Agriculture in western SD has its best year ever

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Farm Forum

“The best year ever!”

That in a nutshell is how nearly everyone close to the agriculture scene in the region summarizes the past year. Not only was the production outstanding, but cattle prices, in particular, have been by far the highest on record.

An abundance of moisture was the springboard to the exceptional year. At least 20 inches of precipitation fell in most of the region. Another plus was the timing of the moisture. Northwest Nebraska entered the year with good moisture conditions, due partly to the disastrous blizzard-often tabbed Atlas-that struck in early October 2013.

In 2014, plants were almost never under stress for lack of moisture during the growing season. The weather station at the Chadron Airport recorded about 3.5 inches of precipitation in April, around 4 inches in May and about 2.30 in June. The skies cleared for most of July when the area’s bumper wheat crop was harvested without many delays. And, 2 more inches fell in August, helping provide good moisture when the 2015 crop was planted.

“We’ve had lots of water the past two years,” said Jenny Nixon, the extension educator for Dawes, Sheridan and Sioux counties. “Some parts of our state weren’t as fortunate. The moisture always seemed to come at the right time here and we’re set up for good growth again next year, too.”

Del and Aletta Hussey, who live on Chadron Creek south of town, reported receiving 22.50 inches of precipitation during the past year. Eldon and Janett Wohlers, who live northwest of Crawford, said their gauge caught 26.15 inches of rain in 2014, and that does not include about 20 inches of snow last spring and at least six inches of snow this fall.

The Wohlerses note they measured 2 inches of rain on Oct. 29 and 2.5 the following day, putting things in great shape for the next growing season.

“It was the best year I’ve ever seen for crops, grass and hay,” Eldon said. “The grass was good quality, too. It wasn’t as washy as it is some wet years. The calves weighed good this fall.”

Also on the weather scene, there was a minimum of hail in most of the region and hardly any flooding, particularly in Dawes County. Some also observed there weren’t even many mosquitoes.

The hay crop was phenomenal as anyone who drove through the countryside could tell. There were bales everywhere, even in pastures as ranchers wanted to make sure they have enough feed for their herds after having to skimp in several recent years, particularly 2012.

The Husseys recorded only 7.94 inches in their official gauge in ’12.

“The hay exceeded anything I’d ever seen,” said Jim Mapes, owner of Henkens Equipment in Chadron. “We sold out of baler twine early. The great thing was it allowed the ranchers who had been through the droughts and the fires and the blizzard in 2013 to catch up. This year has to be right up there with the best years we’ve ever had around here.”

“It’s wonderful to have our stack yards full again,” said Tammy Littrel, who ranches northwest of Chadron. “We had to cull our cows way down and buy hay from Canada in 2012. We even had June grass growing in our pastures this year. My neighbor, Eddie Perrine, had to tell me what it was. I had never seen it before and he said he hadn’t seen it for a long, long time. We also got three cuttings on our bottom land along White River.”

The wheat crop also received exceptional reviews.

Bart Moseman, grain manager for Farmer’s Co-Op in Hemingford, said the crop in Box Butte County may not have been quite as good as the Bobcats’ undefeated, state champion football team, but it was still “pretty phenomenal.”

“We had lots of reports of 60 bushel averages and some in the 70s and even 80s on dryland,” Mossman said. “It may have been the highest yields ever around here, particularly when you consider that we only had some scattered hail. It put a smile on most of the farmers’ faces. I hope they made some money.”

The same was true in Dawes and Sheridan counties, reports indicate. Paul Yakel, veteran grainman who now works for the Scoular Company at Rushville, said while there were some 40- and 50- bushel wheat yields in Sheridan County, other fields produced between 60 and 80 bushels.

Yakel added that dryland corn in the Hay Springs and Rushville areas produced from 70 to 100 bushels an acre and irrigated fields yielded between 180 and 240 bushes. He also said the crops on the Mirage Flats were above average.

With the wheat crop one of the best, the law of supply and demand has set in. Mossman said on July 25 during the height of the harvest, the price in Hemingford was $5.41 a bushel. It is now around $6.30, still quite a ways below the $7.40 a bushel that wheat was selling for on July 25, 2008, but this year’s higher yields have kept the income level per acre at least as good as it was then, he observed.

Then there’s the cattle market.

Calves weighing 650 pounds sold for as much as $1,770 a head at the Crawford Livestock Market in October and one set of high quality cows that will deliver their second calves this spring brought $3,800 apiece in November. Numerous other cows sold for around $3,000 a head and first-calf heifers up to $2,700.

Both prices are about double those of two years ago.

“We’ve never seen prices like this before,” said Bruce Schoepner, who helps at the auction on sale days. “It’s been an amazing year, the best ever. The demand for cattle is high because ranchers who had to sell down their herds a few years ago are trying to rebuild.”

Schoepner added that because of the high production and prices, farmers and ranchers have been able to make improvements and purchases they had been putting off for several years.

“It’s been feast or famine in recent years,” said Alan Soester, a farmer-rancher south and west of Whitney. “Our wheat yielded over 50 bushels an acre this fall, making it our best crop in 10 years. Our calves also sold well, but last (2013) summer we had to take three-fourths of our cows to Wyoming because we lost so much grass in the fire the year before.

“Our cows are fatter than usual now since the grass has been so good. A lot of years, they have looked pretty tough when we weaned,” he added.

Soester also noted that recently while rebuilding corrals that were destroyed by the 2012 fire, the dirt was still damp some four feet deep where the new corner posts were set.

Tom Sellman, who this fall sold his ranch on the Table south of Chadron to family members and moved closer to town, said he’s found the recent surge in prices interesting and encouraging.

“The ratios are about the same,” Sellman noted. “It still takes two calves to buy a bred heifer. The income potential is good, but it takes more ante to play the game. The risks are much greater now, but the low interest rates are a great help. They’ve got to have a few breaks, but I think young people can still make it in agriculture. That’s a good thing for all of us.”

Mapes, who also is hoping to take things easier after he and his wife recently sold Henkens Equipment to Butler Ag Equipment based in Fremont, noted that things can change in a hurry in agriculture.

“There’s a tendency to overproduce and the cost of production is so high it’s hard to ride out a downturn these days,” he noted. “But things are looking good now and we’ve had a great year. Our sales have been really good the past year and a half and that means the farmers and ranchers are doing well. We’re also seeing good growth in other sectors of the economy. That’s encouraging, too.”