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The View from Here: Reporting from Beatrice, Nebraska …

Mike Gangwer Published on 29 October 2012

I flew my Mooney aircraft to the southeast corner of Nebraska, landing in Beatrice. While visiting a good friend there, I found myself embedded in the farm communities quite different than ours in Michigan. Let me describe my visit.

Center pivot irrigation is king. And this year, especially so. Most crop fields are irrigated – and those that are not really suffered with the dry year. The dryland corn yielded 40 to 60 bushel corn, and the irrigated corn, while not yet harvested, is expected to be just under normal.

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We talked with a number of farmers over the course of two days. The topic of wells and groundwater was often talked about. The well depths here in this part of Nebraska are 150 to 250 feet deep. Most are fully capable of supporting the center pivot irrigation systems, although in some locations wells had gone dry.

I got the impression that farmers generally recognized the need to conserve water and, in dry years like this one, implementing good irrigation water management, including scheduling and updating the sprinkler package on the pivot. Farmers generally visited each field at least once a day, checking crop conditions and soil moisture.

I heard the term deficit irrigation a number of times. One big irritation expense is energy demand. Most pivots and well pumps are driven by a diesel engine or electrical panel with buried cables from the roadside to the pivot. Several farmers told me the electrical company has a graduated expense rate.

Pumping on-demand is most expensive; some farmers opt for operating their pivots at much less than peak demand time. Irrigation scheduling becomes a challenge. The farmers must balance off-peak loading with antecedent soil moisture conditions … or pay a higher peak demand rate.

We all know that commodity prices are high this year. Yet these farmers reported that input costs are very high as well – thus, the margin is not as great as one might think. Fertilizer costs are somewhat related to energy costs. Seed costs are, too.

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Farmers are all about optimization of crop yield given these costs, and this is why having supplemental water in the form of a center pivot is so valuable. The few dryland farmers spoke to the fact that they have the same input costs other than the pivot energy demand, but they will likely not even come close to cash flowing. They all reported having crop insurance.

I visited a large super-cooperative. The term “super” comes from the consolidation of many smaller co-ops into a very large co-op with facilities in dozens of small towns. In the little town of Daykin, population 800, the co-op elevators there have a 2-million-bushel grain capacity.

Already some of the dryland corn, in storage, is being trucked to a railroad siding for rail-car loading and then transport to the Mississippi River.Later in the year much of this Nebraska corn will be hauled to an ethanol plant. In many towns the cooperative is the largest employer in town, but the number of workers is relatively low, given the automation and size of equipment.

And these super-cooperatives offer a plethora of services to farmers, including field scouting, soil sampling and analyses, fertilizer and chemical handling/application and trucking. While traveling through many small towns, the cooperative facilities themselves were home to many brand-new concrete pour-in-place storage facilities.

The livestock growers are in stress, especially the swine producers. The relatively high cost of the grain commodity is taking its toll on the hog industry. We saw a number of empty confined hog units. I did not see any poultry operations here.

There are few small beef herds left in this part of Nebraska, but several of the large ones are importing forages from other states. Some of the dryland corn fodder is round-baled and will be used for roughage in the beef ration. On some of the more marginal land, the draws and upslopes from dry creekbeds, few cattle are able to find enough to eat given the dry year.

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We had lunch at one of the large livestock auctions. The cafeteria manager, a long-time employee of the auction, reported the numbers of cattle and horses through the facility was up 25 percent over the previous 10-year average, with some animals showing signs of ration stress (not enough to eat). He also reported that this year was the driest he has seen in 40 years, with all creeks and some lowland swamp areas completely dry.

Several of the hog growers are raising breeding stock for sale. Much of the hog industry is using artificial insemination now that the semen extender issues have been largely solved. But I was told the big market for breeding stock, mainly breeding age gilts, is China.

In fact delegations of Chinese buyers come to these farms in Nebraska, select the gilts and maybe a few boars, and then these animals are robustly tested before their trip to O’Hare Airport near Chicago for the airplane ride to China.

As I wrapped up my visit and prepared the airplane for the trip back to Alma, Michigan, I gave a lot of thought to the “can do” ethos of the people I had met. Faced with challenges and a changing world, these farmers and those who supported them somehow figured out how to adapt, adjust and overcome the difficulties of production agriculture.

Gone were the days when you just planted seed, added a bit of manufactured fertilizer and then hoped for rain. The cost factor of inputs and much higher management requirements are required in today’s farming operations. I did not hear one farmer say something aspirational without making the case for how he or she implemented it through operationalization.

I have listened to many speeches by important people in leadership roles, speeches that were aspirational and lofty but, out here in rural America, the aspirations are actually accomplished. They are manifest in the mile after mile of crops in field after field, they are manifest by the feedlots and confinement buildings that house our livestock, and they are manifest with an attitude of “get it done.”

Perhaps I am sensitive toward the international community, the countries where those in authority make great promises to move farming and production ahead, but at the farmer level, farmers are not empowered to implement these promises. Perhaps another way to write this is the importance of empowerment, diminishing the role the state plays in industries like agriculture.

As readers of this column know, I make the case that true change occurs after people are empowered and not part of an entitlement program. Do not take this for granted. Many if not most farmers around the world (largely women) do not have an empowered environment – and the result is dismal agricultural performance.

Empowerment is built upon the private sector, the freedom to make individual choices, an outstanding education/research base and an amazing infrastructure system that plays a huge role in helping the input side and the export side of foo, feed and fiber production in rural America.

I am not quite ready to write these farmers are rugged individualists … but I am suggesting they are the ones that actually get something done, actually feeding us and much of the world and doing so using the best scientific rationale for making good decisions.

Further, these farmers understand the importance of farming sustainably by implementing a conservation ethos. Most of these farmers had children that were already part of the operation or soon would be.

Visits like this are healthy and I, for one, am most grateful that here in the U.S. our agriculture industry is robust … and the envy of much of the world. We are always improving, always looking for new ways of increasing efficiency and always searching for new ideas.

This industry is much less aspirational as it is operational. At the end of the morning coffee, about seven or eight farmers said goodbye, walked to their trucks and drove off to begin their days. I envy them very much. PD

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Mike Gangwer
Senior Agricultural Adviser
USDA FAS

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