DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Kellie Blair winced when she saw pictures of Ryan Wieck's hail-damaged crops this week. The crop should be rounding third and heading for home this time of year.
"We could still use some rain to finish out our crops," said Blair, who farms in central Iowa near Dayton. "But there's always the worry something else could come with it," she said.
Wieck knows too well. The Texas Panhandle farmer has been in desperate need of rain on his farm near Umbarger. Every drop received has been measured and treasured. But Saturday, the rain came with wind-driven hail that left cotton and milo in shreds. The damage stretched over 450 acres of his acreage -- the very same fields that were hit last year -- just 380 days prior.
"Waiting for the insurance adjuster to call was not what I wanted to be doing today," Wieck said on Monday.
Wieck and Blair are participating in DTN's View From the Cab series, a regular feature that follows their crop season and reports on rural issues. This week, beyond weather, the two farmers talk about the struggle to book inputs, the challenges behind securing more acreage and why good landlords are important.
Read more to learn what's happening in their worlds this week:
RYAN WIECK -- UMBARGER, TEXAS
If there's a consistent pattern to the rainfall this year, it is that it seems to be inconsistent. A mile south of Wieck's homestead, he received 1/2 inch of rain on Saturday. A mile north, over 4 inches fell.
"Yes, we need moisture, but getting it in a time-release form is the worst, especially late in the season. You are basically done with the crop. All your expenses are in it," Wieck said.
Finding the largest cotton bolls knocked from the plant and swimming in the middle of a muddy row were a gut punch. "We've got a lot of quarter-inch size bolls on the ground. We also lost a lot of the leaf on this cotton, which will influence the quality. It's just not going to finish out the way it needs to," Wieck said.
Milo leaves hung in soggy ribbons or littered the soil surface along with clusters of grain clipped from the head. "I don't think the hail was very big. I think there was probably a lot of it, and looking at the crop, it seems it must have been wind driven," he said. Sugarcane aphids have been on his radar in milo, but he figures they'll sense a damaged crop and swoop in now for sure.
It's hard to be optimistic when you've just been pummeled.
With the rain has come the decision to go ahead and put some acres of wheat in while the moisture exists. Some of the hail pounded land that had been tilled this summer to work in manure. "I want to get cover on it as soon as I can, or it will start blowing," Wieck said.
Tractors and drills are getting a once over in the shop this week in preparation for seeding. Planting wheat feels positive, like he's moving forward, Wieck figured.
Still, there's never a dull moment. He happened to look across some fallow fields awaiting wheat seeding recently and noticed some green in the distance. Further investigation found volunteer cotton emerging.
"That's an indication of how dry we have been. There hasn't been cotton in that field for two years. That seed had just been laying there until we got a little moisture," Wieck said.
There's a general acknowledgement in cotton country that the crop is darn hard to get up, but once established, you can hardly kill it. Cotton is technically a perennial, and getting volunteer cotton controlled at a small size is important. A hard winter should kill the volunteers, but Wieck's afraid to count on that, lest he have an even bigger problem with limited ways to control it in wheat next spring.
Drought also hampers herbicide efficacy since the plant doesn't take up the chemical as readily. Plus, getting any herbicide this fall, let alone the right ones designed to do the job, has been a struggle, Wieck said.
"I'm in the planning process trying to decide what to do for next year, and questions about inputs are concerning," he noted. "We are lucky, given the high price of fertilizer, that we have access to manure. But I'm spending a lot of time shopping for herbicides, and if you can find what you want, there are wide swings in prices between retailers."
Wieck prefers cotton varieties that include the dicamba herbicide trait, but has encountered multiple years of crop injury from off-target movement of 2,4-D.
He picked up a half-section of land that he'll farm for the first time starting this fall. He's got a bead on the property -- it bumps up against his fence line. Maps from the FSA office will fill in the blanks about how the fields are laid out and previous rotations.
Taking on a new piece of ground is a bit of a puzzle, even if you've watched the land be worked, he said. "If it's irrigated, you need to get to know the wells, how the underground lines run, where the electric lines are, what kind of nozzles are on the sprinklers and how strong the water is on that place -- all sorts of things come up," he said.
Crop share is more common here than cash rent in his portion of the panhandle, Wieck said. The recent 2020 USDA cash rent survey put Texas cropland rented at an average of $42.5 per acre with irrigated land averaging $100 per acre. Find the raw data here: https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov/…. Wieck says Texas rental rates vary widely depending on region, lay of the land and soil type.
While obtaining land to expand operations can be competitive when it arises, he has a simple formula for attracting new parcels: "Be a good steward of your own land, and be a good neighbor to those around you," Wieck said.
KELLIE BLAIR -- DAYTON, IOWA
Among the main corn- and soybean-growing states, Iowa had the highest average cash rent for cropland at $233 per acre in USDA's most recent survey. Find a DTN analysis of that study here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….
Blair said that rent figure sounds about right for her part of central Iowa. "But there's not much, if any, land coming up here. If there is, the competition is fierce -- that's why we have to try to get the very most from every acre and have found other ways to expand on the acres we have," she said. Cattle, direct sales of beef, specialty grains, hay sales are all part of a system to be sustainable both in terms of profits and caring for the land.
That's also why she and her husband, AJ, work with each landowner to write leases that work for both parties. Straight cash rent, variable leases based on production, 50-50 crop share -- all have a place in their operation depending on the landlord and land use.
The majority of Blair Farm leased acreage is owned by family, but that doesn't change the need to tend the relationship, she said.
"Most of our landlords are very invested in our farm and interested in what we are doing. I'm always impressed how many of them come to visit each year, and we love showing them what we are doing. Sometimes the farm is their only remaining tie to the area," she said. Sending pictures and occasional updates to landlords helps keep communications flowing and especially important since the farm is steeped in conservation efforts, she added.
"A farm is a large investment and a lot of responsibility, whether a landlord purchased it, or it was handed down through the family. Ultimately, it is their responsibility to determine what happens on their land," Blair said.
"As a young farmer, I feel there's a lot of pressure for us to do the right thing," she admitted. "On the other hand, those right things have to work for us financially as well."
Oats are an example. The farm has been involved in a three-year assisted program that worked oats into rotations and established a contract with the oat-beverage company, Oatly. That contract expires after this year, and the couple is crunching numbers to see if they can continue working oats into their system.
"We know oats are good for the land. We know they are good for water, but that doesn't always mean they are good for business," she said. "So, we're trying to weigh all those things and make them work together." Planning for next year is hard enough, but big shifts in practices are even harder since they must look years down the road to justify the time and investment.
Being nimble enough to change decisions is also important, she noted. The couple had planned to harvest high=moisture corn this year for use in cattle. When they were unable to find a miller to custom roll the high-moisture corn, they decided to harvest earlage.
Instead of cutting and chopping the entire stalk, like silage, a custom harvesting crew will use a corn head on a chopper to remove the entire ear, husk and cob to chop, store and feed. Cows will be turned in to graze the remaining crop residue once cover crops are well established.
Rains this past week have been just what the soybean pods need to keep filling, Blair noted. "The crops look good, especially considering how little rain we had early. We are cautiously optimistic," she added.
The fourth cutting of alfalfa is putting on a last push -- something Blair wasn't sure she'd see this year. As of Aug. 19, the majority of Webster County was still listed on the U.S. Drought Monitor as D2 severe drought with the northeast corner listed as D3 extreme drought.
"The third cutting was the only one all season that got rained on," Blair said. "Which is good because we needed one cutting to hold back to use for our cattle.
"The rains we've gotten haven't been big, but they've been very timely and without much of the damage others have had. For that I'm very grateful," she said.
Pamela Smith can be reached at email@example.com
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