8 www.FarmProgress.com – July 2012

Kansas Farmer


Looking at
drought losses
for 2012 wheat

Doing right
by the...
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Brining Farms


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Studying research to provide more ecosystem farm management with cover crop and livestock resources
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Brining Farms

  1. 1. 8 www.FarmProgress.com – July 2012 Kansas Farmer NewsWatch Looking at drought losses for 2012 wheat Doing right by the land A CHECKING PROGRESS: Barton County farmer Roger Brining checks the health of one of the species of plants in his cover-crop mixture on a relatively new no-till field that he rents on airport land owned by the city of Great Bend. Even forage crops, he says, have been damaged by drought to the point he doubts he will try to harvest hay on this field. Key Points ■ Roger Brining came back to farming determined to do right by the land. ■ His first decision was converting to no-till farming practices. ■ His latest move has been into holistic farming and diversification. By P.J. GRIEKSPOOR W HEN Roger Brining came back to the family farm in Barton County in 1999, he made himself a promise; he was going to do everything in his power to honor the legacy of four generations of Brining farmers in Barton County, and to do right by the land that his father began acquiring in 1949. When Brining took over the farm after his dad died in 2006, he began making changes. “I planned on the first three years being investment years,” he says. “I wanted to make improvements on the land, rebuild the soil, and improve fertility and crop yields. This farm hadn’t had major improvements done for 20 years. I figured 2010 would be our first year for profit. Then look at what the weather did to us in 2010 and 2011. It’s a darn good thing that our first three years were pretty decent.” One of the first moves that Brining made was converting the entire farm to 100% no-till. A year later, he added subsurface drip irrigation to two fields in an effort to make maximum use of a diminishing water supply. After five years of no-till, he has seen amazing improvements in soil and subsoil quality, a diminishing rate of erosion from both water and wind, and steadily improving yields. In spring 2012, he made a new com- mitment to another step forward. After attending a weekend holistic farming workshop, he decided to move toward that farming method, building on no-till with cover crops and continuous crops to nourish and protect the soil, and diversifying his operation to add a cow-calf herd and forage crops for intensive grazing to his rotation. “I think it is really important for us who farm in the Great Plains to realize that we can’t win if we are constantly fighting nature,” he says. “We have to learn to work with nature and do what works on the land we have. And on a lot of that land, forage crops and ruminant grazing is what nature intended.” He says he hopes to use the manure from the grazing herd to reduce the need to add manure for fertilizer. He has contacted a local feedlot about the possibility of providing a few days of intensive grazing for cattle on feed. In addition to changing his operating mode, he made another critical decision. He sold about 1,000 acres he had been farming at both private-party and public auctions. “Initially, I thought about buying some of my uncle’s land for expanding my operation,” he says. “Then the appraisal came in and I started looking at whether it made more sense to sell at this kind of price, and invest some of the money in improving my core operation and hanging on to some of it, maybe for investing in better cropland in the future.” He says the land that he kept was the best farm ground and the easiest to manage. “What we kept is all within three miles of the house with the exception of our two drip-irrigation fields, which are about six miles away,” he says. “If I had expanded with more land, I would have needed to add equipment and possibly help. By consolidating, the equipment I have is great and I can get by with the same staffing, even when you count adding the cow-calf herd. If we make money, we will be in a better position to grow down the road.” An interesting side note, Brining says, is that the land he sold has intact mineral rights. He deliberately did not renew or seek new leases when he made the decision to sell, figuring that selling with mineral rights would provide a higher sales price. Interestingly, the winning bidder for the land was an oil exploration company, he says. “I think there is a pretty good chance that I could wind up cash-renting back that land and still farm it,” he says. “For the first time in agricultural history in this country, it might actually be more profitable to rent than to own cropland.” T the beginning of April, Barton County farmer Roger Brining was looking at dryland wheat with a potential yield of 80 bushels per acre. “This was by far the best wheat crop I’ve had since I converted to no-till in 2006,” he says. “It was really promising.” It was also really challenged. Brining knew the extraordinarily warm winter and extensive tillering meant vulnerability to foliar diseases. And he knew that the crop was growing on surface moisture, and if timely rains did not come, there was a real risk of drought stress as the crop matured. The foliar disease stress hit early and hard. “I sprayed every acre,” Brining says. “I figured the yield potential warranted the input cost. And I had contracted ahead some of the harvest when prices were really high. I have a locked-in average price of $8.56, and some as high as $9.20. And I have enough irrigated acres that I know I’ll make the contract. That will pull me through.” On April 3, it rained. That was followed by weeks of summer-like heat, with temperatures soaring into the 90s and winds reaching 25 to 30 mph every day. As of May 30, it had not rained again. Brining’s dryland acres of wheat were colorless by the last week of April. He says he figured some fields at a total loss. “I think I have 80bushel straw and no wheat,” he says. Then came a cool spell of about 10 days in early May — and, against all odds, many of the dead-looking wheat heads began filling with grain. “I’d really love to know where these plants are getting their energy,” Brining says, looking over a field of plants with absolutely zero green leaf tissue. “But these heads are filling. There are aborted berries. The berries are tiny and the yield will take a big hit. But there’s wheat out here.” He was expecting to start harvest early, possibly as early as May 25. Pivot versus drip irrigation R OGER Brining says he was initially told that subsurface drip irrigation was about 97% efficient, compared to center-pivot irrigation at about 93%. “My experience initially says drip was a lot more efficient than that, based on what I saw for water usage,” he says. Those stats, however, came from the relatively good rainfall years of 2008 and 2009. “I realized huge savings on drip, half to two-thirds of water use on center-pivot,” he says. Then came the really, really dry year of 2011. And drip still did better, but only a little better — maybe 3% or 4% better, just as the stats had suggested. Brining says what he learned is this: In years with normal rainfall, drip irrigation is far more efficient because it is able to better use rainwater. The top 8 to 12 inches of the soil stays dry because the irrigation water goes to the root level. When it rains, the water soaks into that top layer of soil. With center-pivot irrigation, the water falls on the surface and the soil stays wet in the 8 to 12 inches. Rainfall is far more likely to become runoff because the soil is already saturated. In years with no rain, there is no boost from natural rainfall, and the differences in teh watering efficiency of drip and center-pivot come more clearly into focus. “I still think drip has a huge advantage in a ‘normal’ year,” Brining says. “When you get some rain and you can capture that, it really pays off.”