A good week to focus on agriculture’s abundance

This is a week of recognition for those hard-working men and women who raise food, fiber and raw materials for commercial products we consume everyday of the year. It’s also an observance of the freedoms our country provides, such as free and varied market channels and banks that provide operating credit that allow this independent lifestyle and the ways to make a living for thousands of farmers from coast-to-coast. 

This is “Thank a Farmer Week,” and it’s an opportunity to remember that clothes are made of wool and cotton grown on American farms. It’s knowing refined soy, sunflower and canola oils are processed from plants farmers grow that are used in cooking and machinery lubrication. It’s realizing our restaurants depend on growers for fresh and safe-for-consumption farm produce. It’s knowing milk comes from a cow and that cheese is rendered from dairy fat. It’s also an appreciation for the unbelievable amount of choice we have in the grocery aisles for quality protein sources in our diets, whatever those might be. 

Someone has to operate the combine, drive the tractor and operate the implements, feed, doctor and herd the livestock, and with a growing farm to table market, process the food that is sold in the markets.

 

It’s complicated

Agriculture is a complicated business. Just ask a farmer. 

Last year, John and Cindy Scheer told the Advertiser-Courier they milk 150 dairy cows near New Haven. Seventy-five percent of them are Holstein and 25 percent are Jerseys, for the higher butter fat content in their milk. Consumer markets can turn on a dime and that makes it necessary to change an operation, at some cost.

“We’ve always had Holsteins, as long as I can remember,” says John. “But the market is dictating we go to a higher butterfat product. We had the opportunity to purchase some Jerseys a year ago, so we’ve diversified.”

The Scheers milk with a robotic system, almost round the clock, 24 hours a day. A cow comes into one of the three milking stations when it’s hungry and gets milked at that time. Cindy says the farm has been going since 1897.

“It’s truly dedication—a love for the farm, family and life,” she said. “Everybody pitches in.”

Bob VanBooven with the MFA exchange in Rhineland said last spring’s flooding was tough on bottomland farmers and it will be a headache this year. It wasn’t just the rain that prevented them from planting or the reason their crop fields flooded, but also that high water brought invasive weed seed, such as waterhemp from upstream, that infested fields with a seed bank of dormant and sprouting weed seed.

“A big issue this year is a lot of the guys are going to be fighting weeds,” said Bob. “With waterhemp, you get 3,000 - 4,000 [germinating] seeds per plant [in one year], so it can take a field pretty quick.” (Editor’s note: a waterhemp plant can produce as many as 250,000 seeds, with many of these sitting dormant in the field to germinate later. This is called the weed seed bank).

Just to control the weed and not eliminate it can be expensive.

“We have to get used to waterhemp being a $50 per acre weed, “says Purdue weed scientist Bill Johnson. “You just can’t rely just on post emergence treatments. You have to be of the mindset to have overlapping residual herbicides to catch germinating weeds at different times in the growing season.”

Contact herbicides like Roundup used to handle most of the post-emergent weed problems for grain crop farmers—grass or broad-leaf weeds—if the plants were sprayed in an early growth stage; but the weeds have evolved, building resistance to modern chemicals. Farmers now must rely on somewhat complicated herbicide programs to kill weeds before planting and to selectively take out the weeds once the crop emerges. Now, there are few new herbicides on the horizon to handle weed resistance, that aren’t eight to 10 years out from being approved according to University-Extension weed experts. 

VanBooven says some of these chemicals can still be very effective, but the fields along the river are prone to a weather phenomena called temperature inversions (the temperature near the ground will be cooler than the air above it).  When farmers spray during these conditions, the spray droplets cannot fall to the ground and instead, are suspended in the warmer air mass, until the inversion ends and wind arrives to move them—possibly off-target. According to VanBooven, if that herbicide is Dicamba, it could kill soybeans, which are sensitive to the herbicide.

 

Unpredictable markets

As though weeds and weather weren’t enough, unpredictable markets and politics don’t help. Though President Trump’s tariff negotiations have yielded some results (the Chinese are on record to buy $40 billion worth of American products), an ongoing swine disease (SARS) and the current coronavirus problem could put ag purchases on hold, meaning some markets could stall. And soybean producers have been hit particularly hard. 

Grain bins across the river are still holding millions of bushels of soybeans and all eyes are on Brazil, which has cornered the Chinese market, since the tariffs were established.  Though recent sales to Europe have helped, US shipments of soybeans to China have halved since Beijing slapped a 25 percent punitive duty on them last July, according to reporter Daniel Ren with the South China Post.

“After their shipments to China jumped by almost a third last year to fill the void left by soybeans imported from the US, the South American growers may struggle to maintain the same supply, said Igor Brandao, chief of the agribusiness division at Apex-Brasil.” 

Still, the President signed legislation last week that revamped the NAFTA trade agreement, now called USMCA, to open new markets, such as US dairy farmers getting more access to the Canadian dairy market. It also leveled the playing field for manufacturing and labor in Mexico, which should create a more competitive environment for agricultural products to both North American trade partners.

 

Beef challenges

Farmers might find their businesses are scrutinized as never before by demanding consumers. Stan Bevers, an analyst for the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management and long-time Texas A&M AgriLife Extension economist and ranch management consultant says beef producers had better learn about the consumers entering the marketplace. Marketers call them “Generation Z.”

Speaking at January’s Southwest Beef Symposium in Amarillo, Texas, Bevers said, “The Gen-Z crowd, born in the mid-90s through the mid-2000s, will be the leaders in 2039,” adding that they are digitally diverse and independent.

He said this group has always been digitally connected from an early age and they prefer to communicate through social media and texting. 

“They will not tolerate a bad eating experience and will proclaim those instantly on social media,” Bevers said. “Their meat shopping behavior is influenced by authenticity, transparency, responsibility, product inspiration, sourcing and animal welfare,” Bevers said.

Local cow-calf producers have reason to worry about the growing voice of a changing consumer tempered by activism. The editorial board from the LA Times (Jan.7 2020) said this about meatless burger alternatives:

 

“What’s appealing [about the meatless burger] is the prospect of enjoying a juicy burger without the bitter aftertaste of guilt. Because, let’s face it, there are tremendous environmental costs to eating cows. Cattle ranching is contributing to climate change, and not just because methane from cows and livestock is responsible for about 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. More broadly, our global food production system emits more than a third of the world’s greenhouse gases. 

Yet, we can’t seem to curb our meat appetite even knowing that huge swaths of the Amazon forest have been razed, and continue to be cut down to make room for more cattle to feed the growing demand for beef. Humans also know full well that many animals live short, brutal lives in appalling conditions for the sole purpose of becoming bacon, chicken thighs, pork loin, veal cutlets, filet mignon and other foods for humans to enjoy at dinner.”

 

There are enough challenges to keep the conversation going and the coffee cups filled at The Corner, in Rhineland, well into the next generation and hopefully the Missouri River bottoms will still be farmed and there will still be cow herds in the pastures in Gasconade, Montgomery and Franklin counties.

 

The River

Bob VanBooven and other grain marketers and politicians talk of the possibility of establishing another grain terminal somewhere along the Missouri River, using barge traffic to move it downstream to the Mississippi. It would give local farmers another competitive advantage. He says the closest is near Brunswick, north of Glasgow on the river.

“It would cut down on freight and move more grain at one time,” he says. “But you’re susceptible to the river [conditions]—last year, it wouldn’t have made any difference because you couldn’t run a barge on the river all summer.”

He said the Mississippi was so high, the barges couldn’t get to the docks to load fertilizer.

“Down at ADM, they couldn’t load grain because the barges were riding so high they couldn’t get under the [loading] spouts,” he explained. “Everything in this business is tied together, anymore.”

He says local grain farmers have been pre-buying crop inputs (fertilizer, fuel, crop seed) lately to get the best deals possible in a business where money is made from pennies on the dollar. It is a long-game, where the goal is to get through years like the last few, until better times come along. All markets (livestock and grain) have been depressed, so it is hoped that when things do turn around, they will be ready for it. 

Until then, smart purchasing and being as diversified as possible are winning strategies according to ag trend consultant Jim Carroll.

“People get a skewed view of the future because they’re scared of it; they want to shape the future back to like it was in the past,” he says. “The future doesn’t have any respect for your opinions, it’s going to happen.”