View From the Cab

Farmers Talk Pollination, Labor Pains, and Tweaking Plans for 2023

Pamela Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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An alfalfa field gets a much-needed drink in eastern Colorado. Water is life where DTN View From the Cab farmer Marc Arnusch farms near Keenesburg. (Photo courtesy of Arnusch Farms)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN -- Humid. Steamy. Hot, but not too hot. That's the perfect weather recipe for corn pollination and exactly what Luke Garrabrant was experiencing this week in central Ohio.

After weather dished out a rough start to the 2022 season, it comes as a relief to share some good news, said Garrabrant. "We had about three inches of rain last weekend (July 16 and 17) and temperatures have been in the mid-to-upper 80s," he reported. "Early planted corn is just starting to pollinate, and conditions are ideal for pollination right now. I'm hoping that holds."

However, in eastern Colorado, Marc Arnusch was feeling the heat this week as the thermometer topped triple digits. The sweltering conditions also coincided with the end of surface water irrigation allotments for the farm. Those cutoffs were anticipated, but no less concerning as the growing season enters the dog days of summer.

Arnusch and Garrabrant report in each week as part of DTN's View From the Cab project. The farmers volunteer their time to inform others of crop conditions and other issues facing their farm and region. This is the 13th installment of the series this season.

This week the farmers talk about mid-season business assessments as they look ahead to 2023 and how they keep organized from day to day. Availability of labor presents some questions for Garrabrant. Meanwhile, Arnusch celebrates as two members of his farm staff reap their first harvest and he experiences the thrill of mentoring the next generation.


The barley combines were temporarily halted on Arnusch Farms this week as they waited for the remaining crop to dry down. Yields have been surprisingly good so far considering the dry conditions. His son, Brett, had a field in the 125 to 130 bushel per acre (bpa) range. One of Arnusch's own fields yielded in the 90 to 100 bpa acre range.

"Our yield goal on the farm for our better irrigated farm ground is 140 bpa," said Arnusch. "So, we're slightly under that. But for the kind of year we are having, I couldn't be more pleased.

"It didn't turn out like we had it on paper, but it is a good crop," he said.

Protein is the next hurdle. "If we are targeting the malt barley market, we want that protein content to be in the 10% range. I suspect we are going to have some elevated protein this year with yields being down slightly," he said.

Arnusch still has the option to sell into the feed market if the malt barley houses reject on protein. Fortunately, prices for feed barley are also strong.

"It's all a matter of supply right now. In a good year, 12% protein might be rejected by a malt house. In a tight barley year, 13% might get accepted," he said.

Last week the farm received the last delivery of surface water and those farms will be dry for the balance of the year. "Most of the crop has been taken off those farms – with the exception of a handful of alfalfa acres that are likely going to suffer going into fall," he noted.

About two-thirds of the farm's irrigation is provided by this limited surface water resource. The other third of the irrigation acres pull from a below-ground aquifer. "The challenge we're having with our aquifer-fed fields is getting across the ground in a timely manner. There have been days that our ET (evaporative transpiration) values are greater than what we can apply through pivot or put on through flood. So, we're actually seeing some of these crops step back just a bit in terms of their crop growth and development," Arnusch said.

DTN ag meteorologist John Baranick likes Arnusch's chances for rainfall heading into the weekend and coming week. "A couple of fronts will push south through the Plains, sometimes drawing some of the monsoon moisture out of the Rockies and sometimes just getting enough flow out of the southeast to build them up," Baranick said.

Showers and thunderstorms are always spotty. "But it would kind of be incredible if they get missed by all of them. Temperatures will also be coming down into the 80s on a few of the days behind the fronts, but they won't last long. Temperatures back into the 90s and nearing the triple-digit mark are set to come back next weekend going into August," Baranick said.

The more erratic weather becomes, the more Arnusch likes the resiliency of milo. "We've flood irrigated some of our milo once and the corn has been irrigated multiple times. It's easy to see how drought hardy milo is," he said, as he scouted and found fields dark green and vibrant, despite field temperatures of 105 degrees.

Water is the finite resource on the farm and constantly works into profitability projections. Arnusch said the farm team has been collecting and analyzing 2023 profit projections for several months. "We tend to look out 18 months in advance. We may not have all those answers but are constantly reviewing and analyzing enterprises.

"One thing I've learned is you can't be afraid to get out of something if it isn't what is best for the farm or the partners," he said. They will likely adjust their cropping mix for 2023, but details are still being ironed out.

Those decisions are made as a team and through lots of communication. The farm team gathers daily in what they call "stand up meetings", where they gather around 8 a.m. for a brief discussion of goals for the day. There they might address more practical things like a tissue test discovery or irrigation scheduling. By the way, that early morning meeting is often two or three hours after the day has started.

Every Monday, there is a more detailed, strategic staff meeting where topics such as farm operations and goals are reviewed in more depth. What's going on in world markets, discussions of farm metrics and safety reviews are other examples of topics they cover in these more formal, weekly staff meetings.

"I lead the Monday meeting, because it's my responsibility to make sure everyone's on task and accountable. Sometimes we assign things to talk about or split out the meeting into leadership roles, depending on what needs to be addressed," Arnusch explained.

Last year one of the key employees, Casey Cantwell, who is married to Arnusch's niece, Taylorann, the farm's office manager, approached the farm seeking an opportunity to start a farming operation of their own. Ultimately, Arnusch Farms decided to help them toward that dream by subletting a farm owned by an absentee landowner.

Last week the couple harvested their first wheat crop from this startup venture. "It's been so interesting watching these two young farmers stress over a lot of the things I stressed over 30 years ago when I was starting. It puts a smile on my face thinking about those same emotions from a different point of view," Arnusch said.

His own son, Brett, has his own farm projects, as well. The way they keep these individualized projects from getting messy is through the farm's open communication process, Arnusch said. "It's not always easy. And we're not perfect at this, but we take the attitude that we are working together for all of us and the farm, while giving room for individual expression within the family setting," he said.

Keeping the peace and the passion alive is so important because the cost of losing a key person is more than a loss of just labor, but also a loss of institutional knowledge. In fact, the farm business carries a key man insurance, a coverage that helps soften the financial blow of replacing that person should it occur, he added.


Sitting on his farmhouse porch at the end of the day, Luke Garrabrant doesn't have to see the tassels that are starting to top corn stalks. The smell of corn pollinating drifts through the air.

The July 18 USDA-NASS crop progress report pegged Ohio corn silking progress as 23% complete and rated the corn condition as 49% good to excellent. Nearly half of the soybeans in the state are blooming with 47% of the soybeans reported as being in good to excellent condition.

Garrabrant said early planted soybeans look "incredible" and have been blooming for the past week or more.

"However, in this area we have some very late planted beans and some that were replanted in late June. They are coming along. It helps that we have been getting consistent rains. I'm not going to say that we'll have a bumper crop, but we've got a crop made, especially if we keep getting these rains," Garrabrant said.

DTN ag meteorologist John Baranick confirmed that Ohio has been escaping the high heat that has gripped most of the Plains, southwestern Corn Belt, and Delta recently. Still, even those upper 80s are technically above normal.

"Temperatures are likely to get into the lower 90s on Sunday, but then a couple of cold fronts will bring temperatures down below normal for the rest of the week, with highs likely in the lower 80s on most days. The fronts are also going to bring scattered showers through the area again.

"Even if they miss out on these rains, the rain they had in central Ohio last weekend leaves them in pretty good shape. This part of the Corn Belt may also stay out of the excessive heat that is likely to return in August, but I wouldn't be surprised to see some stresses going forward," Baranick said.

Garrabrant, who plants his soybeans in 7.5-inch rows, was headed to the field this week to post spray Enlist One herbicide on Enlist E3 soybeans. Having the ability to spray based on growth stage rather than calendar date was a plus this year, he noted.

Weed control has held well this year, but giant ragweed can sneak in late in this area. He has one custom spray customer battling waterhemp in some non-GMO soybeans.

The big news this week was learning that his part-time employee is leaving to take an off-farm job. "That help was invaluable this spring as we juggled all kinds of weather-related setbacks during planting," Garrabrant said. "I will need to find help for this fall."

Labor shortages are common in farming and finding someone willing to work part-time that can operate machinery and handle application of agricultural pesticides can be difficult. Finding help could also alter Garrabrant's plans for adding other crops, as well.

"I've been going over budgets and updating numbers – looking at markets and current fertilizer values," he said. Currently in the crosshairs is the hay enterprise."The numbers I've been finding are losses of $200 per acre, mostly due to increases in fertility costs. Obviously, that is not sustainable," he said.

Specialty hay has been good to the family business in the past. But Garrabrant said lately there's been a flush of weekend farmers that make hay as a sideline. "It's put a lot of cheap hay on the market in our area from those that aren't necessarily looking at replacing nutrient removal. If I price on my costs, I'll likely end up sitting on inventory," he said.

The decision must come soon as it is nearly time to seed new hay fields. That lingering labor question weighs in here too. Haying takes extra hands for raking, baling, loading and unloading.

"I'm weighing all sorts of scenarios right now. For example, how many acres of wheat am I going to plant this fall? There are decent discounts on wheat seed right now if purchased before August 1," he noted.

Another reason to find an employee quickly is Garrabrant doesn't want to add more to his wife's workload to fill the gap. Paige is a valued partner in the operation and works off the farm at The Ohio State University. Talking through those decisions heads his current to-do list.

"I'd really like to set up a structured time where Paige and I routinely sit down and go over business decisions and review what has happened in the operation each week. We haven't implemented that yet, but this may be the push we need to make that happen," he said. Making dedicated time for those discussions also helps keep the business from spilling into personal time.

Garrabrant noted one simple tactic that does help his organizational skills. "I always seem to have 100 things going in different directions. Text messages and taking pictures with my phone save me over and over. I can't tell you how many times I use photos to record when I did something to bookmark it in time," he said.

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Pamela Smith

Pamela Smith
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