DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Ryan Jenkins predicted he'd be done harvesting well before Thanksgiving this year. That was before the engine went out in his cotton picker with 700 acres of crop left to pick in the field.
Sound like a bad line from a country and western song? With tropical storm Eta still baring down on Florida, Jenkins felt like he's at least earned the right to sing a bit of the blues.
"I'm not going to lie, this week I feel about as down as I've ever been in this business," said Jenkins. "We didn't need one more thing, but we're trying to keep things in perspective. My family is all safe and healthy, and that's what matters. We'll get through this setback."
In central Illinois, Reid Thompson welcomed the moisture that came through his area on Tuesday. Corn and soybean harvests are complete for his farm, but ongoing field operations have been turning up evidence of just how little rainfall this area of Illinois has had since July.
"The fields are rock hard. We need moisture to give cover crops a push and to get us back to normal for next year," said Thompson.
Thompson and Jenkins have been participating in DTN's View From the Cab series since April. Their weekly reports have covered corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and peanut crop conditions. From the pandemic to hurricanes to politics to farm safety and finding a work-life balance, the two farmers have touched on many of the topics facing farmers during this very unusual year.
While their two farming operations sit about 750 miles apart and have vastly different climates, the two farmers share a time zone and many other similarities (beyond working on this project). They both had careers before returning to the home farm. Jenkins and Thompson both travel long distances to pick up rental acres and deal with multiple landlords. They work side by side with their fathers and struggle finding additional labor. Both have working spouses that make important financial and emotional contributions to the overall family efforts.
Working with a variety of companies to test inputs and varieties is also important to these farmers. They both are active in farm-related volunteer efforts. However, the biggest overlap has to be their commitment to family, a shared passion for agriculture and a willingness to share it with others.
While the two farmers have yet to meet, both are vowing to make that happen as soon as the need to distance wears off. "I've learned so much about crops and an area I knew nothing about," Thompson said of the peanuts and cotton grown by Jenkins in Florida. "I have new respect for what it takes to farm in an area like that and can't wait to see it first-hand."
DTN would like to thank Thompson and Jenkins for volunteering for this project. Watch the DTN Production Blog for occasional updates on their operations.
Read on as the two farmers reflect on this past season:
RYAN JENKINS -- JAY, FLORIDA
It's been a roller-coaster year for Jenkins in the western Panhandle of Florida. It was so dry early in the crop season that he was forced to idle the cotton planter to wait for rain. In May, much of Santa Rosa County was in a D0 drought (abnormally dry), and low temperatures slowed development of what did get planted.
Rain arrived just in time, and weather behaved itself for most of the summer -- so much so that Jenkins' anticipation began to build for harvest. "We really did have what looked to be the best cotton crop we've ever raised," he recalled.
As hurricane season stirred up activity in the Gulf, Jenkins dodged so many weather events that, again, he began to hold on to hope that maybe this year he'd escape a big event. Then came Hurricane Sally.
She made landfall along the Florida-Alabama border early Sept. 16. The Category 2 storm unleashed up to 30 inches of rain on fields where Jenkins farms in Florida and southwest Alabama.
Cotton open when the storm hit sprouted in the boll, and at the time he estimated half his cotton crop was lost. Jenkins made the calculated decision not to dig peanuts ahead of the storm, and it turned out to be a good one. While peanut digging and picking were delayed, he avoided the major quality discounts incurred by others that had the peanuts dug when the rains came.
Jenkins Farms became the go-to spot to assess and discuss what to do about the damage too. Nikki Freed, Florida's commissioner of agriculture, visited the farm, ultimately calling for a Major Disaster Declaration for 13 North Florida counties. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue also met farmers in Jenkins' barn to field their many concerns about the aftermath of Hurricane Sally.
Fast forward to November, and the good news is Jenkins finally finished picking peanuts this week. There was nothing easy about the process -- the vines took a long time to dry as more hurricanes stirred up more rain. However, yields came in at a respectable 5,300 to 5,500 pounds per acre.
"The combination of those yields and the fact that we planted almost all high oleic peanuts, which garner a premium, will be our saving grace," he said.
Corn also experienced some harvest delays due to rainfall and hurricane activity, but overall yielded an average of 180 to 185 bushels per acre on his farm.
Cotton yields have been around 700 pounds per acre, compared to 1,000 pounds that would be average for this region. "I really thought we were headed to 1,250 pounds or higher this year, and what's so sad is you can see the potential that was there.
"From the road, it doesn't look too bad, but you get into it and the ground is just covered with cotton," he said.
Blowing the engine in the John Deere 7760 cotton picker will likely cause another dent in those yields as repairs are estimated to take three to four weeks. A variable-speed fan drive went out and caused the engine to fill with hydraulic oil and metal filings. The engine had 1,970 hours on it.
A new engine costs $70,000, and a refurbished used engine will likely be in the $40,000 range. Jenkins said he's discovered leasing a machine will go a long way toward paying for the new engine.
"It's a difficult and time-consuming repair. The whole picker is built around the engine," he said.
"I think the hardest thing is that I spend every day trying to be efficient -- to get as much done as possible as fast as I can. Then this happens and it is like being sick or something -- it's completely out of your control, and it seem nothing is happening fast.
"The dealer is so good to me, and I know they are trying their best to locate repair parts and get it done, but it just doesn't feel fast enough when you're a man built for speed," he quipped.
And there is ... when the rain and winds never seem to end and life appears a bit bleak, Jenkins finds a mental way to make it better ... even if it is only a good one-liner. He will forever go into the DTN history books for his description of the unrelenting heat this past summer by saying: "It's hotter than three rats in a wool sock."
Jenkins posts regular YouTube videos to educate others on farming. The most recent describes the cotton picker troubles. Go to https://www.youtube.com/….
REID THOMPSON -- COLFAX, ILLINOIS
Spring got off to a roaring start in central Illinois, and Thompson planted early into some terrific soil conditions. Then it turned cold and rainy.
While his crop didn't suffer the frost and freeze injury that some farmers in the state experienced, early planted corn and soybean growth stalled. Heavy rains then showed the value of tiling. Ponding required Thompson to do some replanting.
Whether it was the pandemic or just a general delay, the seed beans he'd contracted to plant took extra time to arrive. Thompson had a good production guarantee on the crop, but it pushed soybean planting later than he would have liked.
Midseason temperatures and growing conditions turned favorable, and while Thompson's acreage is spread across two counties, corn mostly pollinated during cool weather, and soybeans flowered and podded like crazy.
Much of the young farmer's summer was spent in the sprayer. More complicated herbicide programs, split-season nitrogen applications on corn, and preventative fungicide applications on corn and soybeans fill a complicated chore list as the farm tries to apply just what is needed when it is needed.
As the calendar turned to August, the water spigot turned to off. By mid-August, Thompson and others who had anticipated big crops were slicing off top-end estimates. As the droughty conditions continued, the crop died down and dried down fast.
Still, even with all the ups and downs, Thompson looks back and feels lucky compared to farms who encountered a crop-flattening derecho, wildfires and hurricanes.
Average soybean yields for the farm came in the mid- to high-60-bpa range -- a 10% bump over the 2019 season. Corn yields averaged around 215 bpa -- about 7.5% over last year.
In 2019, Thompson was one of the rare farmers to have all his corn planted by Mother's Day. "So, I'm not sure it was more timely planting this year as much as we didn't have the two weeks of hot, dry weather like we did in 2019," he recalled.
There's no doubt the 2020 August weather capped yields, but at least temperatures didn't spike like they did the previous year. "We had better grain-fill periods during critical periods, even though we didn't have the moisture we would have liked," he said.
The farm has one irrigated field, which was in soybeans this year. Thompson had expected them to tickle triple-digit yields, but they made a disappointing 70-ish bpa. "Even though they had fungicide, we think it was a late frog-eye leaf spot outbreak that caused some of the yield loss," he noted. "We also continue to see that planting date really matters in soybeans."
He thought he spotted a little tar spot in cornfields late season and wants to study up on what that means for next year. Weed control was the biggest agronomic disappointment as herbicide-resistant waterhemp dominates in central Illinois.
Looking back on his View From the Cab experience, Thompson said knowing he was making a weekly report to the public helped him be more thoughtful and observant. "Think of all the things that have happened in 2020. The pandemic, trade wars, trade deals, dicamba uncertainties, all the various payments, the election and now election uncertainties," he said.
Even more remarkable is the improvement cash prices experienced since starting this project, Thompson said. "We've seen a $3 improvement in cash bean prices in 2020, from selling at $8 at one point to now around $11.
"How do you make marketing decisions with a $3 move in soybeans?
"You sure can't say this year has been dull," he said.
Pamela Smith can be reached at email@example.com
Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN
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