We've just entered a new year, with prices flying high and the outlook on what farmers and ranchers will get for their crops and animals looking quite positive.
What isn't as sunny of an outlook is what it will cost to raise said crops and animals, which of course drives down the net value farmers will actually get for their work.
That reality keeps bringing me back to a story I wrote in November, about a man who returned to his family farm and decided to use one field to experiment with soil health and profitability. When I wrote the story, I honestly wasn't sure what kind of reception it would receive. The practices described in the article were not exactly mainstream. Not everyone wants to hear about out-of-the-ordinary practices. As it turned out, it was one of the most read stories on our website the past couple months.
The lesson in that story was this: It doesn't matter what your yield is — or your gain if you're in livestock — if you're not making money.
We've had a lot of other stories that have come back to this lesson as of late. There was Mikkel Pates' story about the National Corn Growers Association yield contest, in which he interviewed an agronomist who pointed out that the winners were coming on cherry-picked 10-acre plots, likely grown without consideration to input costs. The farmers who achieved jaw-dropping 600-plus bushel per acre yields likely applied “sufficient fertility, probably more than sufficient fertility,” Clair Keene, North Dakota State University Extension agronomist in small grains and corn, told Mikkel.
In other words, they were putting on more fertilizer than makes sense financially in order to win. That's great if your aim is to see your name at the top of the leader board but not necessarily so great if you're trying to pay the bills.
On the other side of the spectrum was Jeff Beach's story about manure being more sought after this year than in other years. That story focused on the fact that farmers were looking to spread more manure this year to lower their commercial fertilizer bills. It's a plan with cost savings in mind.
Farmers and ranchers make those decisions every year. For instance, this year, plenty of ranchers had to decide whether it made better economic sense to sell down on cows or buy feed. As Ann Bailey reported in November, some people look for alternative feed sources, some sell animals and some move animals. Just buying cheap feed isn't necessarily a cheaper option, as Karl Hoppe, livestock systems specialist at the Carrington (North Dakota) Research Extension Center, told Ann. Cheap feed might not have the nutritional requirements, and you might end up putting more into the animals in the long run.
"You just can’t feed cattails and think it is OK,” Hoppe said. “They need to be tested.”
So, what I want to know is, how are you making those decisions on your farm and ranch in light of high input costs? Are you planning something different in your fields, corrals or pastures? If you have an idea that you think other farmers and ranchers could learn something from, let us know. We can all learn from the experiences of others.
Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 701-595-0425.