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4th-grade lessons go deep

Caroline and Elizabeth Christensen
LOVED: Caroline said goodbye to her favorite teacher this year, Mrs. (Elizabeth) Christensen. It was a good year in the fourth grade.

We pulled into the Extension office parking lot. A quiet voice mumbled from the backseat, “I don’t feel so good.”

Caroline was about to deliver her first-ever prepared speech for the Fulton County 4-H public speaking contest. She’d written and practiced, but delivery — in front of a judge — was a whole new ballgame. We took our seats. She positively vibrated in her seat next to me, stress-coloring on an extra index card with the nub of a colored pencil. She colored it solid.

And then her name was called. She took a deep breath, marched to the front of the room and proceeded to deliver the best version of this speech that she’d ever given. She completely nailed it, with all the passion, intensity and excitement her little 10-year-old body could muster. She sat down, exhaled from the bottom of her soul and said, “Whew.” And then she went back to coloring.

What in the world? Where did this come from?

Clearly, this speech drew on far more than we’d done to prepare in the previous weeks. Clearly, this was Mrs. Christensen, her fourth-grade teacher. Mrs. Christensen had the kids present topics all year long. They picked “passion projects” and created presentations around them (for what it’s worth, if you need a power point, Caroline can hook you up). Mrs. Christensen encouraged and grouped, listened and cheered. Caroline loved it. It’s exactly why she signed up for 4-H public speaking this year.

The whole thing made me think back to my own fourth-grade teacher. Her name was Mrs. Yokel, and she was funny and smart and had the very best handwriting. When the Challenger exploded and Chernobyl melted down, she sat us down and asked us what we thought. She talked to us like we were real people. I’ll never forget that. 

One day, she had us write an informative speech on how to make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. Then she made sandwiches using our literal directions. I forgot to mention a knife, so she spread peanut butter with her fingers. It was simultaneously hilarious and horrifying for this perfectionist.

But she taught us that words matter. Every word matters. I’ll never forget that either.

Thirty-plus years later, her lessons still apply for this former fourth-grader. And as Caroline prepares for the state contest, I wonder just where her fourth-grade lessons will take her next.

Ohio farmer goes to bat for crop insurance

soybean plants
SUPPORT CROP INSURANCE: Ohio farmer Scott Metzger hopes Congress will continue to support the modern crop insurance farmers have come to rely on.

An Ohio soybean farmer is urging Congress to leave crop insurance alone as it debates the 2018 Farm Bill, with columns published recently in newspapers in both states.

Scott Metzger has been farming in Williamsport, Ohio, with his family for six generations. As part of Metzger Family Farms, Metzger says he’s proud of his heritage and knew from a young age he wanted to farm. He offered his story of decades of heartbreak that came from a single storm in a piece published in the Circleville Herald.

"When I was 5, on a July day in 1980, a storm tore through our community in Williamsport," he wrote. "The things I remember about that day are the memories of a child: My toy tractor blown down the road. The roof ripped off the house. The shop flattened. All of that could be repaired. But in our fields was a disaster that I’ve been dealing with now for my entire adult life."

The family ended up with crushing debt that year. They had to sell farm land to stay in business. It took 36 years to buy all of it back.

"While the story is sad enough, there’s a tragic piece of irony to add," Metzger noted. "That year, back in 1980, a man came by the farm selling crop insurance. He was one of the first in our area to offer it. My family declined. We had never needed it before and didn’t see a reason to spend on it then."

Today, crop insurance is part of the Metzger family farm’s business plan. He said modern and effective products like Harvest Price Option allow his farm to forward contract and not be as concerned if they have a short crop in the summer and need to buy back contracts. 

Metzger is on the Ohio Soybean Association Board of Trustees and is a director with the American Soybean Association.

"As Congress debates the farm bill, I hope lawmakers will remember my family’s story and continue to support the modern crop insurance farmers have come to rely on," he added.

Source: National Crop Insurance Services

Not your father's farm financial environment

cornfield with farm in background
FARM FINANCIALS: Don't be lulled into a false calm by merely adjusting yields or crop price to make the bottom line balance.

By Tracy Zink

In extended periods of depressed commodity prices, farmers must scrutinize every cost invested in their crops. What are some steps you see as important in your own farming operation to manage costs and optimize returns, including budgeting and marketing?

You can't manage what you don't measure. It truly does require a sharp pencil to make farm finances work, but I contend it takes an even bigger eraser. The biggest benefit I have found to managing finances is to do it early and often. We do not have cattle in our operation, so the winter months allow me to evaluate the prior year and drill down on the plan for the upcoming season. Once we start rolling in March, I essentially have to hold on and make crop sales as planned and adjustments as weather and other challenges reveal themselves.

My general mindset is based in science and black-and-white perspectives. Prior to returning to the farm, I worked with nonprofits, and universities and government organizations. I have earned (and embrace) every adjective related to frugal that there is. If you fertilize, plant and nurture your crops correctly it will produce the yield you projected, right? So far, it certainly has not worked that way for me.

It is important as producers that we are good stewards of the land. It is equally important that we take a similar mindset to being a good steward of the "donor dollar." That is, even if you are able to farm without an operational loan, it is still your hard-earned donation, and every member of the team and family needs to embrace that attitude and understand its significance.

As a beginning farmer, I work closely with my Farm Service Agency office, bankers, veteran producers, and anyone who is willing to review and make suggestions. In my six years of farming, my budgeting and cost projections have morphed tenfold, and with each "Oh, crap," I learn how to improve my budgeting accuracy. I do sweat the small stuff. I do switch from Smarties to Tums. I do use lavender oil instead of perfume. And I do ask "how much" for every item or purchase we make.

I would like to believe that my accounting teacher would be proud. However, it sometimes feels more like I need to summon my physics teacher and psychotherapists to make the farm financials work.

In the same way that "this is not your father's root beer," this is not your father's financial farm environment. The volatility in weather and the markets have changed how the game is played. The agronomic decisions we make today, if based solely on financials, can impact success for years to come.

Every operation is unique in its demands and objectives. I have established key goals for us that frame our finances: farm for profitability, not bragging rights; maximize the acres and equipment we have before taking on additional substantial growth; use profit potential when evaluating equipment purchasing decisions; and maintain at least two-year projections to help ensure we are able to see the forest, not just the trees.

Don't allow yourself to be lulled into a false calm by merely adjusting yields or crop price to make the bottom line balance. It's not the happiest place to reside, but farm financials really are not the place for rose-colored glasses. Keep the perspective tipped toward the worst-case scenario and plan, plan, plan!

As a farmer, it is my objective to work with people that specialize in key areas. I am working with a marketing specialist and trainer from Farmers Business Network, tax professionals to identify upcoming issues and opportunities, and the new Magnify financial system from Farm Credit. I will also remain in close discussions with my FSA officer, who has been invaluable to me.

But most importantly, I will continue to have a whole heap of faith!

Zink is a member of Nebraska LEAD class 35 and farms near Indianola. Her experience in the Nebraska LEAD program reminded her how fortunate U.S. farmers are and how many opportunities continue to exist within agriculture. She continues to be amazed at how in-depth agriculture is and how vigilant we must all remain in our awareness and knowledge of each component.

Take notes on these traits in hybrid test plots

corn tassels against cloudy sky
COMPARE EVERYTHING: Even tassel architecture is worth comparing, agronomists say. Some corn hybrids waste energy making larger-than-necessary tassels.

We have a hybrid test plot. I want to walk it and take notes. If I walk it in mid-July as ears fill out, what kind of notes should I take?

The panel of Indiana certified crop advisers answering this question includes Don Burgess, agronomist with A&L Great Lakes Labs, Fort Wayne; Jesse Grogan, agronomist with Ag Reliant Genetics, Lafayette; and Bryan Overstreet, Purdue University Extension ag educator in Jasper County.

Burgess: Assess those factors that normally are measured when estimating corn yield, including ear length and diameter, as well as tip fill and incomplete pollination. Don’t assume this will necessarily equate to yield, as late-season factors or stresses can result in abortion or incomplete grain fill that could reduce final yield. However, you can use this information to see differences in overall yield potential.

Look for pest activity, including insect and disease pressures. If an insect or disease is found, look for any differences in the expression between different hybrids.

Look for evidence of stalk or root issues, including goose-necking or evidence of green snap in the plot, whether in standing plants or remaining plant carcasses. Evaluate the overall size of the stalk, and feel for any weakness or softness in the stalk.

Evaluate the consistency of plants within the plot. Differences in growth stage, size or overall architecture of the plant should be noted. Try to separate the variability that may have been caused by a management or equipment issue such as uneven planting depth from that expressed by the genetics of the hybrid.

Scouting plots at this point in the growing season allows you to see differences that may not be easily evaluated at harvest. However, it’s important to remember that there are still many factors that can affect final yield and overall performance of a corn hybrid.

Grogan: Collecting notes on hybrids through the season helps in selection for your farm. Hybrid strengths and weaknesses of selected hybrids can be understood and managed for best performance in future crops. Notes taken in mid-July should be for things that aren’t acceptable in a hybrid. These traits could be such things as ear height — either too high or too low; early onset of foliar disease, such as gray leaf spot or northern corn leaf blight; and plant height — either too tall or too short.

Overstreet: Here is my list of 10 factors to take notes on.

1. Does disease resistance between hybrids vary? Identify lesions because there may be more than one disease present.

2. What about lodging? Take notes on standability.

3. Are there differences in insect tolerance? Look for damage from European corn borer and western bean cutworm.

4. How well did each hybrid pollinate? Be sure to look at tip fill.

5. How many rows of kernels are on ears? Number of kernel rows per ear is largely a genetic trait.

6. Is there leaf firing? This could be a judge of how much nitrogen a hybrid uses vs. other hybrids.

7. What is the leaf orientation? Does it have an erect leaf or more of a flat leaf? You may use this information if you are looking at changing populations or row width.

8. How many plants have suckers? Note this trait for each hybrid.

9. How many plants have double ears? Are they productive ears that will contribute to yield?

10. Are there differences in plant height? Pay attention to this trait in the field.

New ethanol plant expands South Dakota cattle feeding opportunities

Lance Nixon Pierre-area rancher Shane Cowan
CATTLE FEEDER: Pierre-area rancher Shane Cowan is cutting his backgrounding ration costs by sourcing distillers grains from the new Ringneck Energy ethanol plant at Onida.

By Lance Nixon

For central South Dakota rancher Shane Cowan, the business of backgrounding several hundred cattle is about to get a bit less complicated and perhaps less expensive.

Cowan’s Peoria Flats Cattle Co., on the east side of the Missouri a few miles north of the Oahe Dam, uses modified distillers grains, a co-product of ethanol plants that is 50% moisture, in all its livestock rations. Cowan feeds modified distillers grains with hay, corn stover and other roughage as he backgrounds steers and heifers to a weight of about 750 pounds.

"That gives me moisture in my ration and makes the ration more palatable," Cowan says. "At peak time, I’m feeding about a load a week."

The complicating factor is that the closest ethanol plant from which Cowan can buy distillers grains is at Redfield, 116 miles from Pierre. He pays roughly $50 to $75 a ton for the modified distillers grains — a cost driven partly by the price the ethanol plant pays farmers for their corn — and he also pays a trucker, currently $24 to $25 a ton, to haul it by the semi load from Redfield to his ranch.

But by the end of this year, the math could work out a little better. A new start-up company, Ringneck Energy, expects to have its ethanol plant just south of Onida up and running by about the end of 2018. Onida is only 31 miles from Pierre.

Cowan is confident he’ll save some money on the transportation. And a new source of distillers grains at Onida may get more ranchers to try feeding it.

"It’s a great product for ranchers. I’m sure a lot of guys would use it if it were closer," Cowan says. "As far as the people across the river, it’ll be a big benefit for them."

Ringneck Energy CEO Walt Wendland says Onida’s location about midway between two Missouri River bridges — the U.S. Highway 14 bridge at Pierre, southwest of Onida, and the U.S. Highway 212 bridge to the northwest — was one more factor in choosing to build just outside Onida.

The Onida plant will process about 28 million bushels of grain to make 80 million gallons of production and, as a co-product, about 224,000 dry tons of distillers grains annually.

Wendland not only expects to sell modified distillers grains — the 50% moisture product — but some that’s even wetter than that.

"We’d like to sell some product at 65%," Wendland says. "They call that ‘wet cake’ because it hasn’t been partially dried."

Wendland says Ringneck Energy also will dry some product down to 10% moisture to make dried distillers grains — better for shipping long distances because there’s less moisture to add to freight costs.

"If you’re going to go all the way to Belle Fourche, that’s probably what you’d buy," Wendland says. "They ship that product all the way to Canada, Idaho or other places for the dairy farms. We’re sitting in a pretty good location."

Nixon is a Pierre, SD, writer.

What’s the best sideline ag money generator?

Farmer in a bull dozer pushing a large pile of brush
DOZING: Next to tractors, bull dozers, even backhoes, are an increasing “farmer’s favorite” with on-farm and off-farm potentials.

Our family grows corn and soybeans and has a 60-cow beef herd. Mom and dad are 10 years from retirement. My wife works in town; I work part-time in town. What might be the best farm sideline enterprise with growth potential?

Mike Evanish: Some can be money-losers
In business, things never go as planned, so a strong understanding of options leading to success are also needed. Do some soul searching into what you know and have an interest in.

I’ve seen significant sums of money lost when, “to make use of the land we have,” the owner bought into something he/she knew little about. At the first sign of trouble, which often comes quickly, they either did the wrong thing or did nothing — then lost it all.

Agriculture is a low margin, high risk, knowledge intensive piece of the economy. It has no guarantees.

Many times, renting out the land to the neighbor is the best ag money-generator.

Dale Johnson: Thankfully you’re no hobby farmer
I’m looking forward to how my cohorts answer this question. At least you seem to be grounded in farm family reality. If there were easy answers, I wouldn’t be a hobby farmer.

USDA gloomily forecasts 2018 inflation-adjusted net farm income to decline 8.3% from 2017. If realized, it would be the lowest real-dollar level since 2002. Even farmers markets have had decreased consumer traffic in recent years.

But I’m not all gloom and doom. I’m frequently amazed by farmers who find niche enterprises and markets. I don’t pass those ideas on until the farmers are established enough to protect their turf. By then, it’s not much of a niche.

So, keep those off-farm jobs. Help mom and dad make it to retirement with dignity. Capitalize or innovate on your experience. For example, consider GMO-free organic corn, soybeans and beef. But do your homework first.

Make sure you have a market that’ll give you premium prices. If you have an itch for new enterprises, scour the internet, starting with USDA's List of Alternative Crops and Enterprises for Small Farm Diversification.

George Mueller: Only you can answer it
It all depends on your interests. Some farmers buy bigger machinery than they need and do field work for neighbors — plowing, planting, spraying, harvesting hay, harvesting corn silage or harvesting corn grain. Perhaps owning a tile machine would find plenty of extra work. Perhaps an excavator and bull dozer could develop into a thriving business.

Maybe processing your beef for the local freezer trade would excel. Consider joining a network with other producers.

In the late 1960s, Willow Bend Farm grew sweet corn and had a terrible time selling just a few bushels. The next year, we put two acres in early on our well-drained, low-elevation gravel soil and sold out every day for the 10 days of our early corn. We had the only local corn that early. Over the next few years, we grew our sweet corn acreage to 100 acres and expanded our markets and advertising.

We sent our cattle truck full of corn to the Syracuse area. We rented a Ryder truck and sent it full of our corn all around Rochester. Smaller trucks went up to the lake or down to Watkins Glen and Penn Yan.

We put ads in the local Penny Savers looking for grandmas and grandchildren to sell our corn from a card table from their front yard. We’d deliver fresh corn each day and take back corn that failed to sell.

Florida corn wasn’t as good back then. And, we only had that market for 10 days a year.

America is a land of free enterprise opportunity. Success comes from trial and error. You may have to try several projects before you find one that fits. Good luck as you venture forth!

Glenn Rogers: Inventory your assets first
Your assets may reveal your options. Spend some time brainstorming. Look for activities or products on the "leading edge" that may be under-served in your community.

For instance, are there opportunities for bed and breakfasts, farm site weddings, vacation stays or outdoor winter and summer activities? Are there opportunities for concerts, meetings, events in historical buildings, or other marketings where you can use your farm properties? None may be feasible, as the cost to initiate and maintain those activities profitably may be too high to gain a return on investment. But you’ll never know until you do the research. 

Also, look at certain vegetables, small fruits, herbs, flowers, pick-your-own pumpkins, pick-your-own corn, a corn maize, tractor or wagon rides on the river bank. Prioritize them based on your interest, feasibility, local and regional market capability. Then start your real research. 

It sounds like you have good natural and mechanical resources. You just need to find a niche that needs filling and that matches your interests, capabilities and time available — in a profitable way. I can't emphasize enough the power of having a sound business plan and market analysis. You also need a work force, a management team and advisers on board before you begin the project in earnest.

Now do the real research
Glenn Rogers also offers this business-side advice: Visit other farms doing the same research. Talk to those already in the business and learn from their mistakes. Map out the strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) of each.

Talk with an Extension specialist, your banker and close friends who may offer wisdom. Check with town and county officials on the permits needed.

Work on budgets: be liberal with expenses and conservative on income. Do a market analysis to determine if a market exists. It’s essential to do a business plan before you invest. Yes, I’m serious about that. Business plans work! Many Extension offices have classes on how to do a business plan and can give you much help. 

Take your time. This has to match your interests and capabilities; the market need and your business plan.  This isn’t a sprint. It’s a long race, and you need short, intermediate and long-term goals to make and keep it profitable.

Got a question? Our experts await!
Our Profit Planner panel would like to hear it. The panel consists of Michael Evanish, farm business consultant and business services manager of Pennsylvania Farm Bureau’s Members’ Service Corp.; Dale Johnson, Extension farm management specialist at University of Maryland; George Mueller, dairy farmer from Clifton Springs, N.Y.; and Glenn Rogers, University of Vermont Extension professor emeritus and ag consultant.

Send your questions to “Profit Planners,” American Agriculturist, 5227 Baltimore Pike, Littlestown, PA 17340. Or email them to jvogel@farmprogress.com. All are submitted to our panel without identification.

Aquifer viability: What's the next step?

irrigation sprinklers closeup
LIMITED RESOURCE: As water requirements for municipalities rise, it means less water is available for irrigated agriculture.

"The worst thing we can say when something changes is we didn't see it coming," says Ronnie Hopper.

For Hopper and many other irrigators on the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle, things have changed drastically in the last 50 years — and will continue to change, he says.

"If you were to plot on a graph the number of farm families in my community over a 50-year period, that slope is going down. If you were to plot the number of acres under tillage in the last 50 years, there's less now than 40 to 50 years ago. The amount of water pumped for agricultural use is going down. The number of on-site landlords is going down, too," says Hopper, who farms near Petersburg, Texas. "We need to recognize what's happening around us."

The Ogallala Aquifer underlies about 174,000 square miles and eight states on the High Plains. For reference, that's an area roughly the size of Colorado and Oklahoma combined.

USGS


VALUED RESOURCE: This map shows the water level on the High Plains Aquifer from predevelopment to 2015. The Ogallala Aquifer underlies about 174,000 square miles and eight states on the High Plains.

The Llano Estacado region of the Texas Panhandle has a population of around 1 million people — most living in the metropolitan areas of Amarillo, Lubbock, Midland and Odessa. While rural towns are experiencing depopulation, the total population of the Llano Estacado region has been stable overall. However, metropolitan areas throughout Texas continue to grow.

"Those small towns are in the process of depopulating. Some of that population is moving to Lubbock and Amarillo. A good portion are moving off the High Plains to Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, Houston," Hopper says. "They claim 1,000 people are moving to Texas every day."

Those population centers have a high demand for water. Municipalities like Amarillo and Lubbock have, on several occasions, purchased thousands of acres of land for access to water rights. As water requirements for these municipalities rises, it means less water available to irrigated agriculture, although saturated thickness of the aquifer varies by location.

This, combined with groundwater declines and variable saturated thickness of the Ogallala Aquifer, are challenges faced by many in the High Plains. So, it's even more important to use the water available in a more economical way. A grower panel at the recent Ogallala Aquifer Summit in Garden City, Kan., weighed in on this ongoing challenge.

Moving up adoption curve
One of the first steps is determining the value of the water applied, and that comes from its consumptive use. This means determining beneficial and nonbeneficial consumptive uses.

Technology plays a role here, including the use of flowmeters, soil moisture probes, weather station data tools and devices measuring evapotranspiration (ET). These tools are key to understanding the full water budget within a field by establishing how much is available to begin with, how much is used by the crop, and how much percolates into the ground and is returned to streamflow.

However, adoption of technology is often a slow process, notes Darren Buck, who farms in Morton County, Kan., and Texas County, Okla.

"The biggest challenge is making sure your farm and what we're doing is the most efficient we can be. I used to think I was pretty good at it. The more I learn, there are probably other things we could do to help — like using technology to monitor soil moisture, and coupling it with weather and forecast data so we can truly dial in and give the crop what it needs," Buck says, adding, "We're barely registering on the adoption curve."

To encourage quicker adoption, Roric Paulman, who farms near Sutherland, Neb., envisions a kind of "Master Irrigator" program offering different curriculum for training irrigators on using soil moisture probes, weather stations and any other water-related technologies, as well as serve as a kind of certification process for participants. So, a certain level of training would qualify irrigators to use a given amount of water, based on the watershed they are located in.

"Adoption and innovation has been at a rapid pace, but adoption beyond early innovators and the challenges that face that next group of producers is the next step. That's 40% to 50% of the adoption curve. How do you reach that?" Paulman asks. "You'd have a base, and if you complete a certain level of education, you're allocated this much more water. Then you incrementally come to a cap, eventually reaching the master level. When you achieve that, it's like ongoing professional development."

This certification process could also be used to track production of certain commodities, and add value to the products being raised, earning a premium for growers.

"This is where we're heading with the consumer mindset," Paulman says. "If you underpin it with a certification process, it's just like certified pesticide-free, or non-GMO. Why wouldn’t we certify our water use? It's going to come back to us. I think it's going to tie into every piece of the food chain. How do we set the stage for this? Is it an uphill battle? Absolutely."

Diversity brings opportunity
Optimizing the value of the water available means something different depending on the location. In some cases, Paulman notes, assigning water applied to its highest value means growing value-added crops.

"I admire my friends and neighbors for growing corn and soybeans out here, but with the cost of energy, a good dryland quarter will still net better out here today," he says. "What we have is the ability to apply just in time, and variable-rate and all those tools. But if you don't have a crop that returns some value to that, all I'm doing is the same thing I've always done in looking at ways to reduce inputs on a bulk commodity."

Crops like yellow field peas have grown in acres in Nebraska. Other less water-intensive crops include popcorn and grain sorghum. In Texas, Oklahoma and southwest Kansas, irrigators have started growing cotton, which uses less water than corn while still creating value. In places like the Texas Panhandle, split-pivot irrigating has been used to grow crops with different pollination periods — sometimes two separate maturity corn hybrids, or a split between corn and a drought-tolerant crop like cotton.

One option Buck has advocated for is industrial hemp, which is still in its infancy.

"Hemp is a drought-hardy crop, and it could have value," Buck says. "There's another example of looking down the road of what might be an alternative crop that might have value. It's going to take quite a bit of time to develop market or processing, because we haven't been in the market for decades."

Soil health practices like no-till and diverse crop rotations also play a role. This includes building soil organic matter and water-holding capacity, as well as planting crops with lower water demands.

"We get about 18 inches of annual rainfall. Generally, those rains are pretty violent. If you can improve the infiltration and water-holding capacity of your soil, that's a good thing you can catch more of those rains," Hopper says. "We know we're going to be pumping less water from the Ogallala moving forward. That makes it even more important to ensure we can maximize the potential of the rainfall we have."

Kyle Averhoff, manager of Royal Farms Dairy near Garden City, notes in addition to minimum till, no-till, diverse crop rotations and residue management, they're also returning nutrients to the land while reusing water. For Averhoff, water quality is just as important as water quantity.

"We try to add value to the water. Being a livestock operation, we're fortunate to be able to enrich our water with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. At our home dairy, we're connecting into around 23 different systems with effluent water. We can maintain very high organic matter levels in our soil," Averhoff says. "We're also raising crops that can maximize our dollars per acre inch of water, and we work with different rotations in our forage program that maintain residue and organic matter in the soil. All of those things are important to being stewards of how we use water."

Boosting rural viability
With diversity also comes opportunity for new markets and jobs. Averhoff says for communities to function, people are needed — and those people need employment.

"At the end of the day when you take away how much we re-irrigate in our dairy, it's plus or minus the water use of one circle of corn," Averhoff says. "But we employ a lot more people than an irrigated circle of corn, pay more property tax and put more kids in school. That's the benefit. Livestock, whether dairies or feedyards, bring a lot of families and children into local communities and school systems. It brings a higher value, a more competitive market to your choices when you're raising crops."

According to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, irrigated farms contributed about 39% of U.S. farm sales. Farm sales for Western irrigated farms — including Nebraska and Texas — averaged $513,272 per farm, over four times the average for Western dryland farms. That's why it's important to maintain the long-term viability of the resource, Buck says.

"Irrigated agriculture creates so much value," Buck says. "My head farm manager is in the top 25% of paid people of this community. He works hard and he earns it, but he earns good money. He has health insurance, a pickup to drive, a cellphone, and makes a solid wage. He makes well over the median and average wage in the U.S. That would go away without irrigation. That impacts families. You multiply that by thousands of irrigated acres just in Texas, Cimarron and Morton counties, that's a huge deal."

Aquifer viability: What's the next step?

irrigation sprinklers closeup
LIMITED RESOURCE: As water requirements for municipalities rise, it means less water is available for irrigated agriculture.

"The worst thing we can say when something changes is we didn't see it coming," says Ronnie Hopper.

For Hopper and many other irrigators on the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle, things have changed drastically in the last 50 years — and will continue to change, he says.

"If you were to plot on a graph the number of farm families in my community over a 50-year period, that slope is going down. If you were to plot the number of acres under tillage in the last 50 years, there's less now than 40 to 50 years ago. The amount of water pumped for agricultural use is going down. The number of on-site landlords is going down, too," says Hopper, who farms near Petersburg, Texas. "We need to recognize what's happening around us."

The Ogallala Aquifer underlies about 174,000 square miles and eight states on the High Plains. For reference, that's an area roughly the size of Colorado and Oklahoma combined.

USGS


VALUED RESOURCE: This map shows the water level on the High Plains Aquifer from predevelopment to 2015. The Ogallala Aquifer underlies about 174,000 square miles and eight states on the High Plains.

The Llano Estacado region of the Texas Panhandle has a population of around 1 million people — most living in the metropolitan areas of Amarillo, Lubbock, Midland and Odessa. While rural towns are experiencing depopulation, the total population of the Llano Estacado region has been stable overall. However, metropolitan areas throughout Texas continue to grow.

"Those small towns are in the process of depopulating. Some of that population is moving to Lubbock and Amarillo. A good portion are moving off the High Plains to Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, Houston," Hopper says. "They claim 1,000 people are moving to Texas every day."

Those population centers have a high demand for water. Municipalities like Amarillo and Lubbock have, on several occasions, purchased thousands of acres of land for access to water rights. As water requirements for these municipalities rises, it means less water available to irrigated agriculture, although saturated thickness of the aquifer varies by location.

This, combined with groundwater declines and variable saturated thickness of the Ogallala Aquifer, are challenges faced by many in the High Plains. So, it's even more important to use the water available in a more economical way. A grower panel at the recent Ogallala Aquifer Summit in Garden City, Kan., weighed in on this ongoing challenge.

Moving up adoption curve
One of the first steps is determining the value of the water applied, and that comes from its consumptive use. This means determining beneficial and nonbeneficial consumptive uses.

Technology plays a role here, including the use of flowmeters, soil moisture probes, weather station data tools and devices measuring evapotranspiration (ET). These tools are key to understanding the full water budget within a field by establishing how much is available to begin with, how much is used by the crop, and how much percolates into the ground and is returned to streamflow.

However, adoption of technology is often a slow process, notes Darren Buck, who farms in Morton County, Kan., and Texas County, Okla.

"The biggest challenge is making sure your farm and what we're doing is the most efficient we can be. I used to think I was pretty good at it. The more I learn, there are probably other things we could do to help — like using technology to monitor soil moisture, and coupling it with weather and forecast data so we can truly dial in and give the crop what it needs," Buck says, adding, "We're barely registering on the adoption curve."

To encourage quicker adoption, Roric Paulman, who farms near Sutherland, Neb., envisions a kind of "Master Irrigator" program offering different curriculum for training irrigators on using soil moisture probes, weather stations and any other water-related technologies, as well as serve as a kind of certification process for participants. So, a certain level of training would qualify irrigators to use a given amount of water, based on the watershed they are located in.

"Adoption and innovation has been at a rapid pace, but adoption beyond early innovators and the challenges that face that next group of producers is the next step. That's 40% to 50% of the adoption curve. How do you reach that?" Paulman asks. "You'd have a base, and if you complete a certain level of education, you're allocated this much more water. Then you incrementally come to a cap, eventually reaching the master level. When you achieve that, it's like ongoing professional development."

This certification process could also be used to track production of certain commodities, and add value to the products being raised, earning a premium for growers.

"This is where we're heading with the consumer mindset," Paulman says. "If you underpin it with a certification process, it's just like certified pesticide-free, or non-GMO. Why wouldn’t we certify our water use? It's going to come back to us. I think it's going to tie into every piece of the food chain. How do we set the stage for this? Is it an uphill battle? Absolutely."

Diversity brings opportunity
Optimizing the value of the water available means something different depending on the location. In some cases, Paulman notes, assigning water applied to its highest value means growing value-added crops.

"I admire my friends and neighbors for growing corn and soybeans out here, but with the cost of energy, a good dryland quarter will still net better out here today," he says. "What we have is the ability to apply just in time, and variable-rate and all those tools. But if you don't have a crop that returns some value to that, all I'm doing is the same thing I've always done in looking at ways to reduce inputs on a bulk commodity."

Crops like yellow field peas have grown in acres in Nebraska. Other less water-intensive crops include popcorn and grain sorghum. In Texas, Oklahoma and southwest Kansas, irrigators have started growing cotton, which uses less water than corn while still creating value. In places like the Texas Panhandle, split-pivot irrigating has been used to grow crops with different pollination periods — sometimes two separate maturity corn hybrids, or a split between corn and a drought-tolerant crop like cotton.

One option Buck has advocated for is industrial hemp, which is still in its infancy.

"Hemp is a drought-hardy crop, and it could have value," Buck says. "There's another example of looking down the road of what might be an alternative crop that might have value. It's going to take quite a bit of time to develop market or processing, because we haven't been in the market for decades."

Soil health practices like no-till and diverse crop rotations also play a role. This includes building soil organic matter and water-holding capacity, as well as planting crops with lower water demands.

"We get about 18 inches of annual rainfall. Generally, those rains are pretty violent. If you can improve the infiltration rate and water-holding capacity of your soil, that's a good thing you can catch more of those rains," Hopper says. "We know we're going to be pumping less water from the Ogallala moving forward. That makes it even more important to ensure we can maximize the potential of the rainfall we have."

Kyle Averhoff, manager of Royal Farms Dairy near Garden City, notes in addition to minimum till, no-till, diverse crop rotations and residue management, they're also returning nutrients to the land while reusing water. For Averhoff, water quality is just as important as water quantity.

"We try to add value to the water. Being a livestock operation, we're fortunate to be able to enrich our water with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. At our home dairy, we're connecting into around 23 different systems with effluent water. We can maintain very high organic matter levels in our soil," Averhoff says. "We're also raising crops that can maximize our dollars per acre inch of water, and we work with different rotations in our forage program that maintain residue and organic matter in the soil. All of those things are important to being stewards of how we use water."

Boosting rural viability
With diversity also comes opportunity for new markets and jobs. Averhoff says for communities to function, people are needed — and those people need employment.

"At the end of the day when you take away how much we re-irrigate in our dairy, it's plus or minus the water use of one circle of corn," Averhoff says. "But we employ a lot more people than an irrigated circle of corn, pay more property tax and put more kids in school. That's the benefit. Livestock, whether dairies or feedyards, bring a lot of families and children into local communities and school systems. It brings a higher value, a more competitive market to your choices when you're raising crops."

According to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, irrigated farms contributed about 39% of U.S. farm sales. Farm sales for Western irrigated farms — including Nebraska and Texas — averaged $513,272 per farm, over four times the average for Western dryland farms. That's why it's important to maintain the long-term viability of the resource, Buck says.

"Irrigated agriculture creates so much value," Buck says. "My head farm manager is in the top 25% of paid people of this community. He works hard and he earns it, but he earns good money. He has health insurance, a pickup to drive, a cellphone, and makes a solid wage. He makes well over the median and average wage in the U.S. That would go away without irrigation. That impacts families. You multiply that by thousands of irrigated acres just in Texas, Cimarron and Morton counties, that's a huge deal."

Got potato blight? There’s a hotline you can call

branex/iStock/Getty Images Plus freshly dug potatoes
KEEPING IT CLEAN: Potato blight is a constant problem, and working to grow a top-yielding crop involves key management moves. Prominent potato disease researchers and Syngenta have teamed up for 2018 to offer help.

Potato blight is a constant problem when growing spuds. Farmers are on the lookout for trouble, outbreaks and help in keeping their crops clean. Prominent potato researchers in key growing areas for spuds are teaming up with Syngenta to again offer the potato blight hotline for 2018.

Syngenta, which offers a range of products used in potato country, including CruiserMaxx Vibrance Potato seed treatment, Elatus and Orondis fungicides and Minecto Pro insecticide, supports this hotline program that offers growers timely advice and updates from area researchers.


If you have potato blight questions, these disease researchers are available to help, and you can subscribe to text alert messages targeted to your region.

For 2018, the company has teamed up with researchers in Idaho, Michigan, North Dakota, Oregon and Washington. In each state, there’s an 800 number hotline (see accompanying table) as well as a text alert system to which growers can subscribe for updates. To get those text notifications, all you have to do is type the state-specific code, shown in the table, to 97063.

Noted Kiran Shetty, Syngenta technical development lead: “These researchers are valuable resources of information for growers in their areas. I’m pleased that Syngenta can help these researchers spread their insights as widely as possible among the growers they serve.”

The table shows the resources available and the numbers to call. To learn more about what Syngenta offers to potato country, visit syngentaus.com/potatoes.

Source: Syngenta

Comparing the candidates for Iowa ag secretary

iowa ag secretary forum
RUNNING: The May 17 forum sponsored by the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association featured all six candidates for Iowa secretary of agriculture from both parties.

In most states, the position of secretary of agriculture or director of agriculture is appointed by the governor. In Iowa, it’s an elected office, and there’s a bumper crop of candidates on the ballot in the primary election to be held June 5.

There’s only one Democrat in the field: Tim Gannon, a former associate administrator of the Risk Management Agency at USDA.

Five Republicans are running in the primary for the chance to face Gannon in the fall election.

They are:
• Ray Gaesser, former chairman and president of the American Soybean Association
• Chad Ingels, former chair of the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission
• Craig Lang, former president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation
• Mike Naig, current Iowa secretary of agriculture
• Dan Zumbach, Iowa state senator

Why so many candidates?
Iowa has a history of not voting out incumbent secretaries of agriculture. When the position comes open, it draws multiple candidates. The state ag secretary position opened up earlier this year when Bill Northey, first elected in 2006, decided to accept a position at USDA in Washington, D.C.

When Northey was finally named USDA undersecretary of agriculture in March, the deputy Iowa secretary of agriculture, Mike Naig, was appointed by the governor to fill the rest of Northey’s term in Iowa.

Several ag candidate forums have been held in various locations around Iowa in recent months. One was May 17 at North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City. Sponsored by the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, the bipartisan forum focused on questions about renewable fuels and other ag policy issues. Grant Menke, policy director of IRFA, moderated the candidates’ presentations and discussion. Check out the YouTube video online.

Trade, water quality debated
At the various ag candidate forums the past few months, candidates were asked questions ranging from their views on U.S. trade policy to Iowa’s water quality efforts to the recruiting of younger farmers to replace the many farmers who are nearing retirement. Renewable fuels policy, especially E15 and the need for an increased volume of higher blends of ethanol to be offered for sale to motorists, was also discussed, as were livestock regulations.

One issue is how to get the long-debated state sales tax in place to provide more cost-share funding for conservation efforts. To meet goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, there’s a need to boost the amount of cover crop acreage by millions of acres and how to best target the limited amount of conservation money available.

The candidates pointed out that the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and its partners have spent considerable effort the past five years demonstrating conservation practices. Now, the need is to focus on implementing practices on a larger scale in larger watersheds.

More info on candidates available
Ray Gaesser
, 65, is a full-time farmer in the Corning area in southern Iowa. He served a term as president of the Iowa Soybean Association before becoming president of the American Soybean Association. He took part in dozens of trade missions to other countries. Visit gaesserforiowa.com.

Chad Ingels, 41, raises crops and hogs near Randalia in northeast Iowa. He worked for 16 years for Iowa State University on various water quality projects. Having served on the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, he’s very familiar with water quality policy and related issues. Visit ingelsforiowa.com.

Craig Lang, 67, is widely known as the former president of Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. A lifetime dairy farmer from Brooklyn in Poweshiek County, he also served on the Iowa Board of Regents and Iowa Department of Economic Development board. Visit craiglangiowa.com.

Mike Naig, 40, is the youngest of the candidates. He grew up on a farm at Cylinder in northwest Iowa, graduated from Buena Vista College and worked in Washington, D.C., for a trade association before returning to Iowa. He served as Iowa deputy secretary of agriculture under Northey for more than four years. Visit mikenaig.com.

Dan Zumbach, 57, is a Delaware County farmer and an Iowa state senator. His six years in the Iowa Legislature and experience running for office and dealing with the public is important, he says. He’s always had a passion for agriculture and survived the challenges of farming, including starting out farming in the difficult financial times of the 1980s. Visit danzumbach.com.

Tim Gannon, 41, is a former USDA associate administrator who returned to Iowa to farm with his father near Mingo. If elected Iowa ag secretary, he says he will focus on trade and export promotion, and identifying new markets for Iowa ag products while protecting soil and water and encouraging economic development in rural Iowa. Visit gannonforiowa.com.

Candidates signal support for biofuels
IRFA on May 29 released the results of its survey of 2018 candidates running for governor of Iowa and for Iowa secretary of agriculture. All candidates who returned surveys show strong support for Iowa biofuels and policies that impact their growth. 

“Given the tremendous impact Iowa biofuels have on the state’s economy, and the continuing economic challenges confronting rural Iowa, it is of the utmost importance that the next Iowa governor and Iowa secretary of agriculture share a vision for the state that involves a robust biofuels sector,” says IRFA’s Grant Menke.

Iowa’s renewable fuels industry accounts for $5 billion of the state’s gross domestic product, generates $2.4 billion in income for Iowa households and supports more than 46,000 jobs throughout all sectors of the Iowa economy. “We were encouraged that every survey returned indicated strong support for Iowa biofuels,” Menke says. “It is our hope voters will take the candidates’ views on this important issue under consideration on primary day, Tuesday, June 5.” 

To view the IRFA survey results, click here.

Iowa Farm Bureau also has a website listing the candidates’ answers to questions on critical issues for farmers and all Iowans.