DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- It's been hotter than a firecracker in Iowa lately and Kellie Blair has a second cutting of alfalfa that will soon be begging to be baled. "I figure it will be ready right on July Fourth. Holidays don't wait for farmers," said the Dayton, Iowa, farmer.
Maybe mowing hay will tempt rain. While wide swaths of the Midwest had rain gauges overflowing in recent days, Blair's section of central Iowa has missed most of that action, leaving ongoing concerns of dryness for her crops.
Ryan Wieck feels her pain in the Texas Panhandle. "You don't have to go very far away and find that others got several inches of rain. We are just in a donut hole," he said, about his home in Umbarger, Texas.
"A bunch of farmers at church have been trying to figure out who the bad egg is in the group that's causing this drought," Wieck said. "They all sit on one side of church and we sit on the other.
"I kid you not ... during the service on Sunday, it started to rain. We could hear it hitting the roof. We walked out of church and on my side of the church, the parking lot was dry. The other side was wet.
"Those guys now think they've figured out who is to blame. I'm still trying to figure out what I've done wrong, but apparently it was really bad," he said.
Wieck and Blair are telling their agriculture stories each week as part of DTN's View From the Cab project. The diary-like feature reviews crop conditions, rural issues and slices of family life from their farms and communities. This week they discuss weather, crop progress, new plant-based foods and the dream of having a real holiday.
Read on to learn what else is happening in their regions of the country this week.
RYAN WIECK -- UMBARGER, TEXAS
Wheat harvest wrapped up this week for Ryan Wieck, but that was the easy job. This week he's been trying to figure out the erratic market surrounding that crop. "The markets were up this morning and the basis was fixing to roll when July goes off the board," he said on Monday, June 28.
Cash prices at the local cooperative were $6.41 per bushel Monday, but Wieck pointed out they do pay a dividend the following year. The flour mill and the local feedyard were both paying $6.71 per bushel Monday.
"I don't do a lot of forward contracting on wheat because our rainfall is so unpredictable. It's hard to guarantee you'll have a crop, and I do not want to have to buy grain to fulfill a contract because I couldn't grow it," he said.
Despite severely parched conditions, Wieck's wheat averaged 3 to 12 bushels per acre (bpa) on wheat acres that followed wheat. Wheat on fallow ground (cotton ground harvested December 2019 and planted to wheat October 2020) made between 24 bpa to 40 bpa, depending on rain totals in those fields. Wheat delivered to the flour mill averaged 13.9% protein.
"I suppose I'm like many farmers in that I wish I was better at marketing my crop," he said. "I'm much more comfortable using different marketing options with cotton."
Still, cotton could be in a quandary this year if drought conditions continue. "I have one dryland cotton field that I'm afraid might be done. If we get some rain this week, it may still have some hope left in it, beyond turning it in to insurance," he said. The stressed field is a 70-acre parcel he picked up this year and the soils need some rebuilding.
When crop insurance premiums for cotton doubled this past year, Wieck turned to enterprise units as a way to curb the cost. Enterprise units combine all of the acres of a particular crop within a county in which you have a financial interest into a single unit, regardless of whether they are owned or rented or how many landlords are involved.
If that field gets adjusted as lost, then he plans to destroy it and plant it back to sorghum sudangrass. "In past years, milo might have been a backup plan, but it has just stayed too dry," Wieck said.
Other cottonfields planted into wheat stubble might have some thin spots but seem to be hanging tough despite the lack of rainfall, he reported.
Letting wheat stubble lay fallow for nearly a year before it gets planted to cotton the following May helps recharge the soils and keep the soil covered to hold moisture. "That 6 to 8 inches of stubble really helps hold snow if we get it in the wintertime," he said. "We are always trying to conserve every drop."
Fallow wheat stubble still needs tended. A summer spray program is aimed at controlling weeds and volunteer wheat. Wieck may run mama cows, but volunteer wheat is no grazing opportunity in his eyes.
"There's too many diseases -- such as wheat streak mosaic -- and other problems that come out of volunteer wheat for my fields and for my neighbors," he said. Kochia is another problematic weed in wheat stubble.
Wind and heat have made good spray days far and few between this year. "On the other end of the spectrum, no wind is just as problematic because of the potential of temperature inversions," he said.
Independence Day may mean a brief escape from the farm for Weick and family -- maybe not the coming weekend, but before summer ends. "It's hard for me to be gone for more than a few days at a time, but an escape to the Colorado mountains is in the plan," Wieck said.
Meanwhile, he's eyeing a trip to Iowa to take in an August wedding and possibly meet his fellow View From the Cab farmer, Kellie Blair.
KELLIE BLAIR -- DAYTON, IOWA
The camper is hooked up and Kellie Blair can't wait to get her family to the local campground for the weekend. "I know camping close enough to come home and do chores and bale hay may not seem like a vacation to some, but it is better than not going and it does give us a break," declared Blair.
The second cutting of hay is coming on fast and she's not going to begrudge it -- even if it steals part of the holiday. Not only is hay another income stream for the farm, but unless more rain finds this part of central Iowa, they will need those bales to help extend pastures. As of June 22, Webster County, Iowa, was still being pegged as a D2 (severe drought) on the Drought Monitor.
USDA-NASS June 28 crop report indicated Iowa farmers benefited from rain, but more moisture is needed. Statewide, topsoil moisture levels were rated 12% very short, 30% short, 52% adequate and 6% surplus. Subsoil moisture levels were rated 18% very short, 42% short, 37% adequate and 3% surplus.
Corn and soybeans on Blair Farm are holding their own with the help of a few .5-inch rains here and there. However, she was eyeing soybeans closely for aphid outbreaks. They are doing rootworm digs to check to see if traits are holding up. "We've heard some reports of potential extended diapause issues," she said.
Seed beans will receive a fungicide treatment, but Blair said the outlook for disease pressure right now seems light. They spray corn with fungicide only in the presence of disease.
NASS has Iowa oats headed or beyond reaching 84% with 23% turning color, four days ahead of normal. Iowa's oat condition was rated 57% good to excellent this week. Blair said oats on her farm are on a similar schedule -- just starting to turn and likely two weeks or so away from harvest.
"It is time to get our combine back from the dealership," Blair said. "We send it off in the off-season to check for wear and be serviced. We're always the first one on the list to need it back because of oats."
Blair Farm grows oats for Oatly, a plant-based beverage company. The relationship got started after Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) received a Conservation Innovation Grant from the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). The deal offered a $25 per acre cost share to farmers for growing a small grain followed by a cover crop. The cost share helps reduce risk of growing the specialty grains if markets aren't available.
"We weren't familiar with growing food grade crops, so we weren't sure of the learning curve," Blair said. For example, the product is gluten-free, so it can't be grown after a cereal rye cover crop, since rye contains gluten. Segregating the oats in storage is easy since they do not grow wheat. Contracts stipulate that the oats meet a 36 lb. test weight, which can be a challenge if the growing season doesn't provide a long, slow grain fill.
"But we've found oats to be a low input system. We grow them ahead of non-GMO soybeans and they help break up the weed cycle, much like a cover crop would."
As a cattle producer, Blair finds herself in an interesting position on plant-based foods. She also has celiac disease, an immune disorder that requires finding gluten alternatives. Her daughter also has sensitivity to dairy products.
"Before I found out I was celiac, labels such as non-GMO verified really frustrated me because I knew many of the foods labeled don't even have a GMO equivalent and that the label was a lot of marketing," Blair said.
"The average household income in the rural area in which I live is fairly low and I have a problem with fear driving decisions and the food shaming that is at the base of many marketing campaigns.
"Still, because of my gluten intolerance, I find myself leaning on labels more and more for information. And sometimes we forget that it is farmers supplying many of the raw ingredients for many of these plant-based products, such as oat milk," she added.
"I don't really care who eats what and feel lucky that we have so many choices in this world. But I do have a problem with intolerant marketing campaigns that try to sway a person one way or another, especially when they are not based in fact," she continued.
"The reason conservation practices work on our farm is the fact that cattle are part of the system. Livestock fit on our landscape and we are providing very affordable, safe protein products produced in thoughtful, sustainable ways," she said.
The grill at the campsite this weekend will be loaded with burgers, brisket, ribs -- a cornucopia of meats raised by their own hands. "I'm proud of what we produce and know exactly how it was grown," she said.
Pamela Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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