DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Everyone knows that puppy dog look kids get when informed they will likely miss a school or sporting event because of harvest. Every farmer that has ever missed one of those events knows how hard that decision was or is to make.
Kellie Blair has felt that tug over and over this year as her children fast forward into age categories that bring more activities. "Maybe it is that we got out of the practice of juggling when COVID canceled so many things. But getting better at scheduling and planning our lives and doing a better job of balancing is a priority for me as I head into next year," said the Dayton, Iowa, farmer.
This life balance/juggling topic has come up more than once as part of the DTN View From the Cab project. Blair, along with Ryan Wieck, of Umbarger, Texas, have been reporting on crop conditions and farm issues throughout the 2021 growing season.
This week in the 22nd installment of the View From the Cab series, the two farmers discuss how they weigh family and farm commitments and how fall harvest is shaping up. They also take a peek in the rearview mirror to see what they might change going forward into 2022.
Read on to learn more about what's happening in their farming regions this week.
RYAN WIECK -- UMBARGER, TEXAS
Last week's chore list included three trips to the John Deere dealership for parts for Wieck. This week started the same way.
"The new stripper cotton baler I'll be using this year uses DEF (diesel exhaust fluid), and it is the first piece of equipment I have that needs it. In July, I ordered a DEF tank to put on a field trailer, and it finally showed up this week," Wieck said.
With supply lines strained and some products difficult to source, Wieck is trying to think proactively for 2022. He's going over equipment and checking wear parts for possible replacement needs. He's making lists and checking them twice.
"I'm sizing up now what I might need for next year," he said. Decisions on seed technology and traits orders are also being influenced by what herbicides he can get for the 2022 season.
"I managed to get enough chemical for 2021, but it was work finding it and the price of those products will influence my decisions for next year," he said. "I'm asking myself if I can farm without chemicals if I can't get them and what does that look like? What fertilizer replacements can I find, and what adjustments do I make if fertility costs get out of line?"
Wieck has already taken advantage of some of those changes -- taking advantage of manure from local feedlots, even though it meant doing some tillage to work it in.
"Mostly, I'm not waiting to order inputs as I might have in the past," he added.
One thing he is holding off on is seeding the remainder of his wheat crop due to prolonged drought conditions. The area received about 3/10ths of an inch last week. "I'm afraid it may have been just enough to sprout the wheat I've planted so far, but not enough moisture to sustain it," he said.
Waiting for rain can drive you crazy in the Texas Panhandle, Wieck said. He'd planned to spray boll opener on cotton last week, but a forecast of 90% chance of precipitation caused him to hold off. And the rain didn't come.
"My goal is to get over a third of my acres covered with boll opener this week," he said on Oct. 4.
Applying end-of-season cotton products is a dance of timing. There are a variety of types of chemical boll openers, but, in general, the products induce the stress hormone ethylene. Increased ethylene levels trigger the formation of the abscission layer at the base of the leaf petiole and in the boll walls, ultimately leading to leaf drop and boll opening.
Most irrigated cotton requires a one-two harvest aid punch -- an application of boll opener/defoliant followed about seven days later by a desiccant that destroys the remaining green tissue in the plant, Wieck said.
"When you're stripping, you don't want to bring any green material in with the cotton. It discolors the cotton and adds moisture that is not desired. Within the stripper, there are saw drums that pull the lint from the cotton burr. If you have green coming off the leaves or sticks or green bolls being pulled into the machine, it will start gumming up the saws and cause harvest troubles," he explained.
Harvest typically begins about four to seven days after the plant is killed with a desiccant, such as paraquat. "I keep a close eye on the burr and make sure it is dry and that it cracks and is crunchy. If it is soft and pliable, the boll still has too much moisture in it," he said.
Another method he uses to test for harvest readiness is to bite down on the cotton seed hidden within the lint. If it is gooey, it's still too green. If the seed cracks, it's good and dry," he said.
"I'm not sure why, but if we strip ahead of a freeze, we get more pounds," he noted. The USDA-NASS Crop Progress report for the week ending Oct. 3 pegged Texas cotton as 64% bolls opened and 23% harvested. The crop condition was rated 9% excellent, 48% good and 37% fair.
Once cotton is harvested and rolled up, it needs to be moved to the gin fairly quickly to avoid spoilage. This year, two of the gins Wieck typically uses are having technical difficulties and aren't sure when they'll be online to receive cotton.
Open cotton and bad weather are not a good combination. That makes scheduling harvest aides critical -- cotton farmers want enough open, mature cotton to pick, but not so much it's left vulnerable. Finding labor is also complicating the harvest picture this year.
Regardless, Wieck has vowed to take a more relaxed attitude toward the harvest season. He's watched the mental toll this time of year can take. One daughter has just started participating in sports, and he hopes to make most of her games this year and "embarrass her by cheering loudly," he said.
"It's important to her that I'm there, and I want to support her when I can," Wieck said, noting that he knows his kid activity burden is light so far. "If I can't find two hours in my day to work some of her events into my schedule, then I am probably not managing my time at the farm well," he said.
KELLIE BLAIR -- DAYTON, IOWA
Last week brought 1.5 inches of rain, a welcome relief to Blair. "We had a whole weekend to spend together as we waited for things to dry back out again," she said.
A new group of cattle came into their feedlot. "I've been the one pretty much taking care of that end of the operation while harvest progressed. So, it was nice to have another set of eyes on these new cattle to make sure there were not any concerns," she said.
The farm has also been moving out some fat cattle. "Finally! The packers around here are not operating at 100% capacity, so it has taken some time to get our fats moved out," she noted. Blair said the issues within the meat packing industry concern her. At the same time, she feels conflicted about how individual producers can facilitate change.
"It's something I want to study, so I have more of an educated knowledge of the situation. Right now, all I know is I feel change is needed. I just don't know what that looks like," she said.
Soybean harvest is due to finish up at the farm this week. Since they grow non-GMO seed beans, she and husband, AJ, were waiting to combine corn until the beans were complete to limit the number of combine clean outs required.
That puts them ahead of the curve in central Iowa, according to the latest USDA-NASS Crop Progress report that had 90% of the soybean leaves dropping and 50% of the crop harvested. Corn was rated at 92% mature and 24% harvested for the week ending Oct. 3.
"Prior to the rain showers, it was sunny, hot and windy and had taken beans down to 9% to 10% moisture. In the evenings, it often looked like fog, but it was dust hanging in the air," she noted.
Corn harvest is when the activity really ratchets up, though. More carts, more cart drivers, more trucks are needed. Some of the crop is trucked straight to the elevator or ethanol plant, so lines this time of year can slow down the process.
Structure, plans and routine are what Blair prefers, but harvest doesn't always cooperate. "I've gotten better about accepting that, but being more efficient and getting into a pattern with our day remains high on my wish list for next year," she said.
This year she felt like they did a better job overall of having equipment prepped and ready for operations. But livestock don't always get the memo to fit into the schedule.
Efforts to work into direct beef sales have been good, but not always as streamlined as she learned the market. The need to challenge and try to constantly improve processes is not always the farmer way, but necessary, Blair said.
For example, this year they did some tiling, which left a field uneven and rough. "We're actually going to disk, rip and field cultivate that field. That will probably get the coffee shop talking about the fact that we are doing tillage because we are such advocates of no-till and/or conservation measures.
"We'll return to those just as soon as we fix this field. The point is, we are constantly evaluating and changing how we do things as we learn more or sometimes simply need to fix a problem," she said.
There aren't any absolutes in parenting either, Blair said. There are times when hectic times on the farm will take likely take precedent, because the farm is important to the success of the family, too.
"We want the kids to see that there are times when we do prioritize their needs, but we also want them to understand why the farm needs are important and occasionally come first. What we're trying to a better job of is being more mindful of what we do when we do have the time. This is our one life to live, and we should enjoy it too," she said.
Included in that directive is taking time for self. Farmers work hard, but the job isn't as physical as it once was. For a fee, Blair's local high school opens the gym and weight room. She has worked that into her schedule while her daughter is at dance.
"I felt awkward and self-conscious when I first started doing this, but I really look forward to it now," she said.
Many of the social activities and opportunities to commune with fellow farmers have not yet returned after COVID. "These events were more than a free meal, they were a chance to talk to others that do like things," Blair observed.
"I think we are fortunate in that by working together, AJ and I split more than just the responsibilities of the farm. All the stress isn't shouldered by one," she said.
Pamela Smith can be reached at email@example.com
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