LANGDON, Mo. (DTN) -- While farming itself is an ancient practice, cabs on farm machinery that protect farmers from heat, cold and contaminants are a relatively new invention. It's from that vantage point that DTN View From the Cab Farmers Zack Rendel of Miami, Oklahoma, and Brent and Lisa Judisch of Cedar Falls, Iowa, watched the highs and lows of another growing season play out.
Harvest is over on the Rendel farm with the final fields of this year's soybean crop harvested last week just ahead of Thanksgiving. Zack told DTN late Sunday that yields took an unexpected turn.
"Chicken litter was good for fall-seeded canola, but then we had winterkill (because canola plants grew too fast). But (double-crop) soybeans planted after canola were showing yields up to 65 to 70 bushels per acre even on fields that aren't our best. Our best field (normally considered possibly the worst) was a rolling rocky field that looked like 40 bpa. It came in at 68 average. We even saw as high as 100 bpa on one little wet corner of about an acre in that field," Zack said.
Zack reasons that litter at $25 to $30 per ton, plus about $15 for application, will pay for itself in higher yields. That's why Zack plans to apply 2 -- and possibly 3 -- tons per acre of chicken litter on more fields next year.
Zack said it's not just chicken litter. Even canola fields without those litter applications appear to have boosted soybean yields. One 120-acre field with a 40-acre strip of canola down the middle and 40-acre strips of wheat on either side showed yield benefits five years later. That's right -- five years after canola was grown there. "Canola is a good thing. There was a 5 to 12 bpa difference. We overlaid yield maps and you could see the difference right to the line. I'm not sure I'll plant another acre of wheat unless I just have to," he said.
Unexpectedly, areas of PPO herbicide damage also actually seemed to boost soybean yields in some fields. "Some things we thought were bad didn't turn out to be bad."
Earlier this year, Zack told DTN that, with its low profitability, wheat was more a cover crop than a cash crop. That and recent harvest data suggests a different perspective not favorable to wheat. "Maybe we need to think of canola as a cover crop," he noted. If Zack's neighbors adapt canola to their own farms, new markets and buyers might make marketing canola easier by encouraging more pricing points than those that are available now. Currently, Zack's market consists of one buyer 800 miles away in Goodland, Kansas, and the other an 80-mile-away Tyson poultry feed mill.
Zack also sees promise in milo, another sparsely grown crop in northeastern Oklahoma. "It's itchy, I'll give it that. I want to keep growing it. I need to grow more than 25 acres to spread the birds out," he said. (Zach was referring to the flocks of wild birds that feed on maturing grain heads.) Both non-GMO and glutton-free specialty markets offer promise for milo profit, he said.
Like most young family farmers, Zack and his wife, Kristi, hoped to expand. It's a dream come true now with a retiring neighbor who has leased them 700 acres. That can be a scary proposition for low-equity producers, especially with profits so close to zero. Zack thinks the situation may call for an attitude adjustment. "We planted wheat this year because it's hard to break a bad habit. I can't pencil a profit right now. I can't just do what my grandpa and my uncle and my dad have always done. You have to change your way of thinking. I have to look at different ways to make a profit," Zack said.
The Rendels -- Zack and his uncle and partner, Brent Rendel -- rely heavily on tillage. That goes against the grain of today's conservation thinking of no-till and cover crops. Zack likes what he's seen of cover crops on their farm. In the future, he said, he may rely less on tillage, even though he told DTN earlier this year that aggressive tillage helped deal with some weed problems. "After all, we are stewards of the land. I want the land to be better than it was when I got it," he said.
Farming is capital intensive. Older farmers may have built reserves, but for young farmers, borrowed money is almost a necessity. Zack sees signs of higher interest rates and bankers tightening or even denying credit for some farms. He has a gut feeling that something akin to the 1980s may transpire, when rents, land values and grain prices plummeted amidst a surge of foreclosures. In spite of that, he is optimistic because he has family to help cushion machinery and capital needs until he's able to build a nest egg.
Zack admits to having a crystal ball that's cloudy. But that doesn't keep him from trying to look ahead.
"We're optimistic going in to 2018. But the hardest thing I have found in farming is to project how the next year is going to go," he said.
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For View From the Cab farmers Brent and Lisa Judisch, spring began in a timely fashion -- for the first three or four days. Then nature turned a cold shoulder to planting. Corn wasn't finished until late April, extending soybean planting into early May. "The third week of April got really chilly," Brent told DTN late Sunday.
Cool and dry may be the best description of northeastern Iowa's summer of 2017. A June dry spell sent roots deeper, preparing plants for later precipitation deficits in what would be a cool August.
For Brent and Lisa, July rains came in half-inch sips. "There was no hot, hot weather. We were some of the lucky ones. We had jackets on in August at a corn growers meeting," Brent admitted.
But no matter how cool it was, the dry August limited soybean yields. And even though a June hailstorm pruned yields on about 200 acres of corn, "It wasn't that bad -- with insurance," he said. Later corn maturities, from 108-to-111-day, seemed to yield better. Corn on corn was as good as corn following soybeans. But, "every year is different," Brent said. He'll stick with the same maturity mix. Earlier varieties offer an opportunity to finish harvest and begin fall tillage sooner. Soybean maturities from group 2.2 to 2.8 will be planted with emphasis on 2.2 to 2.4 so that next year's soybeans can be harvested sooner.
Harvest seemed to drag on for the Judisches this year. But, in the end after starting in late September, it was only long by a day or two. One reason it seemed to go slow was a wet spell in October. "I don't remember a fall where we had two weeks of fog, haze and steady drizzle. Every day was 'What do you do? Do we pick corn or not?'" Brent recalled. Into the first week of November, weather cleared and fieldwork progressed. "We've had no rain for three weeks. We had record highs on Friday," he said.
Fall tillage, ripping and vertical tilling is finished. With dry weather, it was a matter of "go where you go when you want to go."
In a tip of the hat to Iowa's slow progression away from diversified livestock farms, one of Brent's priorities is removal of old fences and the brushy trees that populate them. Some waterways, those drainage structures that conduct rainfall from terraces down the hill toward ponds and further drainage below, need maintenance.
Several neighbors are still picking corn. This year's crop has been slow to dry. Brent helped a neighbor finish off his fields last week by picking and storing corn in six 300-foot-long, 14,000-bushel storage bags at the edge of his fields. Grain moisture levels tested between 16% and 19%.
Most machinery, combines and grain carts have been stored for the winter. Trucks have been parked closest to the shed doors for easy access once grain deliveries begin next year in March. Tractors have yet to be detailed. They will be. Brent likes spring to begin neatly. Exceptions are the backhoe and skid steer, which are still being used for removing fence. There's paperwork to be done, detailed listings of crops, fields and farms. And bills to pay. Lisa is working on that. Seed corn is ordered. P and K for corn on corn is applied along with potash for soybeans. P and K for corn following soybeans will wait until spring.
Brent told DTN that fertilizer costs will be a little lower for next year's crops. Seed, while it is no cheaper, will at least not be higher. That's good news because "grain prices are terrible." Next year's crop mix will be heavier on soybeans. That's due to already established rotations rather than profitability or cost saving.
Brent and Lisa will focus on getting soybeans planted earlier than they were this year, hopefully before April comes to an end, for higher yields. Brent told DTN that his best soybeans this year were planted April 22. All the other fields were average at best.
That tilt toward larger soybean acreage next year may be a good thing, because Brent feels that, in stressful years, soybeans take weather swings better than corn. Going into winter with dryer soil -- reports from several states show similar conditions -- means rain is even more crucial for next year's crops. That raises the specter of less-favorable growing conditions. "You have to go all the way back to 2010 for our last marginal crop. The law of averages says we have a hiccup here somewhere," Brent pointed out.
No one should read pessimism into Brent's outlook for 2018, though. Far from it. In some ways, life on the farm is better than ever.
"Farming has been improved. Now we match hybrid to soil types. You pick a hybrid to match the farm. We use soil grid sampling. That's different from just 10 years ago," Brent said. "Hybrids are changing. There are more today than ever with drought stress tolerance. Ten to 12 years ago, soybeans were all planted in 30-inch rows. Now it's 10-, 12-, 15-inch rows. We do precision planting (seed placement, variable-rate population). We tailor everything to the potential of the soil. My sprayer boom has seven (individually controlled) 15-foot sections. Now you can order individual nozzle shut-off. Deere has sensors coming out that will control them individually so they spray only the weeds in the field. We use a pre and a post. If you can cut $10 off your chemical bill ... that's coming."
That's not to say that cost-saving is Brent's sole focus. There's long-overdue room to grow production, too.
"I would say what we're looking at is soybean yields. Back in the '90s, we were averaging 60 bpa beans. (That's close to Brent and Lisa's 2017 average yield). Corn has improved dramatically in the last 10 years. I remember when 200 bpa corn was a great deal. Now if it's not 220 to 240, you're disappointed," he added.
Prices for the crops Brent and Lisa grow are determined by markets and available supplies. There's no doubt in Brent's mind that this year's corn crop was big. He saw it first hand in his own part of the Eastern Corn Belt and in the Western Corn Belt during a crop tour he attended this summer. But local demand remains strong, and the usual grain elevator and ethanol refinery lines were shorter than crop size would imply.
"After all the hubbub, we actually had better prices after the crop report. There aren't many crop piles around here. Toward the end of harvest, we were hauling three places. It was a drive through for all three. Nobody had trouble with (storage) space. Ethanol plants are pushing the basis, so obviously they're making some money."
But this year's crop is only part of available supply. "My question every year is always this large carryout. It's more than the pipeline will hold. When we get to harvest, where is all that?" he asked.
Regardless of weather, just because Brent and Lisa's corn acreage might be down from last year doesn't mean less production. With modern methods and Brent's management, fewer acres can increase the focus on each and every one.
"It's easier to get higher per-acre yields when you have fewer acres," Brent said.
This is the final installment of DTN View From the Cab 2017. DTN wishes to thank Zack Rendel and Brent and Lisa Judisch for their unfailing willingness to share each week's progress with DTN readers across America and around the world.
Richard Oswald can be reached at Talk@dtn.com
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