View From the Cab

Kids, Cows and Contingencies

Pam Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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Each week Scott Wallis and Ashley Andersen report on current field conditions and life on the farm. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith and Nick Scalise)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- It has already been a very long crop season. Ashley Andersen knows she sounds like a broken record, but this farming year has begun to feel like the song that will never end.

Where flooding once threatened, her farming region of Blair, Nebraska, is -- or was -- struggling with drought-like conditions until the last few days. "On Monday I would have told you I couldn't remember the last time we had a measurable rain," she said. "But then, we got 2 inches, and it now seems to just keep coming.

"We are finally seeing the first signs of fall. Soybeans, in particular, are beginning to turn, although that may have been caused as much from lack of moisture as maturity," she said. "Corn silage chopping has begun in the area."

Andersen farms with her husband, Jarett, and his parents, Tim and Kim Andersen. While she continues to stress how blessed the family has been to escape the worst of this year's early weather woes, it doesn't mean the uncertainty hasn't taken a mental toll.

"Jarett keeps saying it will be a relief to finally get in the combine, so we know what is really out there. Knowing is better than not knowing," she said.

Scott Wallis faces the same harvest waiting game near Princeton, Indiana, where he farms with his wife, Julie. Scott's father, Bob, son, J.R. and son-in-law, Brad Winter, are also on the farm team.

While the lateness of the crop continues to be a concern, it was profitability that was most on Wallis's mind this week.

Tightening the belt on inputs and other costs only goes so far, he said, noting that he and his family partners have been studying other revenue streams. The drive to diversify appears to be contagious -- the Andersen family unexpectedly found themselves in the cattle business this past week.

Read on to learn more about why the Andersen kids are now cowboys, why Wallis will harvest sooner than later and what else is happening as both farmers report in as part of our weekly View From the Cab series.

Here's what's happening in their parts of the farming world this week.

SCOTT WALLIS: PRINCETON, INDIANA

Scott Wallis loves to crunch numbers, but this week he isn't particularly liking what he sees when he runs the outlook for profitability on corn and soybeans.

"Yes, I'm concerned about this crop, but it is the market that is making me worried. December corn is a dime lower than we were a year ago today with over 19 million acres of prevented planting," he said on Monday.

"I realize those abandoned acres aren't all corn. But if corn is $3.50-something today, where would it be with a 15-billion-bushel crop?

"Shooting for 300-bushel corn is what we're geared as an industry to do, but I'm discouraged by the outlook of the implications of that. We need demand. Any assistance we're getting to help us through the situation today is a Band-Aid if we don't have demand for our products," he added.

Wallis's earliest planted corn went in on May 15 and it's finally reached 2,800 growing degree units (GDU) this week. The combine will start to run within the next few weeks, weather permitting.

Until then, he's chained himself to a desk to do enterprise analysis on a farm-by-farm basis. Wallis Farm acreage is spread over 35 miles -- mostly in southwestern Indiana, but they also farm some land in Illinois.

On average, the farm cost of putting in an acre of corn runs between $350 to $370 per acre for inputs alone (seed, fertilizer, herbicides, insecticides, additives, microbes), he noted. "That's over 100 bushel per acre to pay for inputs."

Soybean input costs run between $160 and $170 per acre, but he admits this is probably higher than some. "We fertilize soybeans to replace crop removal," he said.

Cutting input costs is generally the equivalent of "cutting off my arm to save my body," he said. "But we're looking at everything."

What sounds good in concept can sometimes have practical and costly repercussions. Reducing soybean seeding rates, for example, can increase herbicide costs if rows don't close. If populations dip too low, the plants can become so big that it slows or complicates harvest, he said.

Last spring showed the benefit of being able to plant corn and soybeans simultaneously. Wallis Farms also brought another family member into the operation in 2019 -- which adds to the people available to plant. The dream has been to add an additional planter to the lineup for 2020. Another 20-inch row planter (used to help shade rows and reduce weed control costs) represents a $150,000 investment.

"I'm not trying to be negative this week," Wallis said. "But this is the reality of farming today -- we are looking at every penny."

Another added expense this year will be drying costs. Beyond the lateness of the crop, stalk quality is deteriorating. Fungicide treatments did a good job controlling southern rust in their fields, but an unexpected invader is showing up in the form of Physoderma stalk rot.

Physoderma infection generally happens between growth stage V5 to V9 when the whorls fill with water for an extended period of time. In Wallis's case, it was excessive rainfall in this early period that set the stage.

"The plants look healthy and have good yield potential, but we're seeing rot at the nodes." He noted. "We've never seen this disease to this degree."

Wallis said as of last week none of his 111-RM or later hybrids had reached black layer, but several hybrids were showing evidence of Physoderma infection. "If we let it stand another couple of weeks, we are looking at 25% to 28% moisture.

"Stalk quality and Mother Nature aren't going to let us wait for dry down this year. Yes, that means finding more money for drying in the budget. But if we start losing it on the ground, that's a loss too. Every day it stands adds to that risk."

Finding other enterprises to replace what they do best is difficult, Wallis noted. "We've looked. We continue to look at alternatives." Turkey production is something they have considered, but labor is in short supply as they compete with a local automotive plant.

ASHLEY ANDERSEN: BLAIR, NEBRASKA

Some people go on a road trip and pick up a souvenir; Jarett Andersen came home this week with a load of cattle. Trucking is an important revenue stream for the farm, and this past week, he and his father, Tim, headed across Nebraska and into Kansas on a hauling job.

From there, it was on to Oklahoma to back haul two loads of 900-pound feeders. As is often the case, the order buyer was still trying to get those cattle sold as they rolled back toward Nebraska. The sale never happened.

"I got a phone call and learned that we were suddenly cattle feeders," Ashley said. Some girls might yearn for diamonds or flowers, but for this cattle-crazy girl, it was a dream come true. Thankfully, her father, Dale Jedlicka, had space in his feedlot for the surprise delivery. Since he often does some custom feeding, they had a built-in home for the new project.

"We think we bought them right and it has been fun to be back working cattle again," Ashley said. "It's my very favorite thing to do."

With three children under the age of 7, the young farmer hardly needs more to do, but her children love farm life. The older kids got in on the action this weekend, serving as "official" counters as the cattle came down the chute.

Ashley is already anticipating the protests when the children learn they won't be able to skip school to be around during harvest. In fact, the kids are so drawn to farming, that Ashley and Jarett frequently have safety lessons to emphasize the dangers and proper behaviors around the farm.

"They have specific safe spots where they know they are to stand if and when they hear a piece of equipment," she said.

"Where are the kids is the first thing we think about before starting or moving any machine," she said. The availability of grandmothers to help with the children so Ashley can help in the field during peak farming season is something she values highly.

She has been getting her own training on how to operate the new auger cart purchased for this harvest. The crazy quilt of terraced land makes driving the cart a challenge.

"I'm not going to lie, I'm a little intimidated by it, since it is bigger than our old one, but it's supposed to be more stable. We have a few hills that are so steep that I'll only take a partial load," she said.

While the 2019 season may have been a pressure cooker, Ashley and Jarett agree they can't imagine doing anything else.

"The family and the tradition of keeping this alive and going gets us up every morning," Ashley said.

Pamela Smith can be reached at pamela.smith@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN

(BAS/CZ)

Pam Smith