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View From the Cab
By Pamela Smith
Sunday, July 21, 2024 4:56AM CDT

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- This time of year, flax shimmers in Dan Lakey's Idaho farm fields like a pristine lake with mountains as a backdrop. Yellow canola fields are just on the verge of losing their near neon brilliance as pods begin to fill. It is nature's palette at its finest.

But this year, Lakey is trying to concentrate on the long views of these scenes because the closeups aren't nearly as pretty. A late-June frost dramatically diminished crop stands in many of his fields. Now, drought threatens what is left standing.

"I took an extensive crop tour yesterday (July 18). We have durum on a section (640 acres) of our north farm. It took the frost very hard and much of it was killed at the growing point. Big parts of the field have nothing growing. In those areas that are growing, the durum is so thin, it's not going to make a crop. It was disheartening to see," said Lakey.

"Barley and spring wheat is still looking pretty decent but needs a rain badly in the next week or so or it will head south as well," he added.

In Kentucky, Quint Pottinger also needed rain. But this week the clouds opened to bring 5 inches of rain in 45 minutes across many of his acres. Another one-half inch of rain followed the next day.

"We've got gullies everywhere. It washed out the gravel road to our farm. I couldn't believe how hard it rained," said Pottinger. "We may have kept an inch out of that 5."

The two farmers are participating in DTN's View From the Cab series, a regular feature that examines crop conditions and digs into other rural topics. In this 12th installment of the series, the farmers give an update on crops, talk about what's keeping them busy this week and add a few thoughts about investing in equipment, given current commodity prices. And they talk about the importance of hobbies (that don't involve farming).


While Pottinger was glad to have the rain this week, he figures only an inch or so of the 5 inches that fell soaked into the soil profile. The runoff resulted in several days of road and field repairs -- not to mention suctioning water out the basement of his house.

The gentle half inch of rainfall that fell the following day was the real blessing. It also came with a dip in temperatures and humidity as corn is pollinating. The moisture eased fears about the prospects of late-planted corn.

"If the weather holds up with moderate temperatures and good soil moisture, we could be looking at a pretty big crop with our late-planted corn," Pottinger said. He had 300 acres planted near the end of May.

DTN Ag Meteorologist John Baranick said the milder weather the New Haven area enjoyed recently should continue through this coming week. Highs are forecast to stay mostly in the lower 80s Fahrenheit.

"A cutoff low-pressure system will slowly make its way eastward through the country and offer up some periods of showers and thunderstorms as well. They'll probably be the hit-or-miss type, but they may get lucky and get another good rain out of it after being so dry in June and early July," Baranick said.

Holding onto those kernels and corn yield means keeping an eye on Southern rust, which has already been identified in nearby counties. Tar spot typically comes into the region late enough that fungicides haven't been necessary to protect against the disease, but Pottinger is watching more closely this year with more late-planted corn.

This week he's also been watching the markets closely. "I've heard some guys around here saying they may put some ground back into pasture -- hoping the cattle market is signaling something more lucrative than a grains market that is currently telling us not to even grow a crop," he said. A soybean crush plant entering his area could push farmers toward more beans, especially since they cost less to produce than corn.

"On this farm, we're looking at the fertilizer market and trying to decide if we should lock some in now," he said. "I'm afraid the price for urea and potash might not drop. We've seen an increase in seed prices, as well."

Several years ago, the farm went non-GMO to take advantage of lower price of both seed and chemicals. Pottinger said non-GMO corn seed used to be about $180 to $190 per bag. This year it was close to $220 per bag. The farm had been considering going back to corn that contains herbicide tolerant traits this coming year to battle some weed control issues, but heavily discounted seed is still $280 to $310 per bag, he said.

"Although we are not totally price makers, we are trying to be price makers by selling into the distiller's market. So, we do have some wiggle room on absorbing some of those input costs compared to the guys that are price takers," he said.

The current economic climate makes it difficult to plan, he agreed. "But on this farm, we're planning to put out more rye than we've ever put out and more corn in 2025. It's a local demand story based on the market we service and the infrastructure we've built to service it," Pottinger said.

The word goal is a favorite for the young farmer. Everyone who works on the farm is expected to write down goals for themselves and the farm every month. Pottinger does have a wish list of things that he thinks will make life easier.

"Let's be honest, my generation of farmers are trying to build the real-life version of the carpet farms that we had as kids," he said. "You grow up dreaming of running an operation. When college classes got boring, I was doodling grain system layouts. There is always something on the wish list."

But one thing Pottinger doesn't do is spend money when he doesn't have it. When it comes to machinery, his next project will likely correspond to the John Deere fertilizer spreader purchased two years ago. The goal is to continue to reduce the number of passes required to apply nitrogen (N), while making the system more agile.

Currently the farm is putting nitrogen down with the sprayer after burndown. They also apply 36 to 40 units of N as a starter with the planter. "What I'd like to do is increase what we apply with the planter to 80 to 90 units and reduce the amount going out with the sprayer -- just using nitrogen as the carrier in that burndown. That would get us to 140 to 150 units. Then we could supplement the rest of the needs with the DAP and a little urea mixed in the dry and applying with our own fertilizer buggy. It would lower volumes required if additional sidedressing is needed," he said.

The next dream piece of equipment is a planter with 2X2 in-furrow banding with coulters set to allow higher rates of nitrogen to be laid in at planting. The idea is to reduce at least one sprayer pass.

"Last year, Dad looked at me and said that we finally have the equipment necessary to add another 1000 acres. We finally got the second combine. We finally have a third tractor and equipment is starting to be paid off," he said.

"Some of our equipment is 10 to 15 years old, but a 15-year-old tractor is still a 30-series John Deere that runs all the modern technology. Right now, I don't know if there's any value in buying a new $500,000 tractor -- or even a slightly younger model with a few less hours -- that does the same thing as what I currently own."

Pottinger shops around when replacement equipment is needed, but typically ends up buying within 100 miles of home. "The problem with local dealerships is they often don't keep anything more than five years old on the lot," he noted.

With 12 years of farming under his belt, Pottinger's goals are more food-driven than production ag-driven. His current financial focus is to get a facility to dry distillers grain and a small meat-processing plant on the ground. "Where we want to commit resources isn't necessarily in new equipment. What we are looking at is equipment that makes our work more efficient," he said.

Keeping a good relationship with the local dealer is important if there's an emergency. "We spend money on service trucks and tools. We have invested in a good shop. We hire mechanically savvy employees and stress preventative maintenance," he said.

While the farm's equipment may not be new, it's not junk, he notec. Keeping equipment clean and serviced is a point of pride for Pottinger. "We keep the bed of our trucks cleaned out and not full of parts. We keep trucks polished; tarps tight; equipment shined up. That signals organization and professionalism more than something just being new," he said.

Shutting down isn't always easy for Pottinger, but he loves to travel and learn from other cultures. When he needs to wind down, the favorite off-farm hobby is cooking. "Organizing a meal is a lot of fun and a great way to scratch my brain," he said. He makes bread nearly every week. He brews beer.

But his favorite thing to make is pasta. Kneading together flour, oil, egg and a pinch of salt is relaxing and satisfying, he said.


Hot (mid-to-upper 90s F), windy and dry -- those conditions size up most of Dan Lakey's weather outlook of late. He'd sure appreciate a break in the weather.

"This whole week thunderstorms have been building in the afternoons and have been hitting in counties around us, but so far, we have yet to receive anything. We sure could use some moisture! It's not unusual for us to be dry during the growing season, but this year has been awfully dry," he said.

Even the cows have noticed. On Lakey's chore list this week has been fence repairs where cattle grazing public lands busted through to dine on crops. The cattle don't belong to him, but he is responsible for caring for the fence lines and cows can be persistent when they see a tasty treat.

Repairing fences provided a boots-on-the-ground assessment of the remaining crops. "The frost in June took a lot of our moisture from our profile and when the plants tried to recover, they used up a lot of moisture that would get us from storm to storm during the summer," he said.

Insurance companies have already been notified. Companies that he contracts with for specialty crops have been alerted to anticipate volume shortages. "These conversations are hard on me, but I know that they are important because specialty contracts are most effective when it's a two-way street," he said.

Baranick isn't offering much in the way of relief for the farmer. "They've been having wild temperature swings this summer. It was more consistently hot over the last two weeks, reaching over 90 degrees on a few of the days. The hot ridge that has caused the heat will continue to be in the region through about Thursday, July 25 before it starts to back down as a trough moves into from the west," said Baranick.

"Even still, the prospect for showers out of the trough is pretty low, and dry conditions are likely. It's slightly more likely to see a thunderstorm in the heat in the surrounding mountains than one from the incoming trough. Either way, rainfall is not really in the forecast and the ridge could pop back in before the end of the month," he added.

Current crop prices and yield outlook for the farm doesn't make Lakey too excited about shopping for equipment this year -- although he admits to absolutely loving iron and has a particular interest in seeders.

"When the need arises for a piece of equipment, it kind of depends on the urgency. We really like the opportunity to have five or six months to shop around for the best condition unit for the price. Sometimes that's not always the case, sometimes things are needed in a jam or urgently," he said. "With the drill, for example, I know that we won't need it until April of next spring, but we are starting to make calls and look around right now.

"With purchases like a combine, if we know we need to replace one in the next year or two we often inform the dealer of what we are looking for and what we are willing to pay for the hours. Sometimes that machine might come up this month, sometimes it may come up in a year from now, but we always try and position ourselves to buy the equipment that we need when the opportunity arises," he said.

The high-risk yield environment means there's not a lot of extra money floating about most years. So, repairing and making do is often the path. However, the narrow window to get crops in has put a new emphasis on running newer equipment when possible.

"We try to upgrade equipment in better years and get by with what we have in bad years," he said, noting that his brother, David, has a degree in diesel mechanics and is invaluable to the farm. "I'm fairly handy and can repair many things, just not near his level," he said.

They spend most of the winter rebuilding engines, combines, air drills and restoring tractors. "As much as I would just like to trade equipment every year and always run the latest and greatest, in our high-risk low yield environment, it simply does not pencil. It's easy to find yourself starting to want to buy new equipment after two or three decent years in a row, but a year like provides perspective and is a reminder of the need to be frugal," he said.

Seeding is the most important thing they do all year. "You only get one chance to get it right every year and roughly 50 chances in a lifetime," he said. The farm currently runs three different drills and he's got his eye on the Vaderstad drills and carts. The sectional control and dual shank opener setup has been on Lakey's radar for several years.

"The catch with oddball stuff like this in our area is always proximity. The nearest one I can find is in Canada. If it doesn't work out and we want to get rid of it, who the heck is going to buy it," he asked. Similar decisions have always panned out, but the question still seems to dig at him each time, Lakey said.

Bad crops years are a mental strain, but Lakey is determined to keep centered. Off-farm hobbies help with that. "My dad was an extremely hard worker, and an extremely good man, but aside from the rare fishing trip, he did not have any hobbies. He never had time for it. Farming was his hobby.

"I've tried to change that with my children by cultivating interests and hobbies that we can share together apart from the farm," he said. Motorcycle racing gets everyone away from the farm and engaged together in "throttle therapy."

Traveling together as a family is mostly a winter activity since the farming season is so compressed. But Lakey said even the busiest time of year offers up some fun windows. He knows impromptu hours spent at the farm swimming hole provide wonderful memories and shoo away what he calls "drought pout."

"There's more to life than crops and stress about if they are going to make it or not. I want my kids to look back and always think that I put them ahead of the farm," he said.

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

Follow her on social platform X @PamSmithDTN

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