As we start the new year, I can’t help but think about both the challenges and successes of last year. Farming is hard, there are challenges everyday that we must address to remain on track, less we fall behind never to catch up.
But thankfully there are rewards as well. Rewards that outshine the challenges. Rewards such as watching a new calf run in the lush spring grass. Rewards such as watching a brilliant sunset over a freshly mowed hay field. Rewards such as knowing you have made your farm a little better than when you got it.
But as rewarding as farming can be the challenges are real, and 2019 certainly had its share. When I visit other producers at their operations there are always two topics that start the conversation. The first one is the weather. And that is because weather is the one constant that farmers have to deal with that can dictate our work down to the hour. We do everything because of the weather. We hurry up because of the weather. We wait because of the weather. We record the weather. We, sometimes foolishly, try to predict the weather. All because the weather controls every aspect of our operations.
2019 was a challenging weather year. We started off wet. There was mud, lots and lots of mud. And the rains didn’t let up going into summer. The first cutting of hay season was wet. There was both a lot of hurrying up and a lot of waiting in the hay fields. But then when the rain stopped, it dried up completely. The latter half of the summer was the driest that we had experienced since 2012. Much of the state was in the severe drought category and didn’t see rain for nearly 90 days. And to make matters worse, the dry and heat persisted into October. There was no fall weather to speak of this year. It simply jumped from summer to winter. At Eden Shale Farm, there were exactly 40 days between the last 90 degree day and the first snow fall with a low of 7 degrees!
There is no denying that the second half of the year was very challenging in regards to both weather and consequently, forages. The drought dried up all the grass, and the short fall window was not long enough to gain any regrowth. Some producers have been feeding hay since August, and its still a long way out until the grass will start growing again. I’m afraid mud is going to be another huge problem this spring given the conditions going into the winter. Weather; we talk about it so often because it is the largest challenge in our day to day operations.
The second topic that always comes up with producers is the markets. “How’s the cattle prices doin?” “What’s the market going to do this year?” “You think they’ll go up any?” This is always how the conversation starts. My response is always the same, I have no idea…
What I do know is that things are volatile and can and will change quickly. We operate in a global economy and everything has a ripple effect. Whether it’s a packing plant burning or an ill-timed tweet, you can guarantee it will have an effect on the markets. This is a new age and the traditional cycles of marketing cattle don’t hold true. I would suggest you stay open to what the markets are giving you, and don’t get caught up in tradition.
2020 will certainly be a challenging year. But I know this, farmers are eternal optimist. Farmers are forever resilient, and we will find a way to continue doing what we love. Which is producing the safest, most secure source of food on the planet. So for all the challenges that will come our way this year, may you find greater rewards.
Steve Higgins, University of Kentucky
I love looking at farms, their layouts, and their structures. I love seeing great designs, evidence of thoughtful planning, and the architectural features of older buildings and structures. I spend time imagining the history behind them. The thought and expense that has gone into some structures gives a strong indication of the aspirations producers had for their operation. Conversely, when I see poorly located structures and layouts, I feel sad when I think of the day-in and day-out drudgery that the owner, family, and livestock must have experienced. By the time I see some of these buildings their initial luster has gone, as have the people who worked in them, but the artifacts of innovative and labor-saving designs are still evident. You can see detail and craftsmanship that goes way beyond what we would build today. Today, I see very few producers who grow their own locust fence posts, let alone harvest timber from their farms to build buildings and structures. When did this change and why?
Recently, I visited the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills region of Kansas. The farmstead and main barn there were built around 1881 (Figure 1). Figures 2 and 3 show the main barn and a gatepost, made of stone, adjacent to the barn, which, to this day, is still in use. The story that I heard was that the post was quarried and hauled a significant distance by wagon to get it to the farm. This was not the only stone structure or gatepost still operational at the site. It is not unusual for me to see structures on farms, dating back 100 years or more that are still standing and still in use. Heck, if it weren’t for these structures and buildings, we probably wouldn’t have any. The point I want to make is if you are going to build, remodel, or renovate a farm structure, design and build it so that it works and lasts, because there may not be an opportunity to do it over. You may have never thought of using stone, concrete, or steel materials on your operation, especially for something like a post to swing a gate. Nevertheless, there are people who have. Depending on the math you use, the economics can justify the expense, especially if you plan to pass it on to your heirs.
It’s important to ask yourself how much you want to spend. There is a big difference between designing up to a level of performance and designing down to a price. Tragically, any flaws or inefficiencies in the design of projects will affect the efficiency of tasks for years, while also influencing the productivity of livestock. This is unfortunate, as these are, hopefully, the facilities and structures that will be used by individuals and families for years to come. Don’t build something that is going to make the next owner of the operation suffer. My philosophy is to build things that last. I believe one problem is that we use the initial cost as our primary decision criteria rather than the operating costs of the life of the practice. We may want the payback on a practice to be one or three or five years, but if this were the case, I wouldn’t have seen this farmstead still standing after 138 years.
When I see most operations, I love to dream about what I would do if the farm were mine. How would I improve on the structures that are already there to save capital? I think about changing the layout to make it more efficient. I basically create a plan and a schedule in my head of the list of things I would change, and in what order. Of course, to build what’s in my head would require a truckload of money. But again, a lack of capital is a design challenge. It forces us to come up with a good design and decide how much money you want to spend, and on what. Then you have the opportunity to succeed, to win, to solve a problem, and the satisfying feeling that comes with it. It’s the inspiration for what I do. For the ideas that I have. It’s also kind of like, if it can be done, it should be done. Then you get to think of how to do it.
When you start to put things together for a design, everything seems very rational and analytical. It should be if you want something to function properly, have endurance, and be matched to the capacities/volumes needed. However, all this analytical thinking started out as a dream, a vision of what could be. Don’t suppress creativity. Instead, ask questions like “Why?” At the end of the day, it’s your farm. You get to be your own boss and make all the decisions. Agricultural producers are tasked with being stewards of the land. You can do just about anything you want within reason. So dream on. Don’t let anyone mess with your dreams or crazy ideas when it comes to conservation and sustainability. I would like to think that we want to improve the land, buildings, and operations that we have. Maybe so we could pass the farm on to our family. Maybe so someone else can appreciate it. Maybe one day they’ll wonder who we were and how we came up with this idea.