As the coffeepot circulates around the table, stirring spoons clink against steaming hot mugs. Like always, talk quickly turns to farming.
“Glyphosate made a lot of poor farmers better. Instead of cultivators we have sprayers.”
“Many of today's technologies allow you to stay away from your crop. We farm more acres, but maybe not as well. Do we want quality or quantity?”
“If you take the time to dig down in the soil you can see the benefits of no-till.”
These are the threads of conversation you'd typically overhear in a coffee shop or at a local co-op. They're also actual excerpts from a conversation among five growers hailing from four states: South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Kentucky. We invited them to join us at the Midwest Soybean Conference to talk about key issues they're facing in agriculture.
Here's what they had to say:
Jack Trumbo: I'm anxious to turn loose of the steering wheel (and adopt autosteer). I started with GPS in 1996 and had the first Greenstar system in the state of Kentucky. It's been an integral part of my operation. I use a handheld to field map and a separate handheld to guide my sprayer and logbook. Counting the yield monitor in the combine, that's three separate GPS units running at the same time.
My first big lesson in yield monitoring was that the good areas are always smaller than you think they are and the bad areas are always larger.
Precision farming is a tool, but farming is an art. You can have all the degrees and you can have all the precision toys, but if you can't “seat-of-your-pants it,” you still can't farm. Farmers are born and not made.
Tom Oswald: We've been yield monitoring with GPS since 1996. When not in the combine, it's almost a given that my Ag Leader monitor and Trimble GPS will be with me in any tractor that's moving in the field.
People question the value of monitoring yield, but I believe it's not what we do with the information today, it's what we can learn that may give us value in the future. The value of yield monitors goes beyond the maps. It's the tool that documents what you're doing — whether that's yield or application of seed, fertilizer or crop protection products.
Automatic technologies are your eyes and ears when you're busy doing other things. Autosteer is the next level of that. It doesn't work for me from a cost standpoint now, but it's only a matter of time before it will be as common as an air conditioned cab.
Farmers are good at combining science and art in agriculture, and I try to deliver some of both. But I've also learned to take some of my clues from good livestock people. They'll tell you that records are the key to their success.
Electronic technology gives you the tools to gather information that can be critical to your operation. I think it's going to be a greater part of being better at what we do.
Duane Stenzel: A lot of technology is being developed and it just takes time for people to feel comfortable before they step forward and take advantage of it. We grid sample and do precision nutrient placement based on soil sampling. Putting fertilizer down — the right amount in the right place — benefits us.
We're evaluating our technology and we anticipate taking some major steps. But the people you work with have to be knowledgeable and understand the technology as well.
Merlin Van Walleghen: We no-till most of our acres, but we do till some corn stalks. This year we had wet, cool weather in May and some of our no-till ground stayed wet until June 20. There are some guys in our neighborhood doing zone building this year because of compaction problems. I'll be interested to see how it turns out.
Dennis Clark: There's the labor aspect. There's no way we could plant 3,700 acres if we had to till the land. Labor is one of the big factors for us.
Oswald: There's one set of headaches for a no-tiller, but a tillage person has headaches, too, they're just different. In the scheme of farming time, no-till is in its infancy.
Tillage does not make up for drainage — it's the first step. If soil is poorly drained you have to get excess water away somehow, whether you're tilling or no-tilling. No-till improves the load-bearing ability of the soil. It allows us to get through the wet spots or seasons better. When you deep rip, you destroy the soil's load-bearing ability.
When will tillage become a luxury instead of a common practice? That change should occur as there are fewer farmers, more acres to cover, less time and more knowledge.
Trumbo: To till vs. no-till? There are only two reasons to till. First, to correct a drainage problem and second, if the surface is too uneven to ride across. Those are the only two reasons to ever disturb the soil.
Trumbo: A good friend and I will look at a piece of equipment at an auction sale and say, “We could share that piece of equipment.” We think about it for about 10 minutes and say, “No, our friendship is more important than that.”
I've learned you have to plan based on what your machine can do and how many days a year that machine can run.
I believe my success is having the right people and right machine at the right place at the right time. That's the key to what I do. My operation is spread over about a 15-mile radius and we don't have large fields like some of my friends in the Midwest. We're constantly on the move.
The most trouble we've had is moving our equipment from farm to farm. The most dangerous thing I do is move equipment on the road.
Clark: Some of the roads where we're at — narrow, with blind curves — are very dangerous. The general public isn't willing to yield the right of way. They don't realize how slow our machines are going and how dangerous they are.
Stenzel: Especially when we're moving our crop from the field to the dryer, a lot of the work is done late at night. You really have to make sure all your lights are working. Equipment keeps getting wider — and more dangerous to move from field to field.
THE FARM BILL:
Trumbo: Some farmers say their largest crop is the U.S. government. That's the one they farm. Farmers will resist changing a bad farm bill because they've got it figured out. When you get a new farm bill it's a five-year learning curve — longer than that for some of us. And by the time we get it figured out, they change it again.
Clark: This farm bill is the best piece of legislation I've seen. We have a safety net with counter-cyclical payments, but we're not guaranteed that money. If we have high prices we don't need the counter-cyclical payments.
Oswald: One concern is that reduced-risk farming (via a Farm Bill or contracting) seems to reduce farmer retention of profit over time. For example, Brazil is a risky place to farm. They're making money now because they're pioneering. Once it becomes developed, I think their profits will go down. I'd like to know where the next Brazil is — Africa? The Ukraine? I suspect there's another one coming somewhere.
We typically link ourselves to growing food. Why don't we think energy, whether it's energy for humans, animals or machinery? I look at crop fields as solar collectors. The challenge is to extract and utilize (burn) that energy as cheaply as possible.
Van Walleghen: We'll probably never have another farm bill with high subsidies, but we still need to get across to people how cheap their food is. We only pay 9% of our disposable income toward food, where most countries pay 20%. The government has saved money by not paying big subsidies. But in the future, if people don't want to pay a high price for food, the government may need to subsidize our crops.
FATHERS AND SONS FARMING TOGETHER:
Clark: I've heard some heartbreaking stories about bringing sons into the operation. It's a real challenge. You have to find a way for him to get out if he decides that isn't what he really wants to do.
We work together, but I have my operation and my son has his. The crop my son grows is his and he can sell it for what he wants. He owns his own tractor and tractor-trailer and we're half owners on a drill. But my son makes his own decisions.
Stenzel: My son farms with me, but he's also an agronomist for a co-op. Having an agronomist around, especially with the aphid situation last year, was invaluable. Adding another person to a farming operation is a critical adjustment. We knew it would be a threat to our operation if we didn't do it right.
Van Walleghen: My son worked in food production for ConAgra and was living in California. He decided to come home to farm. For the first four years he was paid strictly salary, but now we're full partners. It's worked out very well. He's started to buy equipment, and I've got my equipment.
We added a couple quarters after he came into the operation and now he's going to add a couple more. We'll be farming about 1,600 acres next year.
Oswald: When I came home from school (Iowa State University) I worked for my father for about a year, but he didn't want me to be his hired man.
I got a share of the crop in exchange for labor. You learn the hard way from making marketing mistakes, but when Dad reached retirement age I shifted my focus full time into our operation and doing some custom work for neighbors.