By Richard Oswald
DTN Special Correspondent
LANGDON, Mo. (DTN) -- Technology in modern farm machinery has never been more advanced than it is today. But even with automatic guidance and computerized rate controllers, the most important aspects of today's self-propelled tractors, sprayers and combines are glass-encased operator stations offering unobstructed views. That's because successful farmers everywhere use the view from their cabs to know not only where they're going, but where they've been.
After all the challenges offered by 2013, DTN View From the Cab farmers Kane Bercaw of Union City, Mich., and William "Shep" Sheppard of Louisiana, Mo., certainly know where they've been, and look forward to a new year.
Kane's harvest isn't quite done. High-moisture grain makes for slow going. He has another week or so before his corn is all in. "The dryer is a bottleneck," Kane told DTN from the cab of his grain truck late Monday. He estimates about another five or six days before the last 165 acres are completed.
In Missouri, where Shep's harvest is over, a variety of implements like a rotary harrow, Aerway, and DMI in-line ripper are being used to prepare Pike Grain fields for next year. (Pike Grain is the name of Shep's family farm.) Anhydrous ammonia application in the area is picking up. "They're running hard," Shep said. A few neighbors with corn still standing when high winds a week ago flattened stalks have found picking the last few acres challenging.
For both Kane and Shep, 2013 seemed a little on the dry side until spring rains began to fall in April. Big rains north of Shep's home near the Mississippi and Salt rivers caused flooding that lasted into July. This is what Shep told DTN in late June: "We got a half-inch on most of our ground, plus an inch and a half on another part in about 40 minutes." That's when heavy rain across eastern Iowa pushed the Mississippi River over its banks again with a crest at five feet above flood stage forecast at Shep's hometown, Louisiana, by July 4.
Eventually, Shep was able to plant only about half the farm.
At the same time in Michigan, Kane was dealing with a variety of emergence issues caused by tumultuous spring weather. This is what he had to say on June 24 when one of his partners at B&V Farms, his brother Justin, had been rotary hoeing a crusted seed corn field in a last-ditch effort to improve seedling emergence: "It (the field) is hard as a rock. All the rain (that might help soften hard soil) seems to go to Grand Rapids," Kane said.
Both farmers struggled with planting, replanting, and alternating wet/dry spells. Temperatures moderated with rain as August lows in the mid-40s were recorded. Kane picked tomatoes in the mud while Shep wished for a germinating rain on freshly sowed tillage radishes on prevented planting river bottom. "We're dry. Stuff is starting to go south pretty fast. Corn we planted here the 10th of June has only had one good rain," Shep said. "My yard is browning. Soybeans are getting that gray look in the afternoon. Corn on lighter soils north of here and soybeans on gravel bars have started to turn."
During the same week of Aug. 26, this is what Kane had to say: "Seems like we get a bunch of rain, it dries off, then we get a bunch more."
Asked to summarize his 2013 growing season, Shep said "TOUGH! Late. Wet. Frustrating. Wet in the beginning, dry in the end."
Close to the Great Lakes, Kane is used to wetter, less predictable "lake effect" weather. He calls the year "probably above average." While soybeans were disappointing, his other crops made up the difference, with overall farm revenue about equal to last year. "I think we're on par really," he said.
Kane believes one reason why this year's revenue has remained high was because he and his partners at B&V Farms did a better job managing commercial crops. Micronutrients get some credit. "We saw the benefit on our vegetable crops (tomatoes, green beans) and transferred it over to see if it would pay. That seemed to work pretty well," he said.
Never say never might be the secret to Shep's success, especially when flood-minded Mother Nature threw snake eyes Shep's way. NH3 and herbicides applied to corn ground where wet weather prevented planting looked like no dice, but resulted in Shep gambling a little with late-planted soybeans instead. Shorter-stature varieties were used to reduce the risk of yield killing excess vegetation in the presence of too much N. "I planted about 1 3/4 inches deep, got a good rain, and you couldn't even tell," he said. Those soybeans, planted in July, eventually yielded in the 50-bushel-per-acre range. Another good decision was alternative mode of action soybean herbicides to control rogue weeds leading to glyphosate-resistant weed populations. Clean fields were the outcome.
Things that didn't go well for Shep in 2013 were pre-applied anhydrous ammonia -- he was never able to plant the corn -- and small dewatering pumps on flood-prone river bottoms. "We put in 12-inch pumps. They should have been 16- or 20-inch," he said.
Kane said no-till crops weren't his best this year. "We had mixed success," he said. "No-till alone just doesn't seem to work very well on our soil. One farm in particular always seems to lag." Kane noted that vertical tillage, or cover crops, helped.
Looking ahead to next year, both farmers hope for "normal" weather. Kane points to an old axiom, "One extreme leads to another." But is it possible to prepare for whatever comes? "I prepare for weather with irrigation," he said.
Shep's gut feeling is for a cold winter and dryer spring. He recalls a winter in the '80s when it got so cold school was cancelled due to fuel jelling in diesel school buses. That was followed by more average weather. "It would be nice not to have to farm around wet spots," he said.
As for markets? Shep expects lower prices, soybeans in the range of $11 to $12. With a strong demand base, corn should hold above $4 most of the time. He thinks on-farm storage will make his prediction come true as farmers hold corn off the market during downturns. At least part of his 2014 corn production would find a new home anytime $5 is challenged. Likewise, soybeans above $12.
Kane, too, expects soybeans will fall off recent highs. This year's crop is sold; he'd like to price half of next year's. Right now, any price rally could do the trick. For corn, he thinks 50-cent swings will be the norm, but no train wrecks. There probably won't be any $6 corn next year, but it's likely $2.50 corn will be just as scarce.
We all know the feeling: If only I could go back in time, what would I do differently? Kane would do more vertical tillage because that seems to work for him. And more fungicide on soybeans as white mold seems to be a growing problem. B&V Farms has added more acres for next year, and more irrigation. That's been the pattern recently, so it sounds more like Kane is thinking "stay the course." He expects less exciting times with steadier prices. "I think we're in for an averaging-out time in agriculture," he said.
Shep would do more micronutrients, trickling sulfur onto planted corn rows. Broadcast applications don't reach the heart of the problem. He'd experiment more with cover crops like the tillage radishes he sowed this fall. He's learned they need to go on earlier in order to make necessary growth. Budgets must be reflected in profits. A closer look at inputs and trimming costs would have saved money in Shep's flooded year of 2013.
Population growth and demand go hand in hand. With ever more reaching human hands in the world, as more people are born, food demand increases. Can farmers like Shep and Kane keep up by producing food from a finite number of acres?
Inputs like applied fertilizer, higher plant populations, and favorable weather, look like the secret to this year's yields. But weather is variable at best, and tools like irrigation aren't free. This year's production and demand have equalized prices in the marketplace. Growing crops is expensive these days.
"When corn prices were high, a lot of people pushed the envelope producing corn. As profits back off, we won't see as much of that. I don't think we'll blow the doors off production, but I think demand (and production) will steadily keep climbing," Kane said.
Pasture and CRP land brought into row-crop production recently is not the most productive. Costs are higher partly because production is lower. Shep wonders if farming that land has a long-term payout. Commodity prices will decide how quickly food supplies increase relative to demand.
"My dad always says 'guarantee me a price and I'll guarantee production.' We're gonna really have to sharpen our pencils," Shep said. "When corn was $6 or $7, there were things we could do that we can't do with corn at $4."
This is the final edition of View From the Cab 2013. DTN offers profound thanks to Shep and Kane, who always answered their phones to share both good news and bad during a challenging year. View From the Cab will return again in 2014 to tell the nuts and bolts story of U.S. agriculture from real, live farmer perspectives.
Editor's note: We're looking for participants for next year's View From the Cab. If you think you'd like to be featured, contact DTN Managing Editor Cheri Zagurski at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-485-4000 ext 6402. Let us know where you farm and what you grow. And feel free to ask any questions you might have.
Richard Oswald can be reached at Richard.email@example.com
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