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          BELLINGHAM FARMERS ELEVATOR  
- DTN Headline News
View From the Cab
By Pamela Smith
Sunday, June 23, 2024 7:35AM CDT

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- The landscape views from Dan Lakey's cab make farming in southeastern Idaho's high country a breathtaking proposition. This week, however, a cold front plunged temperatures into the 20s Fahrenheit and lower to deliver a breathtaking gut punch.

"This was a farm-wide frost that got to every field to some degree over a 50-mile radius," said Lakey, who hails from Soda Springs. Winter wheat was at its most vulnerable -- heads had just emerged, and kernels were beginning to fill. Tender spring wheat and barley are now frosted brown and questionable. Canola leaves are yellowing. Triticale, peas and durum seem to have weathered the cold best, Lakey reported.

"I get a lot of comments about the beauty of our country when I post pictures on social media. My response is always that we do have a beautiful area, but it is offset by our cold climate and extreme conditions.

"This week, Mother Nature sent the bill and we had to pay the price," he said.

By contrast, Quint Pottinger has been sweltering in central Kentucky. Less than ideal planting conditions this spring are now beginning to show up as the corn curls under heat stress. Winds are also a concern as they whip through brittle corn fields made more susceptible by rapid growth.

"After wishing things would dry out all spring, we're now in a situation that the corn is rolling," said Pottinger, who farms near New Haven. "We're looking at corn pineapples and needing rain."

Pottinger and Lakey have been reporting in each week as part of DTN's View From the Cab (VFTC) series. The volunteer correspondents give an insider look at what is happening in the field and discuss other rural topics. This is the 9th report for the 2024 growing season.

Both VFTC farmers depend on specialty contracts with specific quality stipulations. This week they touch on what it takes to land, tend and retain those relationships. Speaking of relationships -- they also touch on the importance of caring for those at home during stressful cropping seasons.

Crazy weather continues to dominate discussions this week as temperatures ranged from freezing to frying pan hot. DTN Ag Meteorologist John Baranick said the risk of frost is now likely over for Lakey. Instead, he's looking at sunny conditions and temperatures ranging from high 70s (which is normal) and into the 80s. A couple of systems are going through the area, but rain looks to be north of Soda Springs.

"They could produce some interesting winds, but like how weather usually goes in the mountains, nothing is a guarantee," Baranick said.

In New Haven, Kentucky, the hot and dry stretch these past two weeks, and particularly the consistent 90s of the past week, has developed a lot of flash drought in the Eastern Corn Belt but was generally north of the Ohio River and south of the Tennessee River on the latest update from the U.S. Drought Monitor.

"We could see that coming to the space between the rivers if we can't get some rain soon," Baranick said. "A front is moving through on Sunday (June 23) and could bring a couple of showers. They're very hit or miss and more likely to miss. And temperatures behind that front aren't forecast to fall at all in Kentucky.

"A bigger front will move through on Wednesday (June 28). That has a much better chance for rain, though not guaranteed either, but also a nice drop in temperatures by 5-10 degrees and with lower humidity. That doesn't last long though, just a couple of days before it gets hot and back into the mid-90s with increasing humidity for the weekend," Baranick said.

QUINT POTTINGER: NEW HAVEN, KENTUCKY

Since his crops supply local bourbon distillers, it is always a bit tricky for Pottinger to say he desperately needs a drink. But the central Kentucky farmer is probably going to be saying that a lot this summer as late-planted crops tend to need more frequent sips of water.

Like many farmers across the Midwest, Pottinger's Affinity Farms is experiencing variable stands and crop growth stages. For the most part, early planted corn looks good. However, when rains started in late April and continued through May, it caused many fields to be planted into less-than-ideal conditions. Kentucky farmers to the west experienced even heavier rainfall totals this spring and they are already complaining of floppy corn and rooting issues, he noted.

"I almost guarantee we will see some greensnap," he worried. "We had corn at V4 to V5 for three weeks because it was so cool and wet. With the recent heat, corn jumped through five growth stages in about 10 days," Pottinger said.

"All we need is for a tropical storm to roll up from the Gulf. It doesn't even need to punch up rain. A 40-mph gust will knock some of this over," Pottinger said. Gooseneck or lodged corn can mostly right itself (if not broken), but the thought of harvesting the tangle that results already has the young farmer cringing.

There's good news. The dry weather this week has been favorable for wheat harvest. This week USDA's Crop Progress reported 34% of Kentucky's wheat harvested. The state joins other soft red winter wheat regions in an extremely early crop.

Pottinger reported wheat yields averaging about 76 bushel per acre (bpa) and test weights ranging from 58 to 61 pounds per bushel, so far. "It's been a weird year for wheat so far. We got into the first field, and it made 60 (bpa). We got into the second field, and it looked worse and made 89 (bpa).

"We've got wheat in the middle of some of these fields making 110 to 120 (bpa) and it is gorgeous. But our field perimeters have been hammered by wildlife and it is pulling the average down," he said.

In a typical year, Kentucky's weather turns hot in May, which causes wheat to die without reaching full maturity. Still, it requires time to dry down.

The past two years tossed out some weather changes that have Pottinger scratching his head. "May was relatively cool, and wheat pollinated under great conditions and went ahead and matured under great conditions.

"But we're seeing early harvest and some wonky things happening with test weight," he said. "Although the quality is there, but we're learning that 12% (moisture) wheat that dies doesn't mill the same as 12% wheat that goes to full maturity."

Flour millers can adjust and blend, but distillers are not as flexible. "We're finding we have to get wheat that has gone to full maturity down to 10% or slightly lower to mill up right," he said. "If we have another spring like this, I think we're going to have to look at possibly drying wheat."

Keeping those distillers happy is critical to Pottinger's marketing plans. He's quick to alert those he supplies about possible production challenges. He's already concerned, he admitted, about the size of his 2024 corn crop. Even if yields are adequate this year, he swapped about 400 acres of corn for soybeans this spring when he bumped against prevented planting deadlines.

The mindset of forming relationships can sometimes be foreign to those who have only worked within the commodity stream, he acknowledged.

"We have another distillery going up in a neighboring town and farmers have been asking us what it takes to work with them.

"The first thing I always say is: When they call, you have to answer," Pottinger said. "You have to bend over backwards when things go wrong, and you have to put yourself in their shoes and understand things from their perspective."

As a hypothetical example, he said a farmer might get a call from a distillery that a tote of corn isn't as clean as they might like or that it has moisture in it.

"Maybe it sat outside on a humid day after it was delivered instead of being protected," he said.

"But we answer that call by filling up another tote and delivering it and bring the other one back. We practice customer service.

"There may be farmers at a scale that they can push back on situations like that. It doesn't work for me. We work hard on building relationships," Pottinger said.

This week there was wheat left to harvest and double crop soybeans to plant and waterhemp wars to wage, among other chores. But Pottinger had pledged to stop working at 5 p.m. to attend a birthday celebration one of those nights. Of all the relationships that need tended, farmers need to put home first when possible, he maintained.

"One-on-one time. Family time. My dad was so good at that as I was growing up and has helped me see the value of family," he said, admitting that he can get fixated on projects and have trouble turning his mind off.

"My wife, Leah, is really good at asking me questions to help me work through that," he said. "Part of the reason we farm is to have flexibility. If we don't take advantage of that, we might as well work a 9-to-5 job."

DAN LAKEY: SODA SPRINGS, IDAHO

Hope is what Lakey has left at his disposal this week. He's still not exactly sure of the extent of crop injury after temperatures dropped as low as the high teens on June 17 and 18.

"It froze so hard on some fields to turn barley and spring wheat brown, and everything looks dead," Lakey said. Frost on winter wheat that was starting to fill head often results in blank heads. Kernels that do develop will be shriveled and light.

"We had amazing looking crops that were on the verge of needing a rain to stay amazing. Our only hope now on young crops such as spring wheat is that the growing point is still alive, and we get rain," Lakey added.

With less than an inch of growing season rainfall this year, soil moisture reserves have been used up. "Plants will not recover from the freeze without a significant rainfall event and many of our crops may be done for the year.

"We are trying to stay positive, but this just reinforces our need to have excellent insurance coverage in our area," he said.

Lakey recalls questioning his father about the $120,000 cost of crop insurance when he came back to farm full-time in 2009. "At the time, I told my dad I thought we had to find a way to go without crop insurance. Now, I'm trying to find ways to fortify it and make it more robust," he said.

Trying to enhance the biological aspects of the soil is part of that plan. In theory, a plant that is healthy and vigorous should be more frost tolerant.

For example, last fall he harvested no-till wheat with a stripper head that plucks the heads off the straw and leaves the rest as standing residue. The tall stubble is used to catch as much snow as possible.

"Where the stubble is standing, the snow will be as tall as the stubble. Where the wheel tracks are, the snow will only be six or 8 inches deep," he noted. This spring he seeded canola into that standing residue, which not only helped retain moisture, but also protected tender seedlings against winds.

"It's not all roses. The residue keeps the ground a bit cooler. But get past that, and the residue helps retain moisture and keep the crop cool in the hot days of summer," he said.

These kinds of conservation efforts also mesh with some of the specialty contracts the farm has focused on for the past 15 years. For example, one of the companies he works with, Shepherd's Grain, seeks relationships with food producers implementing regenerative agriculture practices that keep the soil covered, diversify crop species and work to boost carbon.

"As it becomes harder and harder to make the pencil sharp with commodities, we look to the contracts less as 'icing on the cake' and more towards them as how we must operate," Lakey said.

"They are often smaller contracts and require a lot more effort than raising a standard commodity. The tolerances are tighter, but the reward can be great. Many times, delivery periods are small and not timely. Farmers are often dealing with smaller companies who don't have the financial stability of a huge commodity elevator or conglomerate," he said.

While there have been some steep learning curves and headaches with these specialty contracts, Lakey finds the financial reward worth the effort. For example, the specialty milling wheat contract with Shepherd's Grain has stringent traceability requirements that go along with implementing specific cropping practices. Because of this, the farm must obtain certification from a third-party company that ensures compliance.

"This means yearly on farm audits, inspections, and a ton of paperwork and hassle that is not involved in selling a commodity. To us, it is worth the hassle," he said.

This has been a rough week, but Lakey doesn't have to look far to stay grounded. His wife, Marie, keeps the home fires burning--even when there is frost in the field.

"She is the rock that keeps our family stable. If it weren't for my wife, my kids would be feral, our house would be in shambles, the yard overgrown, the bill collectors would have a tent set up in the driveway, and I'd be on a corner with a cup asking for change," he said.

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

Follow her on social platform X @PamSmithDTN


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