Education and on-job training help farmers cope

Chad Wetzel is learning how to farm from his dad, Bruce, on a Grayson County, Texas, grain operation. He’s trying to master the business end of agriculture with the business administration and finance degree he earned from Texas Tech and the MBA he’s pursuing from Texas A&M-Commerce.

“I need the business side of agriculture,” he said. “I can learn the agronomy from dad, but information on marketing and managing the capital necessary to farm is much different compared to just 10 years ago.”

He said marketing and cash flow are the keys. Bruce agrees that each generation has much to teach the other.

“Chad does a lot of spread sheet work. He keeps up with field histories and checks grain tickets, which he segregates by farm.”

They also analyze lease opportunities and crop mixes. They work with some cash-lease and some share-rent agreements. “We’re trying to convert everything to a cash-lease,” Bruce said. “It’s simpler and every year each landowner generation knows less about how the share-rent system works.”

Adding acreage is not currently an issue. “We don’t really want any more acres now,” Bruce said. That could change as Chad, who has 250 acres on his own, expands.

They’re also looking at alternative crops, something to augment corn and wheat. “We probably will not take on anything new in 2010 and add to our risk exposure after the 2009 losses,” Chad said. “But we will watch research tests from Cereal Crops Research Incorporated (CCRI), a farmer-funded private research organization serving the northeast Texas farming community.

They think crops like sunflower or canola may have a place in their rotation.

For now, they’re analyzing options for 2010, which already has setbacks. “We typically grow corn and wheat, about 60 percent corn and 40 percent wheat,” Bruce said. We only planted about half our usual wheat acreage last fall.”

An unusually wet planting season prevented the Wetzels from planting about 1,500 acres of their usual 3,000-acre crop.

“We’re looking at the numbers now,” Chad said, “to see if filing prevented planting on crop insurance will be our best option for 2010.”

They could plant that idle 1,500 acres in corn, but likely will leave out marginal land. “It also depends on the planting season,” Bruce said. “We’ll keep that 1,500 acres out until the end of corn planting and then decide.”

“We’ll apply Roundup on idled land a few times to prevent weed buildup,” Chad said. “Roundup has gotten cheap enough to justify several applications.”

“And we’re going to cut every cost we can,” Bruce added.

That may mean changing fertilizer application techniques. “We’ll band some 10-34-0 with the seed,” Bruce said. “We’ll come back with a 32 percent nitrogen application with Roundup behind the planter.”

They’ll use a coulter rig “when the corn is up and growing and add the rest of the 32 percent nitrogen.”

Overall, they apply 500 pounds of 32 percent nitrogen, 200 pounds behind the planter and the rest knifed in.”

They also plan to apply an aflatoxin management product to corn. “We’ll treat every acre of corn,” Bruce said. They’ll apply either Afla-Gard of AF-36, both atoxic aspergillus strains that compete with the toxic aspergillus flavus and crowd it out.

AF-36 is available through a farmer-owned cooperative in Arizona; Afla-Gard is a Syngenta product. “Both products worked equally well last year,” Chad said. AF-36 is waiting on a label. “The paperwork has been done,” Bruce said. “We’re just waiting on the feds.”

They need something. “We’ve seen a lot of corn dockage because of high aflatoxin levels,” Chad said. Last year was particularly bad. “We were dry, then cool and wet, conditions conducive to aflatoxin.”

“A late rain hurt, too,” Bruce said.

“It took forever for corn to dry down,” Chad added. “Harvest was late; we cut some corn in October.”

They take advantage of seed technology to help control pests.

“We plant a lot of Bt corn,” Bruce said, “and some straight Roundup Ready hybrids. We plant some corn with rootworm resistance.”

Corn yield was off last year. “We lost about 30 bushels per acre, a 30 percent drop,” Chad said.

“And we were a little better off than some of our neighbors,” Bruce said.

Chad said a little more nitrogen late in the season helped. “We probably had a little more fertilizer on than some others did. Test weights were good and I think that late shot of nitrogen helped.”

The 2009 wheat yield was also down. “We had a lot of freeze damage,” Chad said. An April cold snap cut yields in half. “We made less than 30 bushels per acre and usually make 60. It looked pretty and had a lot of fertilizer on it.”

“We had not applied a fungicide before the freeze,” Bruce said. “We typically use Folicur on every acre of wheat we plant. We take advantage of the inexpensive treatment and it does a good job on leaf and stripe rusts.”

The wheat they got planted last fall is off to a slow start. “We planted late and so far it doesn’t have much growth on it,” Bruce said. “We feel like it still has potential to make a good crop. But if conditions stay wet, we may just topdress.”

They added a hard wheat variety this year, Jackpot from AgriPro. “The difference in price (compared to soft wheat varieties) is the reason,” Bruce said. “We’re trying to find more hard wheat varieties that adapt to this area.”

He said Jackpot “stands well in CCRI variety trials. This is the first hard wheat recommended for this area in years.”

In addition to weather, they also have another pest they fear is on the way — feral hogs. “We’ve had to replant little acreage because of hog damage so far,” Chad said, “but a lot of other farmers have had trouble and it may be coming. We see more hogs every year and we see more damage. It’s not a big economic threat yet.”

They use that kind of observation, along with Chad’s spread sheet data, to find better ways to operate the farm. “I’d like to find an alternate crop,” Bruce said. “We know we can’t compete with the Midwest on corn and soybean yields.”

Chad does some custom application to supplement farm income, but that business was off last fall because of reduced wheat acreage. He hopes to pick up some business this spring with Afla-Gard applications.

They’ve added 200,000 bushels of on-farm storage capacity to help marketing.

Bruce said research from CCRI (he’s a board member) helps identify production options for northeast Texas. “This is my first year on the board, but I’ve been aware of the work for years through their test plots and other research efforts.”

They need the help. Bruce said conditions have changed. They used to raise cotton, but have had none since 1990. “Risk factors are higher now,” he said, “and we have little safety net left.”

And Chad hopes to expand his own operation. “That’s my long-term goal, but for now I have the 250 acres of my own. I use dad’s equipment and pay him back. I take it year by year.”

He’s following a family tradition that began with his grandfather, who is now 91. “He came here from Virginia and Tennessee,” Bruce said. “I was born on this place and I’ve always farmed.”

“It’s what I want to do,” Chad said.

email: [email protected]

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