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Bonnie Durheim’s farm on Peone Prairie in Mead.
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FARMER'S TOOLBOX

Wheat College

Growers learn about soil fertility, farm bill programs, digital farming, marketing

July 2019
By Trista Crossley


One of the highlights of the Agricultural Marketing and Management Organization’s schedule is the annual Wheat College, a one-day workshop that strives to bring the latest in research and technology to Eastern Washington wheat growers. This year’s Wheat College was held June 6 in Dayton, Wash. More than 90 growers attended the event to hear about soil fertility and soil sampling, 2018 Farm Bill program options, precision agriculture, marketing and grass identification. Marci Green, past president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG), welcomed growers and gave them a short overview of the issues WAWG has been working on for the past year, including pesticide regulations, tax preferences, protecting the lower Snake River Dams and farm bill implementation. She then introduced the featured Wheat College speaker, Neal Kinsey, owner and operator of Kinsey Agricultural Services Inc., a St. Louis-based company that specializes in soil fertility management.

Getting more from your soil samples

Kinsey’s presentation focused on how to find the right balance of nutrients in the soil to help increase yields. He recommended that growers invest in soil sampling and then take the time to understand what the numbers mean.

“What does it take to grow a plant? What kind of nutrients do we need to put on, and what’s going to happen to all the other nutrients already there?” he asked. “When you put something on, something else gets out of the way.”

Kinsey said the role of calcium in the soil is often overlooked, which is a mistake, since “calcium acts like the doorman that opens the door that lets all the other nutrients in.” He said that soils in Eastern Washington tend to be deficient in calcium, which should be a minimum of 60 percent saturation compared to other nutrients. If the calcium level is lower than that, sulfur will pull calcium out of the soil.

Sulfur is another element that tends to be lacking in Eastern Washington soils, while they tend to have too much potassium. According to Kinsey, too much potassium makes the soils so hard that water can’t penetrate it very easily, and it is likely limiting yields. He advised growers to take a small area, find out what they have in the soil and then treat half of that area, monitoring it for three years.

“See what it does. Sixty-eight to 70 percent is the ideal calcium saturation. Then you’ll have to watch the magnesium,” he said. “Calcium is the answer as long as you make sure it doesn’t tie up something else you need.”

On the other hand, most Eastern Washington soils have “great boron.”

Kinsey also cautioned growers that 75 percent of the time, soil pH tells them the wrong story.

“If your pH looks good, that doesn’t mean the soil is good,” he explained. “When you get your soil right, you’ll get your pH right.”

At the beginning of May, soil samples from three sites around Dayton were taken and sent to Kinsey to be analyzed. He went through the results and explained to growers how to understand what the numbers were telling them.

2018 Farm Bill program options

Washington State University (WSU) Extension ag economist Shannon Neibergs is the director of WSU Extension Western Center for Risk Management Education. He updated growers on 2018 Farm Bill implementation. Currently the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is in the rulemaking process, which is supposed to be finished by Aug. 1. Sometime after that date, decision aids for the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) programs will be released. Sign-up dates for ARC and PLC are scheduled for Sept. 1.

Under the 2018 Farm Bill, growers will be able to change their program enrollment for the 2019 and 2020 crop years. After that, they’ll be able to re-elect their program choice on an annual basis for crop years 2021 through 2023. Owners will also be able to update their farm’s PLC payment yield beginning with the 2020 crop year.

In Washington state, 90 percent of wheat acres were enrolled in the ARC-County program. Neibergs analyzed the past five years of data and found that overall, ARC-County payments were larger than PLC in 2014 and 2015, but PLC payments were larger in 2016. USDA is projecting that in the future, more growers are going to choose the PLC program. Neibergs told growers that declining wheat prices tend to decrease the ARC-County revenue, which has a payment cap. PLC has no payment cap and is based on farm yields, “so farms with higher yields than the county average may benefit better under PLC.”

Some of the other points that Neibergs made included:

• PLC and ARC-County payment formulas will remain the same as from the 2014 Farm Bill;

• Yield data used in ARC-County will be drawn from Risk Management Agency yield data where available, instead of from the National Agricultural Statistics Service;

• The 2018 Farm Bill introduced a reference price escalator for PLC; and

• Preliminary estimates indicate that large chickpeas, rapeseed, lentils and small chickpeas will have higher reference prices due to the escalator in 2019.

Neibergs also touched on the Conservation Reserve Program, telling growers that although the acreage cap was increased, rental rates were decreased. The Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program funding didn’t change.

“Expect lower farm profitability, increasing the importance of overall risk management on everything that you are doing, from program enrollment to insurance decisions to all your management functions,” he summarized. “There’s not a lot of optimism on the horizon, and so conservative management is important.”

Welcome to digital farming

Jeff Hamlin, director of learning and development at Climate FieldView, gave a demonstration of his company’s software, which allows farmers to aggregate much of the data they are collecting into one place.

“Our belief is that the next breakthrough in agriculture will be driven by using data to optimize decision making on the farm,” he told growers. “Having data is not a problem. The problem is, can we make it tell a story?”

Hamlin walked growers through his company’s app, showing them how they can use chemical application maps or satellite maps to diagnose problems and help with input decisions. That data can also be shared.

“Farming is a team sport these days,” he explained, adding that if all the people who play a role on a farm had better information on what’s happening in the field, they can be more efficient.

The Climate FieldView software platform is available to growers for an unlimited acreage, free, one-year trial. For more information, for more information, visit their website.

Marketing and managed money

Randall Ward of Tri-Cities Grain gave a short marketing update. He told growers that there’s too much wheat in the world despite record consumption, which is keeping prices depressed. Looking a little closer to home, U.S. wheat stocks are also high, especially hard red wheat stocks, which Ward called “burdensome.” White wheat stocks, however, are a little tighter.

Ward touched on the role of managed money in the grain markets, and how algorithmic trading, which uses a computer program to make trades at a speed and frequency that is impossible for a human to match, is changing how growers need to market their wheat.

“Managed money isn’t going away, so you need to learn to use it to your advantage,” he explained. He said understanding basis and using hedge to arrive should be tools in everyone’s marketing tool kit.

Tips on grass identification

WSU Regional Extension Specialist Steve Van Vleet talked about increasing instances of Hessian fly being found in Eastern Washington and said genetics is the best way to combat the pest.

Van Vleet walked growers through different means of identifying grasses at the seedling stage and encouraged growers to always carry a hand lens with them.

“You need to identify the species so you know how to control it,” he said.

Drivers of long-term wheat prices

Randy Fortenbery, WSU economic professor, wrapped up Wheat College by taking a look at what drives wheat prices long term:

• Balance sheets, from global supply and demand down to local supply and demand;

• International economic conditions;

• Public policy such as the farm bill, trade arrangements and disaster aid; and

• Other commodity prices.

He said that USDA has been way too aggressive in the demand estimates over the last few years, and the current forecast says that the world’s major exporters will increase production. Fortenbery also explained how a stronger dollar makes it more expensive for other countries to buy our goods.

In summary, he said:

• Longer term, international and macro-economic conditions will have a large influence on U.S. commodity prices;

• If current forecasts of Asian GDP and dollar values are realized, then wheat prices will continue to be pressured in the absence of a production issue in a major wheat export country; and

• Even with a production issue, current trade frictions and exchange rates activity may challenge the U.S. in managing trade share.

WAWG would like to thank all the 2019 AMMO program sponsors, as well as Albaugh LLC, Corteva Agriscience, Helena Chemical, Syngenta, WestBred and Wilbur-Ellis for sponsoring Wheat College giveaways. Northwest Grain Growers sponsored the event’s morning and afternoon breaks, while Wheatland Bank sponsored lunch.