Speak Your Piece: Maybe Just Different
I had to mow my lawn last Friday. Maybe I should say instead that I had the opportunity to mow my lawn last week. The last time I did before last Friday was on the morning of July 4th.
There was a strong portion of the yard that the blade didn’t touch, but there were a few weeds in the shade that I just couldn’t look at any longer.
I grew up on modest cattle ranch in northwestern South Dakota, and graduated from high school in Faith, SD. “The Prairie Oasis,” as it is known. It’s also the home of Dinosaur Sue, Daisy Duke (Catherine Bach), and rattlesnakes. I moved on to South Dakota State and earned an engineering degree.
My wife, children, and I now live in the budding metropolis of Watertown, northeastern South Dakota. Things in this area are not great. It is dry. After a road trip to the other side of the state last month, the best I can say is that we are better off than a lot of places.
Now you are asking what an engineer knows about rural culture and agriculture. Well, I’ve seen drought, I’ve trod feet-upon-feet of snow, and I’ve been chased over more than one fence by angry cows. One thing I will admit is that I really don’t know much about row crops, except some scattered trivia I have picked up from friends at college who did come from land bearing corn and beans.
I have a very good friend from college who has started is own farming operation in the last few years down near Vermillion, SD. From the outside I think he has had a lot of success recently. He has used his education to its fullest, and along with a great work ethic, turned a profit good enough to re-invest in his own operation, improving it year-over-year.
But his tone has changed in the last couple months, much like everyone else I talk to.
A strong portion of his operation is selling hay, in addition to beans and corn. He lives in a rare little area that in a good year will give him four cuttings of hay, which the dairies nearby love due to the nutrient content. Last year put him in good shape to upgrade his combine.
The only problem is that it probably won’t get used until next year. The machine was delivered last month, which you would think would be exciting. It is safe to say, no, he was not excited. The return on this investment will not begin this year.
My dad once said, "Some of our right decisions were the hardest to implement, but the wrong decisions were the easiest to implement." He had seen this kind of dry before, several times.
The time that he will likely never forget is the summer of 2002. In August of that summer he made the hard decision to sell the herd. When he’d finished, the only thing left was two saddle horses.
There was little-to-no water, scant grass, and no feed for the coming winter. Our family ranch had most effectively run a replacement heifer operation for quite a few years. We would buy bred heifers in the fall, and calve them out with the rest of the herd in the spring. All the calves went to sale every fall along with whatever didn’t breed back or just wasn’t healthy.
After the big sell-off in 2002 he started buying heifers and steers in the spring, grazing them all summer, and selling in August. This has turned out to be a very good way for him to manage the ranch. He told me a couple years ago, “ If I would have known it was going to work this good, I would have started doing it 10 or 20 years sooner.” The point is, he found a different way to use the resources he had available.
One thing I have heard about recently, but have not read up on a great deal, is the prospect of drought resistant crops. This idea scares me a little for two reasons. One is that it looks to me like something that only “Big-AG” will be able to afford. This would allow them to ensure they have something to sell when the family farms will not. It looks like a scientific method of eliminating smaller competition.
The other reason I’m skeptical follows the analogy of building higher levees in a flood plain. When that levee does fail, the floodwaters are higher and the disaster is even bigger.
I am not telling people how to run their operations differently, or even asking for that matter. Just don’t make a bad decision because it is easy.
Don’t mess with markets, your mother-in-law, or Mother Nature. The consequences will never be good.
Don’t give up on what you do.
Maybe just try it another way.
Nathan Fischbach is a corporate buyer who grew up on a cattle ranch in Western South Dakota.