Farm Management Minute: What a difference a year makes

Will Walter
South Dakota Center for Farm/Ranch Management

How can one year make so much difference?

Here we are in the thick of spring planting season. A year ago, the biggest concern was, “When or will we be able to plant anything?” After an exceptionally wet period, this past April was dry and has allowed farmers to get into the fields in a timely manner. It seems as though April-May 2020 has us all apprehensive of the future. The level of uncertainty at planting time, or anytime during the growing season of crops or livestock for that matter, can be similar many years. A farmer or rancher having faith in the unknown is also a constant every season. It is often just a matter of what is the most concerning in that particular year.

In 2019 we had prevented planting and then the beginning and ongoing situation of the trade disruption with China. This had been, and continues to be, a serious ordeal especially for the soybean and pork sectors. Excess moisture and flooding created a serious transportation problem for livestock producers to ship animals and get feed into the ones they had on the farm. Farm tractors pulling trucks and walking cattle to a better road for load out may have been difficult logistics tasks then.

Now April-May 2020 finds the roads considerably better, but grain demand, and livestock processing has been altered significantly with the COVID-19 pandemic. If an elevator can’t take our grain crops, or the producer is not satisfied with the price, he/she can store in a bin or even pile on the ground until a better marketing option comes. On-farm storage can’t be done with most market ready livestock and some animals have had to be euthanized. The scenario with meat packing plant shutdowns is like there are all of a sudden only 2-3 combines running at half speed vs 10-12, and the crop must be harvested in a week or it is worthless … but it still has to be disposed of.

It is startling that a lot of our nation’s consumers can’t comprehend how this can be happening. “Why can’t they just hold onto them? Can’t they just butcher them at home? Why can’t they just give them away?”

Livestock production, especially pork, has become a very streamlined operation. The decision to have a market-ready hog deliverable on a certain date was made 10 months prior, and there are just as many more coming the following days and weeks ahead. I’ve been trying to come up with comparable examples, but is a bit hard. Fresh fruits and vegetables come to mind. If you have a garden or fields of strawberries, cucumbers or sweet corn and you don’t have the means to process them as fast as new growth is coming, you may try to give it away and/or deliver it to the food pantry which may work on a small scale because it can be consumed in that form. If a 300-pound live hog is left on a doorstep in a grocery bag, what can a 2020 urban household do with it? Multiply that by 10,000 and have it be your main source of income.

In most instances we as producers would be delighted to see meats flying off of grocery store shelves. Could this make the next year better? We know it will be different. Many industries are vulnerable to any glitch in their production chain, but normally have a way of storing or holding the raw materials. The financial impact of the above scenarios is certainly devastating, but the emotional toll could be catastrophic if not addressed properly. It is often said that “hail takes the heart out of a man.” In my opinion, having to destroy a healthy animal is more like heart, soul and mind.

This pandemic and its many challenges will pass like most seemingly disastrous at the time scenarios. In times that seem insurmountable, I often think of the multiple years of toil and despair, like the 1930’s, of generations prior to us. Please keep the mental health of others and yourself in mind. We have many ways to communicate now besides in person. Use this technology in positive ways. You may need to clear a few weeds (useless or negative news) to find what is right for you. The windshield is larger than the rear-view mirror. The tread on tractor tires, as well as your boots, are designed to pull forward but even the big, strong tractors need a helpful, friendly tug at times.

As the world becomes more virtual, remote, and seemingly automatic, it is refreshing to note that healthy and physically able people are required to provide the necessities of our existence. Health care, emergency services, production and distribution workers are crucial.

Another year will be different. That is about the only certain thing.