DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- The wheat combines are rolling this week in Texas, and Ryan Wieck might as well be throwing a party. Each year he has a handful of helpers who take vacation from their real jobs to drive equipment and rejoice as they help bring in the sheaves.
"I pay them, but I think they really come for my wife Cathy's field meals," he said. "We have a lot of fun and get a lot of work done at the same time.
"I just love wheat harvest. There's something about bringing in a crop in the middle of the season that is reassuring. It's good to know you've a least produced something -- even if the yields aren't perfect," said Wieck, who farms near Umbarger in the Texas Panhandle.
Every golden kernel seems precious this year since drought stubbornly continues to dog this farming region. "There are cracks in the field so wide and deep that the wheat plants are actually falling into them," Wieck said, noting that he's only seen drought this dire one other time in his farming career. "But I'd rather celebrate that we've got a crop," he said.
Kellie Blair, who farms in Dayton, Iowa, found 0.6 inch of rain swishing in the gauge this past weekend and another 0.5 inch this week. It was a welcome relief, but more moisture will be needed to recover from the early season deficit.
"We have 30-inch-row soybeans that I'm not sure will shade the rows this year," she said. Loss of sunlight capture and more weed control struggles come when that canopy doesn't close. But at least she might not have to worry with white mold this year?
Blair and Wieck are participating in DTN's View From the Cab feature, a weekly diary of events covering crop conditions, rural issues and farm life. This is the eighth installment of the feature for the year and dry conditions have been a constant theme so far this year.
Read on to learn what else is happening in their worlds this week:
KELLIE BLAIR -- DAYTON, IOWA
It was a pleasant 68 degrees Fahrenheit in central Iowa on Monday, and after the blistering temps of the previous week, Blair was feeling lucky -- even if her children were complaining about it being too cold to go to the community pool.
The spot of much-needed rain has revived crops for the time being. And the farm missed the big storms that contained damaging wind and hail.
"We had plenty of wind, but no damage. Although we were not involved in the derecho that swept through Iowa last fall, that possibility remains fresh in our minds," said Blair.
"We're still going to need quite a bit of moisture to get to the end of the year, or I fear our yield prospects are going to be dismal if we do not," she noted. Recent rains moved the farm, located in Webster County, Iowa, from D2 (severe drought) to D1 (moderate drought) on the U.S. Drought Monitor as of June 17.
Soybeans look particularly small, she noted. "Our 20-inch soybeans are looking better than 30-inch beans and have a better shot of canopying."
Soybeans are sneaky. Late rains can result in some amazing comebacks, and Blair acknowledged that it is early in the game. However, she expected that soybeans would start flowering this week since they are photo period sensitive and they begin the reproductive stage when the nights become longer after the summer solstice.
Blair can't help but wince a little at the timing of a drainage recycling project the farm is doing with the Iowa Department of Land and Stewardship and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The idea is to empty water from tile lines into a holding pond and reuse the water through an irrigation pivot.
This would have been a good year to have had access to irrigation, but alas, the project is just in the beginning stages. In fact, the field where the pond is going in had been seeded in oats. "We had to get those oats mowed, raked and baled before the rain came Saturday night to get ready for that drainage project," she said.
Add some last-minute spraying ahead of the rains and life got even busier than normal. "For Father's Day, we came home from church, grilled out and then all took naps," Blair said, noting that kid activities had kept them on the road nearly every night during the month of June.
There's not a lot of rest for the weary -- the Webster County Fair is knocking on the calendar. There are 4-H steers to break to lead and the hustle is on for children, Charlotte and Wyatt, to get welding, woodworking and baking projects completed.
Kellie admitted feeling a little out of her element when it comes to 4-H club work. "I didn't grow up with a 4-H background, although my husband, AJ, had that experience. And we're not your typical show cattle people," she said.
However, she sees showing commercial steers and tracking their rate of gain as valuable learning. "I really like that these projects give our kids a sense of what it is we do through our direct beef business here on the farm," she added.
Thankfully, her mother-in-law loves to cook and bake and has become a willing adviser on kitchen-related 4-H projects. "That's just not my thing," Blair confessed.
Crops, cows, kids -- Blair's pipedream is to be perfectly organized, to always be on time and have everything happen on a schedule. "Yeah, right ... like that's going to happen," she said with a laugh.
Still, sometimes dreams do come true. When the loader tractor she uses for chores broke down a few weeks ago, the farm added a payloader with an air-conditioned cab to the equipment lineup.
"It was on my bucket list of wants, and it came with a bigger bucket," she said.
RYAN WIECK -- UMBARGER, TEXAS
When it comes to wish lists for the farm, Wieck can't think of anything he wants more than a good rain. The lingering drought in this section of Texas goes back to 2019, and he'd be more than happy to see it end.
Still, the hard red winter wheat being harvested this week is testimony to just how resilient this crop is. While he hasn't tallied final yields for 2021, he's figuring they ranged from 3.5 bushels per acre (bpa) to over 40 bpa. Wheat protein content is running above 13% and test weights have been between 63 to 65 pounds per bushel, which is above normal, he said.
The wide yield variance is likely the result of some fields getting a shower another didn't or maybe they laid fallow a bit longer, Wieck explained.
"Last year I had to chisel fields because they were starting to get a hard pan, and we never got enough rain to replace the moisture that I lost," he said. Some of the wheat is delivered to a local flour mill, and the rest goes direct to the elevator.
While many farmers in this area chop wheat for cattle feed, Wieck likes to leave his for grain. The stubble helps with rotation and saves soil and moisture.
"I just like wheat. It's less stressful to grow than cotton. It gives you more options -- you can sell it for hay, harvest for grain, chop it for silage, graze it out with cows," he said.
This year, temperatures climbed to 104 F during harvest, and while moisture may not have been falling from the sky, the humans were sweating. "Sure, we've got air-conditioned cabs, but sometimes you have to get out or have an equipment breakdown," he said.
"My Dad gets to run the self-repairing machine. Here's how it works: He picks up the phone to tell me his machine is broke and then says, 'Give me your machine and go get mine fixed,'" he said, chuckling.
The progression of equipment and technology -- not to mention the additional hands to help run it -- has brought efficiencies that still boggle Wieck's mind. He remembers when his father replaced the John Deere 95 gasoline-powered combine for a diesel JD 7700. "I thought we were high class then, but we moved to a JD 9600 and then a JD 9660 and bought a semi," he recalled.
When operations began to expand several years ago, they leased a second combine and it proved to be enough of a game-changer that he purchased it. "If we do have a breakdown, we can keep things rolling. Yesterday, we cut over 200 acres in four hours," he said.
Running GPS in the combines and using the same headers, drivers line up on the same AB line. "We're not cutting weird angles. Everyone is on the same line and we just work our way through the field, keeping the combines close to the grain cart.
"The technology has made us amazingly efficient. You do have to watch your unload augers -- you don't want to get in a sword fight. But having that second machine has just made life so much easier," he said. Life before extra hands and an extra combine and small trucks made harvest drag out, especially since there is still cotton, cows and irrigation pivots to tend.
When Wieck's wife, Cathy, started bringing meals to the harvest field, she organized a setup like it was tailgating at a football game. "She quickly learned that we have to eat and get right back to work, but she still shows up in the evening with full-course meals for the whole crew loaded in the back of her car, often after working a full day off-the-farm," he said.
Philly cheesesteaks, chili dogs, brisket, homemade desserts -- he hasn't met one of these menus he doesn't like. "My favorite? Every. One. Of. Them," he said.
On Father's Day, the entire crew and extended family gathered at the house, soaked up the air conditioning, ate good food and reminded each other why they are blessed, despite some dry, hot days.
"I'm really not sure if our cotton crop will make it right now. We're irrigating and doing what we know how to do," Wieck said. "But I think we have to take moments like that evening, surrounded by family, friends, and occasionally remind ourselves about all that is good."
Pamela Smith can be reached at email@example.com
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