling another farming season.
MARC ARNUSCH: KEENESBURG, COLORADO
This past week has included plenty of reflection for Arnusch as he watched state election results. The urban and rural divide continues to widen in Colorado, and he sometimes worries what that means for the future of farming in the state.
"We're no longer a purple state. We're not even a blue state. We're more like a midnight blue state," he said. Of the 64 counties in Colorado, only a handful are very liberal -- the largest geographical area is rural and conservative, he observed.
"Here, it's not whether you're Democrat or Republican. The divergence seems to me to be between urban and rural," Arnusch said. Colorado has long been a testing ground for social issues. It was among the first of the states to legalize recreational marijuana. This year, Colorado voters decided to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms.
At the same time, the state also just voted to lower income tax again, a move that Arnusch said is typically more conservative in nature. And a ballot question asking whether alcohol should be allowed to be delivered to a purchaser's door was soundly defeated.
"These ballot questions just keep coming and the outcomes seem inconsistent and confusing to me," he said. "I am concerned that our rural voice is getting increasingly quiet all the time."
Arnusch Farms sits on the rim of Prospect Valley only 45 minutes east of Denver. As those urban voices grow he can't help but wonder what that will eventually mean to agriculture's access to water, in particular.
This year the farm had a total of 7.5 inches of precipitation from Jan. 1 through mid-August. Worse yet, the farm was already dry when the calendar rolled to 2022.
"I think one day we will reflect that this year taught us how to be strategic with our resources. Idling acres allowed us to care for acres that remained and given the resources, we managed to produce an amazing crop," he said.
In this arid climate, drought will always be around the corner. So, when some showers blessed the region in September, the farm crews quickly headed to the field to take advantage of the moisture by seeding winter wheat.
"We have a much better start to our wheat crop this year. We have good stand establishment with emergence well over 90%. That's as good of a position as we've been in 4 to 5 years," he said.
In recent years drought often reduced stands to 50% or less. "It's like you've already had your first hailstorm and there hasn't been a cloud in the sky," Arnusch said of those kinds of losses. "Early stand establishment goes a long way toward putting wheat in the position to be successful."
Still, to keep an even footing he estimates the winter months will need to deliver 4 to 6 inches of snow. "We need 40 or 50 feet in our watershed in the mountains from snow that has a lot of moisture content to it," he said.
"But more importantly, in the spring, we need moderate temperatures so that snowpack doesn't come off too fast. We need the chance to divert it and store it. If that all happens, we'll be in good shape," Arnusch said.
On the flip side, early planting has spurred early wheat growth and that brings risk. "We don't want wheat too big going into winter because it could be advanced coming out of dormancy in the spring. That opens us up to the potential of freeze damage if the wheat heads out too early," he said.
"So, we're putting that wheat on a diet by pulling the plug on fall fertility and hoping to slow it down. We're also hoping for cool temperatures to help with that too," he said.
An aggressively growing crop is also more demanding of nutrients and water in the spring. Arnusch said the region will often have snow on the ground in late March to mid-April. "If we have access to water, we will sometimes recharge the moisture profile in spring. However, the challenge is we can get freezing temperatures late, which makes that difficult," he added.
The current homework assignment is to call on retailers regarding fertilizer and seed costs for the 2023 crop. Retailers often push hard this time of year for pre-sales and pre-payments for a small incentive.
Arnusch isn't afraid to push back in this tough environment and ask what is possible in terms of stretching invested dollars. "We don't know if we can get a retailer to go further, but we're asking," he said. "I think we're in an environment where our input business is worth fighting for. Maybe it's a price break, or access to new tools or technology, but it seems a conversation worth having."
Winter is also time for what Arnusch calls "the farmer circuit". He and his farm team attend meetings held by retailers and product providers. They go through private pesticide applicator recertification. There are meetings such as DTN Ag Summit and Commodity Classic that provide educational and networking opportunities.
There's plenty of shop work to keep them busy too. The combine is headed into the shop for an overhaul. They'll be rebuilding a tillage tool.
But all work ceases between Christmas and the New Year. "We close the shop doors. We close the office. That time is for family and even though we are all family working together, we take time to invest in ourselves for a little while," Arnusch said.
Sometimes that means venturing into the mountains to do nothing at all. "My wife, Jill, is always a little reluctant to let me stare into the wilderness for too long," he admitted. "It usually results in conjuring up some new idea for the farm."
Editor's note: Interested in lending your voice to View From the Cab? Applications are open for the 2023 season. Send a note about your farm and why you'd like to participate to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This year's DTN Ag Summit Conquer the Chaos: Strategies to Build Endurance for Your Business is being held virtually on Dec. 12-13. Find more information on the agenda and how to register here: https://www.dtn.com/…
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