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After earning business degree, farm beckons young man home

Tyler Norman checks the seed bins during wheat planting time
<p>Tyler Norman checks the seed bins during wheat planting time.</p>
&ldquo;I could have gone away to college but I wanted to stay close and continue to farm.&rdquo;

Tyler Norman is where he wants to be.

He could have gone into business, maybe banking or real estate. He says he could have gone a bit further away for college but decided Grayson College, in Denison, Texas, was more convenient and allowed him to get two educations at the same time—a business degree from Grayson and some first-hand knowledge of farming from his grandfather, Jack Norman.

“This is what I want to do,” says Tyler, who recently earned that business degree but continues to learn about growing grain.

“I love it,” he said recently as he and his grandfather planted wheat on the Grayson County farm. “I could have gone away to college but I wanted to stay close and continue to farm.”

He says his grandfather still does a lot of the tractor work. “He’s turning over some of the bookwork to me. I’d rather be on the tractor.”

A business degree will be an advantage and made more sense to Tyler than studying agronomy or soil science. “Jack teaches me about farming,” he says.

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He’s had a lot to learn over the past few years, including how to manage herbicide resistant ryegrass and the value of applying a fungicide to wheat and how resilient wheat can be.

They have also tweaked the acreage ratio between corn and wheat the last few years. “We usually plant fifty-fifty corn and wheat,” Jack says. “We’re planting 60 percent in wheat this year.”

Wheat yields in this Northeast Texas area have been exceptional for the last three years. Farmers say 2012 was the best wheat year they ever had. They said the same about 2013 and then 2014 yields beat that.

Economics favor wheat

Jack says the economics favor wheat, even as prices for both grains have dropped significantly over the past two years. “Wheat still looks better than corn. It costs more to grow corn. It takes more fertilizer and seed costs are higher.” He figures corn seed at about $75 per acre compared to wheat at $15 to $20.

“The odds of making 60 to 70 bushels of wheat per acre are better for us than making 80-bushel corn.

“We can’t complain about the crops we made for the last few years,” Jack says. “We’ve made super wheat.” Corn has also produced well, close to 100 bushels per acre this year, says Tyler.

“Wheat is now our main crop,” Jack adds. “About one-third of our land is not heavy enough to make corn consistently; we have to get rain on it at the right time.”

He says wheat does better on lighter soils and produces more consistently. “We just see more advantage with wheat. A late freeze is our biggest fear.”

Later planting helps avoid vulnerability to late freeze damage, Jack says. “Before we were using tebuconozole fungicide, we were planting three weeks earlier, around Oct. 1. Now we wait until Oct. 25.”

He says adding fertilizer to earlier planted wheat would result in lodging. “Now, wheat stays green longer and we don’t lose it on the ground.

“Tebuconozole lets us do things we couldn’t do before. We also have better varieties than we used to. We have never had better wheat varieties than we do now.”

They have tweaked fertility a bit, too. They put nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulfur in the furrow. “We come back in January with 20 gallons of 32 percent nitrogen and another 20 gallons a month- and-a- half later.

“We’ve had good luck with split applications and with in-furrow application,” Jack says. “Until two years ago we were not adding sulfur, but soil tests called for it and it seems to help.”

Resilient crop

Tyler learned the last two years not to give up on wheat too early.  A droughty fall year before last put the wheat crop in jeopardy, but a December snowfall provided enough precipitation to get it going and adequate, if not ample, rainfall through the growing season set up the crop for excellent yields.

A late freeze threatened serious damage to wheat last spring. “We thought an April 15 freeze had zapped it. It looked bad,” Jack recalls. But the wheat was not badly damaged and yields were exceptional. Many area growers averaged 80 bushels per acre or better on their soft red winter wheat.

Tyler says they’ve also benefitted from seed treatments, a $4 per 100-pound of seed investment. They have the seed treated on the farm, straight out of the bin by an area businessman who brings his seed treatment apparatus to the farm, sets up on the premises and cleans and treats seed.

“We use Sativa,” Tyler says, a product that includes a fungicide (tebuconazole) as well as insecticides. “We manage diseases, greenbug, and other early season pests,” Tyler says.

“The seed treatment works well,” Jack adds. It’s also convenient. “He sets up in three or four locations in the area and works from one community to another. We’ve been using a seed treatment for 10 years or more but this is the third or fourth year he’s come to our farm.”

He had 14,000 bushels of wheat cleaned and treated last year and “had 200 left. This is a reliable service and we get the protection we need. We’ve seen no barley yellow dwarf disease for the last few years. We’ve been looking for rust for the past three or four years but we’re not seeing that either.”

Jack says Hessian fly has not been an issue recently but that September planting for winter grazing “makes me a little nervous. Farmers planting to harvest grain should have no trouble.”

He and Tyler like the start they’re getting this planting season. “Last fall we had barely enough moisture. Heavy soils did well; lighter soil was not as good.”

“We got off to a good start,” Tyler added. “We had good moisture to plant. In fact, early on we had fields that were still wet.”

Resistant weeds

They are learning how to manage resistant ryegrass, which can prove a challenge if not controlled. “We use a two-step herbicide program on fields that need it,” Jack says.

Texas AgriLife Extension IPM agent Jim Swart explains the two-step program. “It relies on a delayed pre-emergence application of Axiom, Zidua, or Anthem Flex, which, when used according to label specifications, should provide 80 percent to 95 percent control of resistant ryegrass,” Swart says. 

“Axial XL can then be used to control the remaining ryegrass plants that ‘escape’ the early treatments.  Axial XL should be applied to ryegrass when it is in the two- to three-tiller stage of development, which generally occurs in early to mid-January in Northeast Texas. 

“Growers will likely see a few ryegrass plants survive this two- step treatment. However, the ryegrass escapes will be suppressed by the wheat crop, and are not visible until after the wheat is headed. Our research has shown these late emerging ryegrass plants are not competitive and do not significantly reduce grain yields.”

An IPM approach to managing herbicide resistant ryegrass in Northeast Texas

“We need to get it early,” Jack says, “and we face the possibility of being locked out (wet conditions for example) and not able to get to it. We were pleased with the program last year. Even in a field that was in continuous wheat we saw very little ryegrass pressure.” 

They hope the good early start for this planting season puts them in position to harvest another good crop next spring. It’s been a good opportunity for Tyler to see the upside of farming, but he’s aware that drought, freeze damage and declining markets are part of the equation, too. He accepts that and after being back on the farm full time for about seven months he’s convinced it’s where he needs to be.

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