- DTN Headline News
View From the Cab
By Pamela Smith
Wednesday, October 20, 2021 11:23AM CDT

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- The term uncertain times has taken on a whole new meaning for Ryan Wieck. Supply chain concerns have dogged the Texas Panhandle farmer all summer as he's struggled to get everything from herbicides to machinery parts.

The crane he ordered more than a month ago to load plastic wrap into his cotton stripper baler is still missing in action. "Mess up a tire and there's no guarantee you'll be able to replace it. You can't even find sweeps for tillage tools.

"Perhaps we got spoiled in the past, but everything just seems so difficult or uncertain right now," said Wieck, who farms near Umbarger about 25 miles southwest of Amarillo.

Dayton, Iowa, farmer Kellie Blair has been slower to feel the supply squeeze, but the pinch has finally come in the form of scarce fertilizer supplies and skyrocketing prices. "We will fall apply some anhydrous this year when temperatures allow because we can get it now, even though the environmentalist in me prefers spring applications followed by as-needed side-dressing," said Blair.

"We are not sure nitrogen supplies will be there when we need them if we wait until spring," she said.

Make all the jokes you want, or call it what you will, but both farmers are finding themselves giving more of a crap about crap this year. "Manure from our cattle and swine operations has always been integral to our farming system," Blair noted. "But it has become even more valuable in this current squeeze."

Blair and Wieck are participating in DTN's View From the Cab series. The diary-like reports began in May and have followed the farmers through the growing season. This is the 24th segment of the feature, which covers crop conditions, farm issues and life on the farm.

While both farmers are seeing nice increases in prices for raw commodities, the scarcity of inputs coupled with price increases for those products threatens overall profitability. Read on to learn more about price increases, how harvest is progressing and just for fun -- what they listen to in the tractor cab.

KELLIE BLAIR -- DAYTON, IOWA

There has been a little frost on the pumpkin in Iowa this week and Kellie Blair wasn't ready for the change. Temperature swings had the Iowa farmer digging for hooded sweatshirts and other cool weather gear.

With bean harvest behind them, the farm team is focusing on corn harvest, but experienced a short timeout to fix the corn head. A malfunction in the auto header adjustment sensor was followed by some hot bearings. The combination briefly stirred dreams of a new corn head, but the machinery dealer waived off the thought until after harvest.

"I'm just glad I wasn't running the combine when things started breaking," she exclaimed. "There's always that feeling that it was your fault when something goes wrong!"

The good news is corn yields this year are trending above farm average, despite the fairly dry conditions experienced throughout the growing season. "We are really noticing yield differences in high fertility fields this year," Blair noted. "I'll be looking closely at field fertilizer history, along with yield history and soil sample results to determine needs for 2022."

The decision to move to at least a partial fall nitrogen program this year has not been easy. "It tends to be a fairly leaky system for us," Blair admitted. "But because soils are fairly dry and predicted to remain dry into next year, we're feeling a little more comfortable going that direction."

Also pushing this fall application is the fact they have not been able to book nitrogen products for spring. "Everything we're able to book must be fall applied, which is different than in other years," she noted.

The average retail price of three fertilizers increased by more than $100 per ton in the past month, according to prices tracked by DTN for the second week of October. Seven of the eight major fertilizers tracked by DTN took staggering jumps higher in that timeframe, and four now cost twice as much as last year.

Find this week's fertilizer trend report here: https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Scarcity brings a fear of the unknown, Blair observed. "I don't like that feeling, but we're making the best decisions we can and trying to look at options.

"We're trying to utilize manure the best we can. I'm thankful we have it to take care of the P and K needs, for the most part. We'll variable rate and try not to put dry fertilizer where we don't need it. We'll likely follow fall-applied nitrogen with ATS as an herbicide carrier to get the sulfur. We just don't know what spring will bring for supplemental nitrogen."

Blair said they also intend to wait until conditions are cool enough to make those fall anhydrous applications. Those decisions are more difficult though with swine manure applications since the farm depends on custom applicators and timing runs with their schedule. Delays aren't a good idea as pits eventually come full.

While commodity prices are favorable this year, it's taking more of those higher-priced bushels to pay the rent. "Many of our farm leases flex based on bushels," Blair noted. "We like to reward the landowner when yields respond. Those type of incentive leases have worked well for us in the past. However, we've never had input price increases like these either."

Moving fertility into fall also moves the payment for nitrogen ahead. That's a cash flow consideration that young farmers can struggle with, she said. "It's very hard to know how to plan this year. That's especially hard for those of us who like to plan and don't like to deviate from it."

Pre-paid early seed discounts sound nice but coupling that with fertility prices makes it a tougher sell this fall. "This year, the environment seems much more volatile and each decision carries more financial uncertainty," Blair said.

As the corn crop comes off, the cereal rye seeded earlier this fall is being revealed growing below. The green sweep of the cover crop is a sign that there's one thing to depend on.

"We had a monitor go out in one tractor and with it the GPS. A lot of farmers would say you don't need GPS, but all our record keeping is tied to those computers," she noted.

As the saying often goes, technology is great when it works. As she shuttles loads of corn back and forth in the grain cart, Blair depends on other technologies to occupy her thoughts. She often listens to audiobooks -- typically those she can download free with her library card (Libby.app.com). Informational podcasts are something she also appreciates.

RYAN WIECK -- UMBARGER, TEXAS

Red Dirt country music -- a genre that gets its name for the color of the soil found in the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles -- is Ryan Wieck's jam in the tractor cab. "Typically, though, I prefer to keep my ears on the equipment. I almost always hear a mechanical issue first," he said.

Unfortunately, he had one of those last week. Milo harvest got underway and as Wieck cut into the crop, he found a considerable number of acres were lodged.

"The milo standing was running 18% to 20% and what was down was around 12%," he said. "Yields were better than expected, but we figured we were leaving about 1,000 lb. per acre out there trying to pick it up."

A move to use a draper head outfitted with milo fingers didn't improve the situation. A neighbor has a corn head converted to harvest milo. Leasing the converted header from the neighbor turned out to work much better.

"Except I got one-quarter of a mile into the field and as I was trying to get everything set, I hit a sprinkler track and the combine dipped to one side and I bent a snout," he said.

The crinkled snout incident required another trip to the John Deere dealership for parts, which is a path Wieck is all too familiar with of late. "When Dad asked me how much it cost, I said don't ask, because it didn't matter -- it had to be fixed," he said.

Wheat planting is back underway. On Monday, Wieck had another 145 acres left to seed and figured to finish this week.

Cotton harvest isn't far away either. Windy days have slowed spray applications of boll openers. "We've really been fighting the wind. It just won't stop blowing," he said.

Fertilizer applications for 2022 generally start in February or March. Wieck is concerned about what will be available come spring. Although he's locked in on wheat acres, the rest of his cropping mix will be largely dependent on what inputs look like and when they will be available.

"Farmers are facing a lot of difficult decisions this year and a lot of unknowns. I know I've talked a lot about supply chain challenges this year. But I feel as though I'm spending an increasing number of hours trying to patch things together and find what I need to do that.

"We've also become dependent on technology to the point where one little sensor can shut down a machine that can cost between $500,000 to $1 million," he said. Labor strikes and shipments sitting in ports only add to what seems like a pattern of more uncertainty, he observed.

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

Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN

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

Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN


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