By Richard Oswald
DTN Special Correspondent
LANGDON, Mo. (DTN) -- "Great Expectations," the penultimate 19th century novel by Charles Dickens, narrows down to a single plot: one person's triumph. That's the way it is for Lane Robinson of Cromwell, Indiana, and Leon Kriesel of Gurley, Nebraska, as they wrestle with spring planting on their way to a successful harvest.
Lane had great expectations about spring field work last week, but sadly it was not to be. "As promising as I thought the week was going to be, we didn't do much," he told DTN late Sunday.
Every good story takes twists and turns. Load-out of 14,000 Pekin ducks, usually a Sunday evening job, won't happen until early this week. Lane grows more than 600,000 ducks every year.
The long-planned irrigation well finally went down last Wednesday during a rare late-April snow event that turned the ground white.
"We worked a little ground, but just couldn't get excited about that," Lane said. Then Saturday capped off the week with a half-inch of cold rain. "I think there was actually more done here a week ago. I think there was more corn put in the ground a week ago ... not to say there was a lot," he explained.
H5N2 avian flu is an ongoing concern. Latest discoveries of the virulent virus affecting poultry show it's made its way to more Wisconsin poultry farms coming within a couple of counties of Maple Leaf Farms facilities there. Maple Leaf is the company Lane grows Pekin ducks for. "Everybody in the poultry business is consumed with bird flu. I read on DTN it could take a couple of years to get over this," he said.
Lane observed that planting delays and cool, wet spring weather in the Eastern Corn Belt haven't had much effect on corn's slow decline in price, but local markets reflect need with a tighter basis. "I suppose that's to entice some deliveries. We have numerous livestock facilities and four ethanol plants in the area," he told DTN.
"It's hard for anyone on the outside to realize what a game changer ethanol was. It certainly reset the marketplace," Lane said. Has EPA's delay in setting the Renewable Fuel Standard had an effect on corn prices? "Maybe a little ... do we really think oil companies will adopt ethanol on their own?" he replied. "When they wrote the RFS, the intent was for it to continue to grow." Are ethanol critics and EPA signaling an end to the story of ethanol? Lane doesn't think so. "Ethanol actually uses only about 23% of the corn crop because they never take into account the DDGs. Ethanol is still the cheapest per-BTU price of energy. Ethanol is not going away, but it may go (through exports) to Canada or China."
After a story appeared in "Wired" magazine last week implying that conventional notions of machinery ownership are being eviscerated by large manufacturers and copyrighted operating software, Lane said he thinks farmers own their tractors, but not copyrighted software. "We have the same thing in the seed industry. Have had for years. Does anyone own their seed? We rent the right to plant it. There have been court tests of that."
But unlike seed prices this year, tractor prices could get cheaper.
Prior to returning to the farm, Lane worked for several machinery companies. He still does some consulting. Lately, he was asked to do research regarding future farm machinery needs. According to Lane, tractor makers are asking, "Are the farmers serious? Do they really not need to buy anything for the next three to five years?"
His short answer was, "Yes, they're serious." That's because farm machinery inventories are newer than they've ever been before.
One bright spot in the business is livestock-related hay and forage machinery that's still selling well. But machinery auctions already reflect lower prices and potential discounts for late-model used tractors. That's had an immediate impact on sales of leased machines as they come back in. "They're (manufacturers) thinking we can lose $3 million to $5 million now or wait a year and lose $5 million to $10 million," Lane said. One outcome could be manufacturers in direct competition with dealers as they pursue moving excess inventories.
Ownership means different things in different countries. Besides demand and price, another factor in tractor ownership is destination. Tractors manufactured here for export aren't necessarily subject to the same modifications brought about by government regulations. For instance, U.S. tractor owners are prohibited from returning Tier 4 tractors they own to Tier 3 status.
"Five, six, seven years ago ... Versatile manufactured engines to be sold in American markets, and similar engines for export only, that did not meet EPA requirements," Lane said.
Meanwhile, in Gurley, Nebraska, Leon was indisposed, but he placed DTN in touch with his business associate, Mike Beyer, for a quick update on conditions last week. Mike and his wife, Melinda, operate Beyer Solutions, LLC a few miles outside Sidney in the Nebraska panhandle.
Mike and Melinda made the shift from strictly row crops and cattle to a new business following heavy hail losses in 1999. Back then, they grew 2,400 acres of wheat and corn. "It was about a week from wheat harvest. The corn was looking really good. We lost everything," he said. "We had a small feedlot at the time. Hail was the size of baseballs ... it beat the hair off the cattle ... we had to feed them an extra 30 days because of that."
Beyer Solutions offers customers crop consulting, agronomic services, and custom application of fertilizer and pesticides. "That keeps us busy about nine months out of the year, and we farm a little bit too," Mike told DTN. Mike now raises proso millet and wheat in rotation, a little corn, and cattle and sheep, all on about 640 acres.
A pesticide applicator's life is busy this time of year. "We've been running as hard as we can when the weather lets us," Mike said. Two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half inches of rain 10 days ago set the stage for muddy field conditions. Then it got wetter. "Last night, we got another three-fourths to three-and-a-half inches," Mike told DTN late Sunday. "It was still drizzling out today. It will be the end of the week before we get back in the field."
Living just a mile from where he was born and raised, Mike knows the weather around Sidney. "This is not typical for rainfall this year. In our county, we've already had 6 inches this month," he said. That's within an inch or 2 of half the annual average.
Herbicide-resistant weeds are common in many places. Mike sees one in particular. "Kochia is getting to be a problem. A little Roundup resistance, but we're talking growth regulator and ALS too. A little bit of all that. It's pretty spotted right now, but everybody's trying to keep it under control," he said.
Higher herbicide prices may have contributed to weed resistance as farmers tried to cut costs via reduced rates. "Farmers are aware of what's going on and they're looking at their options. But I think lower rates of Roundup weren't killing weeds completely, which may have contributed to resistance. Most farmers never thought they'd see that in their lifetimes," Mike said. Now farmers are faced with choosing higher herbicide costs or resorting to tillage. But tillage isn't a popular option. "We don't want to lose no-till because we do have a lot of wind."
With grain prices falling and inputs holding steady, Mike doesn't see great expectations among growers right now. One bright spot has been the return of some younger farmers, and diversification back into Nebraska's mainstay, cattle. "They got out of cattle because of high grain prices. Now (because of higher cattle prices and cheaper corn), I think they're seeing they probably should have stayed in it," he said.
Richard Oswald can be reached at Talk@dtn.com
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