I first met Lewis Bainbridge just over a year ago, when I was travelling around the US looking at Wagyu cattle. I had a few spare days, and Dwayne Beck suggested that I should visit these guys (Lewis farms with his wife and two sons) in Ethan, SD. Back then they were drilling soybeans about a month behind schedule, and praying for a long overdue rain.
This year I found them a bit happier. 2013 had turned out OK (rain came soon after I left), and the yields had been good. They also have about 400 cows, and the beef industry seems to be in fairly good shape.
They farm a total of 5000 acres, in a fairly conventional maize and soybean rotation, with some wheat on the less productive land. They are trying hard to improve their wheat agronomy to make it profitable enough to fit into the main rotation. As I head further north on this trip, I see people starting to use more fungicides, maybe soon they will use 4 like we do?
Lewis is a big fan of wheat as it allows them to plant a cover crop afterwards, (oats, brassicas, lentils) that can be grazed by the cattle over winter. He considers this to be “free” grazing, on top of the main benefits the cover crop brings in terms of soil health and structure improvements.
He also finds that when the rotation includes wheat, it is much easier to keep residue on the surface, even two years afterwards. In the picture below, both crops have been planted after soybeans (maize on the left, soybeans on the right, both no-till). The difference is that two years ago, the left hand crop had been maize, and the right hand wheat. I find this a surprising result, as there is normally so much more bulk left from a maize crop that I thought it would have lasted longer.
Although they were not super desperate for rain today, they were hoping for some. They showed me their live weather radar apps, which are much more sophisticated than anything we can get in the UK (that I know of anyway). I use Google Earth at home for this, but the resolution is poor, and it is not updated very often. I wonder if there is a niche there for someone to exploit?
This very accurate data also means that there are companies that will insure the crops in a specific field, and then use rainfall and temperature records to decide what the conditions should have allowed in terms of yield. However, this is not part of the government subsidised crop insurance scheme, so is very expensive in comparison.
I’m obviously good luck, as over lunch it rained an inch. Maybe next time they can pay for my air ticket if there is another drought.
Next up was a massive operation, run by Brad Karlen. He farms 14000 acres of cropped land, with another 9000 of grassland that is rented out for grazing. He used to have a 2500 cow & calf unit, and a feedlot that would accommodate 7500 head. The last of the animals went this spring, and I think he is now enjoying not having to worry about them. I know this feeling, but in reverse. His cattle operation had been scaling down for a while; in 1992 they had 14000 head on the farm, including calves.
Brad specialises in growing seed, specifically for wheat, peas and lentils. The wheat he grows is from C1 seed, and is often a Clearfield variety. This was news to me – I didn’t know Clearfield wheat existed. It is all planted with a starter fertiliser of MAP, at a rate of roughly 100kg/ha. Good establishment is critical up here, as it gets cold enough to make winter-kill a real problem. He does sometimes beak the magic 100bu/ac mark (about 6.5t/ha), but can use three fungicides to get there.
Brad is into peas in a big way; this year he has planted 3850 acres, all destined for seed. He reckons to be the largest single producer of pea seed in the US, which I can believe. It also gives the best entry into wheat, as unlike soybeans it does not use water that is deep in the soil profile, and they are also harvested much earlier.
Both of his precisions drills (there is a 12m one as well as the 24m, see below) have automatic row shutoff, so that there is no overlap on the headlands. What is really clever though is that both systems are linked to the internet, where they sync up with each other. This means that if they are working in the same field, one machine will not plant where the other has already been. Very nifty!
Just before I left, Brad told me about one of his toys, a .50BMG rifle. This is a round originally designed in WW1 to shoot down aircraft. It is too powerful to shoot on most ranges in the UK.
“I didn’t really need it, but thought I should get it while we are still allowed to”
A real American!