Jim Pryor checks the computer screen in his Olustee, Okla., farm office, reporting weather data to his sons Scott and Brad, and this Farm Press editor.
He learns from a weather site that Southwest Oklahoma received just 9.45 inches of rain in the last 180 days. That's 8 inches below normal and the driest stretch for the time frame since 1989, the fourth driest since 1921.
Only 6.2 inches fell over the last 120 days, making that period the driest since 1998 and the fifth driest for that stretch since 1921.
It's not like they needed reminded. They look across the road at a cotton patch they had to quit irrigating a few weeks back because the creek got too low and they know how dry it is. Plants wilt in the hot (above 100 degrees) afternoon sun.
They remember the recent meager wheat harvest. Of the 8,200 acres they planted last fall they harvested 1,000. They had anticipated running from 4,000 to 5,000 head of cattle on wheat pasture through the winter but cut back to 600.
“It will rain, sometime,” Jim says. “But it needs to rain soon on the cotton.” They planted 5,000 acres of cotton but abandoned 1,000 of those. More may follow.
Oddly enough, though they are not giddy with anticipation for this crop, they don't seem despondent. Maybe the farm history has something to do with that. The family, Jim's ancestors, have seen tough times, along with some very good ones, from this land since 1899.
“My great-grandfather homesteaded this place,” Jim says. “Scott and Brad are the fifth generation to farm here.”
Scott brings in the original homestead document, framed, signed by President William McKinley. Photos on the back show the original family, including Jim's great-grandfather and grandfather, who must have been about 10 years old at the time the picture was made.
The family survived that 1921 drought, the Great Depression, made it through the Dust Bowl, the drought of the 1950s and several others that Jim remembers well.
“I don't remember the '50s drought,” he says. “I wasn't particularly interested in it then. I've always heard that 1933 was the year to compare droughts to.”
He's been farming on his own since 1965 and recalls that 1971 was particularly bad. “They didn't even open the elevator,” he says. “That year always comes to mind when I think about dry weather.”
Wheat and cotton did well in 1979. “But 1980 was a disaster. Last year, we made the best wheat and cotton crops of my life. We had two good cotton years in a row.” He says the 2006 wheat crop was one of the worst he's ever made and he has little hope for cotton.
“We still could make a crop on some fields,” Brad says. “We have some 18-inch cotton stalks that could make if they get rain.”
Dry as it is, they anticipate planting a full complement of wheat this fall. “Wheat pasture is our number one goal,” Scott says.
“We'll start planting in mid-September,” Brad says.
“But we need some rain first,” Jim adds, “as hard as the ground is now.”
Brad says since most of the land was not grazed this year soil may not be as hard as it could have been.
They anticipate little difficulty finding seed for the Overley, Jagger, Jagalene and Cutter hard red winter wheat varieties they intend to plant. “We usually catch our own seed,” Jim says.
“We might have to buy some,” says Brad.
Scott says if folks have to replant acreage, seed availability could be iffy.
Not uncertain is planting technique. “We'll use no-till,” Jim says. That system, they believe, pays off in too many ways not to continue the practice they started several years ago. They already see improvements in the soil.
“The land is more mellow,” Jim says. “It holds moisture better.”
Brad says they can disk no-tilled wheat acreage in August and still pull up moisture most years.
Scott says stands have been good with no-till production.“And we're saving a lot of energy, equipment and labor.”
“We went complete no-till two years ago, mainly because of energy costs,” Brad says, “but the three of us plus one hired hand take care of 11,200 cultivated acres, so labor savings is a key, too.”
Jim watches no-till wheat acreage to judge compaction. “We still don't know if it will compact badly,” he says, “especially with cattle grazing it. We're watching it. It has worked well so far and has cut expenses.”
Jim says they'll plant first the acreage they know they'll graze. “If we can't get fields planted in time to make wheat pasture, we count on making grain,” he says. “But potentially, we'll graze it all.”
They're looking at the cattle market, hoping to lock some in before prices rise.
And they look forward to a better planting season than they had last fall. “We had a very narrow window,” Jim says. “If folks got wheat planted the right week, they did all right. If they missed that window, early or late, the crop suffered.”
Brad says they salvaged something from some of the wheat that was not adequate for either grazing or grain. “We cut some for hay,” he says. “We were able to sell it because no one made any hay around here. Cattlemen were paying a premium for hay.”
“We planted some irrigated corn this year for silage,” Jim says.
“We always plant a lot of wheat thinking we'll have good wheat pasture,” says Brad. “We depend on running cattle in the winter and we always think we'll get enough rain to sustain them. This year, we had to cut back to 20 percent of what we normally stock.”
With corn silage, they have a plan B. “Silage gives us something to fall back on,” Scott says. “This was the first time I remember that we had no wheat pasture. Usually, we can count on a spring rain giving us enough grazing for one calf per acre.”
Cotton is the latest wrinkle they've added to the operation.
“We started cotton about three years ago,” Scott says.
“We got lucky,” adds Brad. “We had two good dryland crops.” They averaged 800 pounds per acre on dryland cotton last year. And they needed no fertilizer.
Jim says it's a good rotation with wheat land. “A lot of this is new cotton ground that will produce well if it gets rain. And it works well no-till into wheat stubble.”
“That makes a world of difference to a young cotton plant,” Scott says. “We don't get sand injury.”
Jim says J.C. Banks, Oklahoma Extension cotton specialist at Altus, gave them the idea to try no-till cotton. “Rotation is cleaning up some problem weeds, too,” Jim says. “We can take care of wild oats and other grasses in cotton.”
“We had some bindweed that's been a problem forever,” Brad says. “We can knock the population down considerably in a cotton crop.”
They say Roundup Ready varieties have worked well except for problems this year with mares tail. “We're just not getting it with Roundup,” he says.
A trucking operation rounds out the Pryor diversification. They haul their own grain and buy fertilizer in bulk because they have the means and the drivers to bring it in.
They point to a large Centennial Farm sign, stashed behind the office door, waiting for someone to have time to mount it in a prominent location.
“We need to put it up before it rusts,” says Barbara Pryor, wife and mother, who seems to have an uncanny knack for knowing where everyone is when folks show up to conduct interviews. She makes certain the men get the top of Jim's desk uncluttered before all four pose for a photo with the framed homestead papers.
She also points out aged photos and legends affixed to the back of the frame showing the original family as well as a log barn, put together with wooden pegs, and built like a ship, according to the paragraph explaining its origins. It lasted for decades only to succumb to an Oklahoma tornado.
Such climatic calamities have provided constant challenges for this Centennial Farm, but the family continues to weather the storms, the droughts and other vagaries of Mother Nature to pull a living out of the sometimes inhospitable soil.