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Waiting on Mother Nature: Farmer prepares for planting season

By Jennifer M. Latzke

WORKING WITH WHAT YOU HAVE--Donnie Young, Ulysses, Kan., plans his spring planting around the limiting factor of available moisture in his area. Growing corn for silage, and marketing it to a nearby dairy, allows him to efficiently use his water resources. (Journal photo by Jennifer M. Latzke.)

It's April, and Donnie Young's planter sits in his shed, waiting the spring planting season. His corn seed hasn't arrived at his farm near Ulysses, Kan., yet. The farm sits quietly, ready for the hustle of spring planting.

Like his neighbors around him, Young is waiting on Mother Nature to make up her mind before venturing into the fields for spring planting--will it be warm and sunny, or will the fields be covered in snow and frost?

From late March to early April, farmers across the High Plains and Midwest were hammered with some of the most bizarre weather patterns in recent history. March 27 to 29 saw a spring blizzard that covered the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and the state of Kansas with snow. The Kansas Field Office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service reported March 30 that parts of southwest Kansas reported more than 24 inches of snow. This was after more than five months without a major precipitation event, Young said.

"Before that last snow, I'd say we've gone about five and a half months without any major precipitation," he said. "We've had a little dusting of snow here and there. With that last storm, though, we had about 14 to 15 inches of snow." However, much of the local ground, Young said, has poor infiltration rates. And, much of that recent snowfall blew off of the fields and into the ditches, not exactly increasing the subsoil moisture.

Additionally, with recent daily temperatures ranging from lows in the 20s to highs in the 70s, with high wind conditions, it's a safe bet that spring planting of corn and other crops will be later than normal this year across the region.

"I'd say, if it warms up, I should be planting by about April 20," Young said. He said he prefers to get into the field when the soil temperature is closer to 55 to 65 degrees and the overnight lows aren't so low. "Generally, I like to plant my corn as early as I can," Young said.

Working with what you have

Young, a first generation farmer, manages his business with one simple philosophy: Take what you've got and do what you can with it. And, farming in partnership with Mother Nature is no different.

So, faced with limited water resources, and high input costs, Young has turned from growing corn for grain yield, to growing corn for silage. He sells his silage to the nearby Santa Fe Dairy. Young has found growing silage rather than grain allows him to use his diminishing water resources economically and it requires a little less management than a conventional corn crop grown for grain. For example, generally he's out of the field with his corn silage before corn borers or mites have a chance to damage the crop. He can therefore get by with one or two sprayings of insecticides in the season.

"We don't have to worry about diseases because we're usually out of the field before they come about," he said. "We don't have to plant triple stack varieties, and so we can get by planting cheaper corn." Depending on his crop goals, Young shoots for a seeding rate in the 30,000 to 32,000 seeds per acre range, on 30-inch rows. This spacing also translates to his grain sorghum or sunflower acres.

Because of the ongoing drought conditions that have affected farmers in southwest Kansas, Young has recently decided to reduce his corn acres and instead plant winter wheat in some and sorghum or sunflowers in others.

"Rather than planting drought-tolerant corn, we just began planting less corn," he said. Young reviewed his corn yields across his farm and decided which fields should be turned over to another crop. This past fall, he planted wheat on a couple of his center pivot fields, rather than corn, just because wheat was better suited to better use the available water. He's following that by planting more grain sorghum on other fields this coming season, too. Young emphasized that he's still optimistic about corn, and he's only decreasing his corn acres because of water resources.

Planning for reduced water

It all comes back to that available water. With wells in the area declining, Young has taken a unique approach to irrigating his crops. Young will take one of his wells, running at about 1,000 gallons per minute, and rather than planting both irrigation circles attached to that well to corn, he'll instead plant one to corn and one to winter wheat.

"I can split that water and send most of it to corn and still have crops on both circles," he said. Young also uses waste water from the dairy to help irrigate his fields and as a source of fertilizer for the growing crop.

"We'll also put down starter fertilizer as we plant," Young said.

As another water-saving technique, Young uses conservation tillage practices. "We do limited tillage, and quite a bit of no-till," Young said. "I really like it. If it would rain, it would be great for our infiltration rate. The trash helps hold that moisture a little longer on the field."

Limited tillage helps him manage his labor resources, as well. "It is amazing the number of acres you can farm when you change what you do," he said. "We've been able to increase acres with less horsepower." What tillage he does is only to control compaction issues, he added.

Meeting the challenges

Young knows that if he's going to get the most out of his limited resources, and match Mother Nature's challenges, he has to adapt his farming techniques. Besides using conservation tillage, changing his crop rotations, and adopting precision agriculture tools, Young begins each planting season with the help of local crop consultants.

"We use crop consultants because they can help us keep up with the new technologies, new weed controls and they are exposed to a lot more information," Young said. "When you expand the number of acres you're farming, it's easy to miss things."

As Young returned to his shop to prepare his equipment for planting, he echoed a thought shared by all farmers across the High Plains this spring.

"It sure would be nice to have some mud," he said.

Maybe Mother Nature can find it in her schedule to make that hope come true.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached by phone at 620-227-1807, or by e-mail at jlatzke@hpj.com.

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