LANGDON, Mo. (DTN) -- In the Bible it's written "for everything there is a season ... a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which has been planted."
That's the way it is for DTN View From the Cab farmers Chase Brown of Decatur, Illinois, and Jim Hoover of Newport, Pennsylvania, who successfully planted and picked their way through 2016 to the end of another successful year.
For farmers like Jim, who have gained an understanding of survival in a competitive and unpredictable business, success may simply mean getting by. "The beginning of the year was rainy. Then of course it turned dry. I kept thinking that could come back and haunt us, and it did," he told DTN late Tuesday. "We still haven't gotten enough rain. Out last (fall) planted triticale still doesn't look very good."
This year, in Jim's case, survival may mean making the most of what nature, markets and crop insurance, yield. As Jim said at the beginning of spring, "We've learned how to farm this red shale ground here. But if it turns dry, you'd better have crop insurance."
He went on. "Having crop insurance on my corn really helped. (Extra) income from straw helped overcome corn losses. Between triticale and wheat and insurance and beans I sold, it was a pretty good year. The thing that stands out in my mind was the performance of this year's triticale and wheat. Yields were good. Our wheat ended up making 81.13 bushels per acre, and triticale ended up 77.14 (bpa) plus the value of the straw."
Were all those things coming together as profit for Jim's farm a coincidence, or was something else at work? "When you look at what we had to do to cover our costs, you realize how important planning is," he said.
In the end, it may simply have been spreading risk through diversity of Jim's crops that saved the day. "When you look at the soybeans, you realize that 55 bpa isn't too bad. I don't know how you take a year like this other than you use the tools you have to make enough to pay your bills," Jim explained. "In the long run, from what I know, it won't be too bad a year." He said he has no regrets about choices made throughout the year.
"You kind of follow your rules. I took a chance and put some extra starter on the corn," he said. Even though moisture was short, better areas in fields where yields reached 200 bpa may have yielded more as a result. He said the beans were all done the same -- drilled at 200,000 populations. Uniformity of planting created uniformity of yield. "It all came out about the same," he said.
He calls himself "old school", and old school says if it's not broken, don't fix it.
"I've been a great believer in DuPont Pioneer's 93M11 soybeans. When you have genetics that work on your ground, why would you want to do something else?"
Even at age 77, Jim is still gaining new experiences for future decisions. "When you get this climate change or whatever it is, you have to admit this year has been different than it ever has," he said.
What about next year? "I'm gonna really think hard about this. Our cost is just too high," Jim said. That observation applies to rented land as well as inputs. Crop rotation remains a priority. He won't chase better-priced soybeans with more acres. Corn markets should "straighten themselves out" in time, he said.
What's the best-case scenario, must-have-price for corn? "I'd like to see $4.50 to cover my costs," Jim said. "Nine or 10 bucks on beans should fill the bill." He's not optimistic about reaching those prices for next year. Once again, lower costs mean higher profits. "It sure doesn't take the bucks to grow soybeans (compared to corn)."
Jim's farm is officially called Hoovers Turkey Farm. Including grandchildren -- "young people can run faster and jump higher" -- it's a three-generation operation producing over 140,000 hen turkeys every year. No expansion is planned there, with no contractions either. Output will remain about the same.
"The turkeys are doing good." But experience reminds Jim that markets have their ups and downs. It all levels out over time. "They're doing what they've always done (with supermarket promotions) giving turkeys away. I can live with it," he said.
HARVEST HIGH POINT OF YEAR
Meanwhile, for Chase Brown, even though it lingered well into November, the high point of the year for him was harvest. "We knew we'd have a decent crop but didn't think it would be good as it was," he told DTN late Tuesday.
There were no major catastrophes like flooding or drought. What was the low point of 2016 for Chase? "Getting my front tooth knocked out," he said.
It all worked out, though. While the corn grew tall, Chase's tooth was successfully re-implanted.
Dental problems aside, it's been a rough three years in the hay business. "Illinois humidity has made haying difficult. We'll cut back on some of our alfalfa acres," he said. Cropping plans other than hay will remain unchanged in 2017. "We're pretty much 50-50 on corn and soybeans. We'll keep the rotation we have."
Chase farms with his father and uncle. Together they operate 4,000 acres of row crops, wheat, straw, grass hay, alfalfa hay, custom baling and have a purebred herd of Hereford brood cows. Even with additional hired help, it gets hectic. "To be honest, we're probably trying to do too much. But you'll never see us get rid of the hay baler," he said.
Multiple applications of N will be a rule for 2017 corn. "We've started putting on anhydrous ammonia. We have some neighbors who are done. It finally got good and cold here." But Chase may not rely on fall application alone. "We'll do more tissue testing to see if we need more N so that (if it needs it) we can feed it with Y-drops on a high-clearance sprayer." Lower costs mean matching rates to needs and just-in-time application. "We have options now to go later and later on sidedress," Chase said.
CSP, the NRCS program designed to reward producers with points for utilizing a variety of conservation practices, offers incentives for nitrogen management. "Payments are based on the total number of points ... everything from moving the mineral feeder to different N applications," Chase told DTN.
Profit enhancement is on the mind of every farmer. But some things are off the table.
"I wanted to convert more acres to organic, but Dad said we don't have enough acres hidden from the neighbors." But Chase told DTN there are other areas to explore. "We do seed beans already, but we could also raise a little bit of non-GMO."
"We're in the third year of 220 corn yields or better. Mother Nature is going to have the final say. I do think technology has gotten better. This is the new normal." Chase remembers riding in the combine with his dad when 180 bpa was the norm. Things have changed. "Dad was at a sustainability conference. He said we have better yields, but we also have $400-per-acre cash rents -- so we have to grow yields at least that much."
No matter how savvy they are, all farmers face the unknown. Yield expectations can change abruptly. "I don't think anyone saw 2012 coming. We raised 100-bushel corn ... we did not have crop insurance ... we were self-insured. We got danged lucky when prices went up. We've had crop insurance every year since."
Mindset makes a difference.
"We're pretty conservative. We don't drive fancy pickup trucks. Our homes are pretty modest. The biggest thing is we have a pretty good relationship with our banker. Bankers like to hear a game plan and how we're going to them back," Chase said.
Heading into 2017, with yields and prices an uncertainty, the Browns won't be expanding grain-handling facilities or adding much in the way of new equipment or land. "The oldest tractor we have has 4,000 hours. It's getting to that age. We know it needs to go, but when? We'd love to have one of Case's new Rowtracs. Are we gonna own it or lease it? We talked about adding another semi. Do we rent one, buy a trailer and rent a tractor, or buy an old beat-up tractor?"
That's different from before, when revenues were strong and purchases were made solely based on need ... or want.
Like Jim, Chase's wish list includes corn above $4.
"What we'd really like to see is $8 corn and $15 soybeans. (Seriously), if corn got to $4.25 and beans close to $10.50, and if we could raise average yields, I'd be happy," he said.
This marks the final installment of DTN View From the Cab 2016. DTN wishes to thank Jim and Chase for their unwavering cooperation, and for sharing the view from their cabs throughout the 2016 growing season.
Richard Oswald can be reached at Talk@dtn.com
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