Brandon and Rachel Hill, who are farmers and ranchers near Pawnee Rock, Kansas, went 200 days between rainfalls that only amounted to half inch on each bookend.
“Much of the winter wheat crop was small and did not tiller last fall, which made for thin stands this spring. As a result many acres in the area are being baled or sprayed. As of now we have not terminated any wheat acres; however, the yields will be dramatically decreased from normal years,” Brandon said.
Most of Kansas, especially the western portion, is in a multi-year drought. The Hills chose to start implementing cover crops a few years ago to help conserve the soil moisture that they do have and to make sure they will be able to utilize future rainfalls, rather than having it all run off. These covers also reduce evaporation and keep the soil shaded and its temperatures cooler.
Utilizing cover crops on traditional summer fallow acres have allowed Brandon and Rachel to “decrease the amount of chemical we would use to control weeds. In many cases we can save ourselves 2 to 3 passes a summer with the sprayer, each costing upwards of $15 to $20 an acre,” Brandon said. Another benefit to the covers are that temporary fences can be set up for grazing to offset the low hay reserve and supplies.
“With one already poor crop staring us in the face our concerns are now turning to the seeds we are currently putting in the ground,” Brandon said. “The uncertainty of the weather means we are left wondering if we will have anything to harvest this fall. This has led, at least for me, to many a restless night fearing the worst and hoping and praying for the best. It has been a struggle at times, with tempers flaring and nerves being fried.”
The drought brings more challenges.
“A failed wheat crop means no summer income and a hit on cash flow for the year. It also means a short supply of seed wheat, and what supply there is will be priced at a premium,” he said.
On the cattle side of the operation, pastures started off the growing season very slowly. This resulted in ranchers having to feed hay longer than normal. The already limited hay supply from the multi-year drought is then having to be used to keep the cows fed since the grass took so long greening up. The oats that were drilled for the purpose of hay production don’t have the growth that the Hills were hoping for. This means that hay will be in short supply again this fall.
All these factors have forced several herdsman to make the hard decisions to cut down or liquidate their herds.
“We received a call from a nearby rancher hoping we would be able to take on some of his herd. Unfortunately, our situation was not much better and we were unable to help,” Brandon said.
“Area alfalfa fields are suffering, which means many ranchers will be looking elsewhere to purchase their upcoming hay needs,” he said. “These added costs cut in to already tight margins that most farms and ranchers are currently facing.”
The drought, coupled with the pandemic of the last few years and the supply chain dilemmas that were associated with it, leaves farmers dealing with high stress levels and the challenge to continue to evolve and pivot to maintain viability and profitability. While the recent rains have helped ease the stress, albeit minimally, the concerns are still prevalent in every farmers thoughts.
“However, it has given us a renewed hopefulness and better outlook on the rest of the year. Hopefully we are graced with timely rains through the summer, replenishing stock ponds and sub soil moisture levels. As farmers, we know we can never control the weather so we just have to focus on the things we know we can control and leave the rest to Mother Nature,” Brandon concluded.
Kelsey Pagel is a Kansas farmer. She grew up on a cow/calf and row crop operation and married into another. Kelsey and her Forever (Matt) farm and ranch with his family where they are living their dream and loving most of the moments.