April 14, 2024

Soybean summit: Farmer panelists on challenges, opportunities

Panelists at the Illinois Soybean Association’s Soybean Summit were Stephanie Porter (from left), Adam Braun, Kate Huffman and Jay Riddell. The group covered a myriad of topics during the question-and-answer session.

URBANA, Ill. — A trio of farmers tackled issues ranging from soil management to grain marketing during a panel discussion at the Illinois Soybean Association’s Soybean Summit.

Panelists were Adam Braun, Vandalia; Kate Huffman, Galva; and Jay Riddell, Sparland. Stephanie Porter, ISA outreach agronomist, served as moderator.

Braun began a career away from the farm after earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 2004.

He spent several years as an engineer in powertrain development at Caterpillar in Peoria and returned home on weekends to help at the family farm. He started farming full-time with his father in 2012.

Huffman is a sixth-generation farmer, raising corn and soybeans. She also works as a financial officer at Compeer Financial in Geneseo.

Known as Pink Hat Farmer on social media, her passion revolves around agriculture, sharing her rural life experiences and life as a female farmer. In 2023, Huffman was selected to be among ISA’s top 20 Illinois farmers under 40.

Riddell is a fourth-generation farmer and owns Ridell Farms Inc. and Riddell Cattle and Fence. He is a long-time high management strip-tiller who farms 2,500 acres across Marshall, Putnam and Bureau counties.

Porter: How have you been tackling recent marketing challenges and what advice do you have?

Huffman: It’s tough. It’s not pretty, that’s for sure. I think the biggest thing is knowing your breakeven and trying to minimize the bleed if you’re under that breakeven. I know for some of us young farmers who have recently bought farms like myself, those breakevens are a little higher.

A lot of what I do is based on forward contracting — what works. I’ll be honest, all of us farmers we wear lots of hats, and it’s important for us to find those professionals who deal with something every single day.

I rely heavily on my grain merchandiser to help me try something new, because the bottom line is we can’t just sit here and keep watching it go down. We have to do something, so selling whether it’s the old crop or we’re starting to look at the new crop and trying to work on that.

The other thing is utilizing crop insurance to your benefit. This is my seventh crop year of my own. My third crop year on my farm I was hit with a hailstorm in 2020. It was one of the worst we’ve seen in the area.

We are all pretty much contiguous, so our entire farm was hit. I learned how to sell my guaranteed bushels in a near catastrophic year. I didn’t know what I had, but I didn’t throw the towel in.

I was thankful for my crop insurance because I was able to forward contract about 30% to 40% when normally my guaranteed bushels I’m contracting probably 60%. You’ve got to do what the market gives you.

Riddell: We prepurchase a lot of our inputs. When we’re buying fertilizer, seed or chemical, knowing our breakevens, then as soon as we have those inputs locked in if there’s a margin that we’re happy with, we will start selling grain against that margin with a heavy 85% crop insurance policy that can protect that.

We look at the crop insurance program and our marketing program really working together and then protect with some options and try not to get into a speculative position as long as we grow the bushels that we’re expecting.

Porter: What is your approach to managing inputs needed for your farming operation?

Riddell: We farm a lot of black, good soil. We also have blow sand, black sand, timber soil and a lot of them in the same fields. We have four center pivot irrigators.

We start by establishing a yield goal for each field, and then we have management zones inside the field that have been developed with either Veris machine or like a soil optics that helps us decide texture and what actual soil types are where. With the strip-till bar we variable rate in the dry fertilizer in the fall.

On our corn crop, the bulk of our nitrogen gets applied sidedress as anhydrous and that’s also done variable rate, and that’s with the use of computer modeling.

We had a beautiful stand in 2023, but we were dry. The forecast looked dry. The stand was telling us we needed to crank up our yield goals and crank up the nitrogen on it. We decided not to with the way the forecast looked.

Looking back, we had really good corn. We probably should have pushed the nitrogen. Having that ability to variable that rate, we make that prescription 48 hours before we’re sidedressing.

We also variable rate the seed, too. We look at areas inside the field as not necessarily trying to maximize the yield, we’re trying to maximize the return.

So, if I’ve got areas of the field that we know will raise 90-bushel soybeans or 300-bushel corn, we’re OK spending more money putting more fertilizer in those areas. In the timber soils, the tree-lined areas, we’re cutting populations back, we’re cutting fertility back.

Progressive Ag Services, who helps me set up the management zones, I tell them that if we’re successful then my cost per bushel is the same across the whole field. That’s kind of how we try to handle inputs.

Porter: What are some of the biggest challenges or obstacles that you are facing on your farming operation?

Riddell: Weather is always a problem. You can do a couple things to help protect. Some of the cover crop stuff has helped us even in this drier year by helping hold some moisture.

Really, our biggest factor is going to be labor. We also have a custom fence-building business. We are in the cattle business until Saturday. We’ve been in the cattle business for 108 years. We’re going to get out, and labor is a big portion of that.

Kirsten Kimble’s here today and she’s a fantastic young lady who can run the combine, run the planter, has a CDL and can run the semis and can do everything, but those types of people are just impossible to find in our area. We’re 30 miles out of Peoria.

That’s probably my biggest obstacle as we look forward. There’s a lot more stuff I’d like to do, but just the ability to get the work done from a labor standpoint is our biggest challenge.

Huffman: Yes, definitely labor. I think the biggest one in our area is the CO2 pipeline that is to go right through our farm that we just purchased in the peak of the market. We all know what land values are doing.

It’s to split that farm right in half, and it’s not only that farm, but it’s also impacting about four or five of our other farms. Yes, while they repealed it, they’re going to re-file their petition to do it again.

I am a corn farmer, so if this is going to support ethanol I want to find a solution for it, but I don’t know if a pipeline right now is the answer.

Braun: You hit the nail on the head with the labor. I’ll add another qualifier in there, the skilled labor is even hard to find. You mentioned CDL. In my mind, that’s skilled labor.

But everything we do on my farm, especially as a no-till operation, we’re not looking for someone that can go out and just pull a disk or pull a field cultivator, ripper or something.

We need somebody who knows how to use application equipment, knows how to run a sprayer or apply some kind of a product whether it’s seed or liquid fertilizer with a planter, you name it. Everything’s going toward higher skilled labor and it’s a challenge.

Since I mentioned the word sprayer and no-till, weeds down in my area are extremely difficult. Weed pressure just gets worse and worse every year. That is one of the challenges and it just kind of plays into the labor problem.

Porter: How do you manage different soils, what is your recipe, what is your approach?

Braun: It’s tough. If you know anything about south-central Illinois, we’re not black dirt like you can find right outside here. I farm timber soils that are as white as the tabletops here.

I farm soils that have sodium content in the subsoil, so that creates a completely different challenge with water and drought. They look beautiful as far as prairie soils.

I farm blow sandhills that come up out of the river bottom. I farm river bottom soils that are really good. I farm river bottom soils that are really not all that great and they’re high fertility, but you can’t raise a crop on them because the water just absolutely kills you.

When I was coming up this morning, I was trying to think of all the different soil types across my farm. I came up with 19 different soil types. It’s hard to find one recipe that fits across all those acres, so you have to really think outside the box for the given acre.

In 2010, 2011, the first year I ever did cover crops on some of my white timber soils, one of my coworkers from Fort Wayne, Indiana, came down. His dad was a farmer and had nice black soils, and we were messing around with a little contraption I had on the planter.

He reached down and grabbed a handful of this white chalky dirt and it just kind of fell through his fingers. He said he’d never seen dirt like that.

Those are the types of soil that if you listen to what they need or look at what they need, they need a cover crop, they need structure, they need a way for the water to get in and percolate into the soil.

But on the other end of the spectrum, farming river bottom soils where if I have a nice 160-acre river bottom field that might average 30-, 35-bushel soybeans because they got hurt by water that really kills your field averages.

You need to start thinking outside the box, so last year I started ridge tilling. I haven’t planted soybeans on those ridges yet, but I have a plan that’s starting to come together to no-till soybeans on top of those ridges, but with corn I was absolutely blown away by what a few inches of dirt will get you.

Even though last year was a dry year, there were one or two rain events that came through and it just really knocked the wind out of the corn sails. I can’t believe that I saw as big of a difference as I did on that drought year on my corn.

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor