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Mississippi grower relies on strong faith and new farming technologies

Win Graham FullFieldLayoutPipe
Nathan Classen powers down the dirt road laying out Oxpipe to irrigate his 2018 soybean crop.
From dairy farming in Louisiana to farming corn and soybeans in the Mississippi Delta, Nathan Classen understands the benefits new farming technologies bring to the table.

Nathan Classen has been in tractor seats since he was seven years old. Growing up in southeast Louisiana, around Lake Charles, Classen was working on a neighbor’s dairy farming operation by the time he was 13. He moved to Clarksdale, Miss., in 1997 and has been row-cropping soybeans, corn, and raising a family ever since.

Despite lackluster weather during harvest, the 2018 crop season turned out to be pretty good for Shetler Farms. “Our yields were better than average, but commodity prices continue to keep downward pressure on our bottom line,” stated Classen on a recent sunny afternoon at his family farm where recent rains had formed a temporary bayou behind the farm shop.

Knee-high tall wildcat corn growing out of last year’s cover crop danced back and forth in the late afternoon breeze as Classen’s 14-year old son, Landon, brought the John Deere 8320R tractor back to the shop.

Over 3,000 acres of mixed-to-heavy Delta soils were planted to soybeans and corn this year with Classen’s 16-row planter custom built by Delta Precision Systems that includes Harvest International Row Units. “My crop mix was about one-third corn and two-thirds soybeans this season,” says Classen. “I went with Pioneer and Asgrow Roundup Ready and Xtend soybeans technologies and Pioneer corn hybrids this year. They have good vigor and really seem to like these Delta soils.”

New Technologies

Instead of getting his fertilizer applied by air, he installed Precision Planting’s FurrowJet on his planter last year. “I can place a starter fertilizer in-furrow on the side of the seed trench,” explains Classen. “I figured I would save that aerial application cost and get the fertilizer directly into the soil. That way we don’t have to wait for a weather event to incorporate it.”

The planter also has a hydraulic down force control system that Classen says replaces traditional planter springs. The improved technology increases or reduces row unit weight individually on-the-go, and independently adjusts for changing ground conditions. “If I roll across an old road bed or old wheel tracks, DeltaForce keeps my seed depth consistent,” explains Classen. “It also does a good job of eliminating shallow-planted seeds and root compaction which I know transfers into improved yields.”

Classen’s weed control program includes starting clean with a good burndown, then an application of Gramoxone or Roundup after planting, and one or two shots of Dual if needed. “That’s usually our last pass,” says Classen. “I used a little dicamba this year to clean up some field edges but I’m using it sparingly — and yes, we had a little drift this year that probably cost me around a 15 percent yield loss.”

Dicamba gives Classen another needed weed control tool on his operation, but he has seen the effects of poor stewardship. “We need dicamba. It’s a good thing for my operation because I’m going away from Roundup Ready varieties,” he adds. “I hope applicators will adhere to the new registration guidelines. We’ve got it for two years. That time will pass quickly, and the EPA will be watching and listening to complaints. Our industry has to do a better job of putting out this product that farmers need.”

A cover crop mix of rye, black oats, and winter peas were drilled in around the last week of September that helped perforate the ground and allow moisture to penetrate more effectively. Although he was not targeting compaction with the cover crop, he has seen an improvement in soil health. “It really helps hold our beds together during the winter, increases soil microbe activity, and really firms the soil up in the spring,” adds Classen. “The moisture the cover crop retains is a bonus agronomically.”

Shetler Farms is 100 percent furrow irrigated. Twenty-five wells dug to around 100 feet with pumps set to around 60 feet dot the fields and provide on-demand irrigation. “Last year we installed 12 moisture sensors around the farm to help us irrigate more precisely, efficiently, and only when the crop needs it,” says Classen. “We’re like most farmers in the Delta, in that we are doing everything we can to minimize the water we pull from our region’s aquifer — and maximize its use when we do.”

A little over 25 miles of poly-pipe were spooled out over his fields this year, although not all of it was traditional poly-pipe. Classen has been working with his brother-in-law, Dustin Shetler, in a business involving a new type of irrigation pipe called Oxpipe. Shetler Farms, operated by Classen, Huerkamp Farms in Macon, Miss., and few other Delta farming operations have been providing in-field testing for the new flexible pipe that utilizes the same plastic as traditional poly-pipe, but is a woven product laminated for water-proofing.

“Oxpipe is three times stronger and much more durable than traditional poly-pipe, plus it comes in half-mile rolls, which will allow me to stay in the field longer before having to reload the poly-pipe roller,” explains Classen. “Even at half the weight and thickness of regular poly-pipe, it can handle over three-times the water head pressure which will eliminate any swelling or blowouts. And, coyotes can’t tear out the big holes in it like we see in traditional poly-pipe.”

Macon, Miss., farmer and 2018 High Cotton Award winner Joe Huerkamp also tested some Oxpipe this year on some of his furrow-irrigated ground. “We found that we were able to water acreage that normally we can’t get water to without using hard pipe,” says Huerkamp. “It definitely is going to increase our irrigable acres, both downhill and uphill, moving into the future because Oxpipe is able to carry higher water pressure before worrying about rupturing.”

Travis Pate, farm manager, Kinlock Plantation, Inverness, Miss., will be using the new pipe in 2019, and conducted a few trials this past growing season. “We ran a half-mile line using the PHAUCET program,” explains Pate. “We had 8.7 feet of head pressure on the pipe, irrigated four times with it and had no problems. Plus, you can use all the equipment features you’re using to lay out traditional poly-pipe.”

The Houston, Texas-based company has opened a distribution point in Clarksdale, Miss.

Next Year

As Classen prepares for 2019, he plans to keep Shelter Farms in soybeans and corn. “I’ll probably keep my mix one-third corn and two-thirds soybeans the way it looks right now. The technologies I’m using are guiding me a little more toward improved profits, but we really need commodity prices to make an uptick,” says Classen. “The seed genetics keep improving and, of course, I like the resulting yield potential they bring to the table. I’ll probably start booking my hybrids in a few weeks.”

Landon and his father started duck hunting together a few years back, and they look forward to opening day on Nov. 23. “We’re taking advantage of the little down time that we have right now from the farm and are working on a new duck blind,” says Classen. “We’ll hunt a few bayous and a flooded field or two. Since we’re on the southern end of the Mississippi flyway, we’re always hoping the cold northern winter weather will push a few more birds down our way.”

Nathan Classen is a man with strong faith, but also understands and places trust in the new farming technologies which seem to be hitting the commercial market every year. “I’m always open to evaluating a product,” says Classen. “You have to be open to change, especially when an improved product can lead to an improvement on my farm.”

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