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View From the Cab
By Pamela Smith
Thursday, October 29, 2020 3:12PM CDT

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Cold. Rain. Corn. Beans. Nuts. Pick. Bale. Vote.

Sometimes four-letter words sum up a lot in farm country. With one more week of election noise to endure, DTN's View From the Cab farmers find themselves wishing it and the harvest season were, well ... done.

Cold temperatures and rain moved into central Illinois this week for Reid Thompson, Colfax, Illinois. Pitting for repairs on one combine and a meltdown of a dryer in the farm's grain system were as welcome as the need to wear insulated overalls.

"We should be done with harvest next week and are trying to keep things in perspective by remembering that we still had 1,000 acres to harvest this time last year," said Thompson.

Meanwhile, in Jay, Florida, Ryan Jenkins is wondering whether Hurricane Zeta will bring more unwanted precipitation to further slow his progress. "We're almost numb at this point," said Jenkins, referring to the number of hurricanes that have played havoc on the Panhandle.

Thompson and Jenkins have been reporting on crop conditions and other aspects of farm life since May as part of DTN's series called View From the Cab.

This week, the two farmers talk crop yields and how they weigh bringing new products and practices to the field as they search for profitability. They broach the delicate subject of government payments to farmers and whether farmers still have a voice in this politically charged climate.

Read on to learn more about what is happening in their farming regions this week.

RYAN JENKINS -- JAY, FLORIDA

There have been 27 installments of View From the Cab this season. That's also exactly how many named storm events have churned up in the Atlantic Basin so far this year.

Ryan Jenkins was feeling resigned to the fact that Tropical Storm Zeta was expected to upgrade to hurricane status and make landfall somewhere on the central U.S. Gulf Coast by midweek. "We'll likely feel some impacts from Zeta -- hopefully rain will be the worst of it. Right now, all we can say is we'll just get back after the crop after it has blown through," Jenkins said.

He's finished digging peanuts and has about 275 acres inverted sitting on top of the ground waiting to be picked. However, it looked doubtful those peanuts would dry before Zeta zapped them again. "We had about an inch of rain on Saturday. Had it not been for that, we'd be knocking a pretty good hole in them ahead of this storm," he said.

That leaves cotton harvest, but storm events have played the devil with spraying defoliants too. It takes about two weeks after spraying for defoliants to do a good job of removing the leaf material that can contaminate cotton and lower grades.

"If I can't find any of my own cotton that's ready this week, I'll be out looking for custom picking jobs," Jenkins said.

Hurricane Sally knocked some of the stuffing out of cotton in the Florida Panhandle -- cutting yields by half to one-third on what Jenkins has picked so far.

Peanuts are offering much better prospects. His dryland peanuts have been averaging 5,300 to 5,400 pounds per acre with some fields yielding nearly 3 tons per acre.

Lessons learned from on-farm test plots are also showing how innovating can be profitable. While lowering costs is often important, Jenkins noted that moving to a new (and more costly) fungicide program allowed him to nearly double spray intervals this year.

Mirvas (Pydiflumetofen) tank mixed with Elatus (Azoxystrobin and Benzovindiflupyr), both Syngenta products, offered longer residual activity to keep leaf spot and white mold under control. "We applied fungicides three to four times this season, depending on the field, compared to seven applications under our old fungicide program," he said.

"Sometimes it is hard to trust a product to last that long when you've been used to making an application every 10 to 14 days," Jenkins said. "In the back of your mind there's that worry of whether you can play catch up if it doesn't work.

"But I studied all the data, I talked to a lot of people, and I tried it on limited acreage with really good results last year," he said. "Granted, we had a dry year in 2019, and that typically means less disease. So, I watched those peanuts like a hawk this season in case the protection broke, but it never did."

Likewise, three years of on-farm testing of BASF's Apogee (prohexadione calcium) led him to try it on a broader scale this year. "We've seen around a 600 lb. per acre yield increase from using it, but it costs $50 per acre to use.

"Any time you start using a new product or system, there's some risk involved. So, we do everything we can to try to make sure it is economically and agronomically sound before making that move on a large scale," he said.

Farming itself is a risk, he noted. "But I am not a very risky farmer. I try to be diversified, calculated and conservative in everything we do."

There was a time when Jenkins felt that as a farmer, his voice was but a whisper. Then, he participated in a national peanut leadership program.

"The current farm bill was being discussed that year and through this leadership program, I took my first trip to Washington, D.C. I was completely changed by the experience as I genuinely felt the people we met with, regardless of what side of the aisle they represented, listened and wanted to have real conversations," Jenkins said.

On the other hand, he does worry about how polarized politics have become in more recent times. "I really feel this country needs to take a hard look at pulling together in positive ways.

"The way I know to be part of that change is to try to keep educating and telling my story about why I believe in agriculture as an industry," he said.

This year, he offered his farm as a site for state and national officials to come together with farmers to talk about the disaster wrought by Hurricane Sally.

"We can't complain about not having a voice if we don't speak up," Jenkins said.

REID THOMSPON -- COLFAX, ILLINOIS

If Reid Thompson gets tired of listening to general election rhetoric, he can simply consider state issues. Voters in Illinois are being asked to decide on whether to amend the constitution to allow for a progressive tax that would institute graduated tax brackets based on income. Currently, all individuals pay the same rate of 4.95% and corporations pay 7% in Illinois.

"My biggest concern with the so-called 'fair tax' is there appears to be no protection in place to keep further tax increases from coming without further voter approval," Thompson said. He can't imagine big business interests being attracted to a state with high corporate tax rates either.

As a young farmer trying to gain a foothold in farming, Thompson finds plenty of time to mull policies behind the wheel of a tractor, sprayer or semi. While he can't say the dollars to farmers through trade-war payments, Cornavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payments and other farm program dollars haven't been welcome, he's also not entirely comfortable with the fact those payments now make up a third of U.S. farm income.

"I just think going forward we have to get to a more revenue-based program approach rather than cash infusions," he said. "And, I fully expect to see some of these programs vanish after the election no matter the outcome. As farmers, we had better be prepared for that."

Thompson has benefited over the last few years from a young farmer program that has paid 20% his crop insurance bill. That benefit runs out in 2021, and he knows it is time for him to carry the tab.

He recently enrolled several farms in a 5-year Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) that will allow him to get a better look at cover crops. At the end of that contract, he hopes the practice is profitable enough to continue without those support dollars.

"If you're not trying you're dying, right," Thompson said of efforts to keep tweaking production systems. He is constantly looking for opportunities to reduce passes and machinery and avoid additional hired labor.

No-till has been the answer on soybeans. Strip-till is working well for corn and incorporating cover crops into that system has helped erosion-prone areas of the farm, he noted.

Overall, 2020 yields have been hitting the 5-year farm average. "It's good corn, but we aren't going to set any world records," he noted. Soybean harvest, which was finalized last week, averaged 65 to 70 bushels per acre (bpa) across the farm, located in McLean and Ford counties.

Tile lines told the tale this year, Thompson observed. "I have fields that dropped 20 to 30 bushel when you came off the tile line. Those heavy rains we endured early in the season thinned stands more than we realized," he said.

Lack of rainfall in August was another factor, but Thomspon said he's seeing two overriding factors on top-yielding fields: early planting and good drainage.

Nitrogen management is another focus. The farm moved away from anhydrous years ago and moved to in-season split applications. Low-cost custom application and cheap nitrogen are tempting, but Thompson is exploring other options that seem more environmentally sound.

"We have some fields where we've just never really pushed the envelope on yield. We see good corn, but the average really never pushes up to that next level. So, we're working with some companies trying some microbial products to see if we can find other ways to be more efficient, especially with nitrogen," he said.

Thompson said Pivot Bio trials utilizing an in-furrow at-planting microbial that adheres to roots and delivers nitrogen to the plant as it is growing, look good so far. "I like the idea of getting nitrogen to the plant in a timely way that takes some weather out of the equation," he said. "But we want to educate ourselves on these products and really see their value."

With about 40% of his crop left to harvest, Thompson was hoping to bin the final kernels by the end of next week with a little less excitement and a lot more harvesting. A rock through the draper of one combine, a broken belt on the grain leg and a brand-new bin fan going out was way more fixing than he preferred this past week.

Bin repairs also conjured up memories of a more relaxed time this summer when he and father, Gerald, pulled the fan off a wet bin and found a kitten.

"We put the bin back together and were standing there trying to get nourishment into it when we heard more mewing," Thompson recalled.

It took another dismantling of the equipment to find another kitten. Thompson's toddler son unanimously voted Dory and Mulan into the family and introduced another four-letter word into the 2020 lexicon for Thompson Farms -- cats.

Pamela Smith can be reached at pamela.smith@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN


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