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Articles from 2018 In May

Drought again in the Southern Plains – what does it mean big picture?

Drought pasture

By Chad McNutt

There’s a memorable passage at the beginning of Elmer Kelton’s book, The Time it Never Rained, about the 1950s drought in Texas: “Why worry they said. It would rain this fall. It always had. But it didn’t. And many a boy would become a man before the land was green again.”

It’s hard to read those lines and not think about the optimism behind them. “It’ll rain eventually, and I can feed my cattle until things get better.” Drought is often described as insidious, meaning that it has a tendency to sneak up on you.  It can also last for years and sometimes it’s hard to know when a drought is even over. 

Kelly Redmond, a climatologist from the University of Nevada, Reno, once said it was possible to have a short-term drought occur while in the middle of a slightly longer-term wet period inside of a much longer drying trend. Considering that, it can make you think about drought on a longer timescale. 

The frequent droughts that occurred in Texas and Oklahoma in 2006, from 2011 to 2015, and now in 2018, certainly had wet years in between. The question, however, is how much of a memory can those drought events, especially given how intense the 2011 drought was, have in systems like our range and croplands.

In other words, even though we say a drought is over, are there lingering or less obvious impacts that can sneak up on you over time?

Historical perspective

To add a bit more perspective to this question, look at the map of Texas and Oklahoma that shows the number of weeks each county has been in Exceptional Drought (D4) since the beginning of 2005. Exceptional Drought is the highest drought category used in the U.S. Drought Monitor.  Statistically, it should occur about 2% of the time or about once every 50 years. The data are several weeks old, but several counties in Texas and Oklahoma have been in Exceptional Drought for over 200 weeks, or about 30% of the time since 2005. That is way outside what would be expected and is certainly exceptional.

Gary McManus, Oklahoma state climatologist, is one of the experts tracking drought for the state. He communicates with a large network of farmers and ranchers, along with groups like county Extension agents and USDA’s Farm Service Agency.  McManus takes input from these groups and provides it weekly to the U.S. Drought Monitor. 

Over the last few years, he has noticed the usual climate and meteorological indictors used to track drought do not always correspond well with the impacts that producers are seeing on the ground. The impacts are often more severe, or faster to develop, than what he would expect just going by the data. I contacted McManus because we have been hearing about this issue and I was curious to know what was causing the disconnect between the monitoring data and what producers are seeing in their fields and pastures.

There is ongoing debate within the scientific community about the lingering or cumulative influence of droughts over time. Monitoring and tracking drought is something we are really good at, but unfortunately, we are less adept at understanding all the ecological interactions and feedbacks that occur and thus drive drought-related impacts. 

According to Redmond, “Like the tree falling in the forest, does drought occur if there is no human to record or experience it?” He was getting at the importance of seeing drought through its impacts and not just the indicators we have designed to track it. Just because our data do not show an intense drought, it doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t impacts being experienced.

Long-term effects?

The question I specifically was interested in was whether the string of droughts over the last 12 or 13 years could have affected something fundamental, like the structure and function of the soils in parts of Oklahoma, and therefore key soil qualities like water holding capacity. McManus couldn’t say if it was something as fundamental as changes in the soil but he noted that “ag producers are saying the droughts are more intense than what the indicators are saying.” 

He further explained that he is hearing that they have been going into drought much sooner than what he would expect and that when they do get some moisture, it is not lasting as long.  In Harper County, Okla., where Gary is originally from, he has noticed the water table has not fully recovered since the 2011 drought. He noted that spring-fed ponds used to be reliable, and now, even after good rains, the ponds are going dry relatively quickly. 

On Gary’s recommendation, I contacted Tyson Ochsner, associate professor and soil scientist from Oklahoma State University. I asked Ochsner what he thought about the droughts in Oklahoma and Texas and whether they could still be having an impact, and in particular, a lasting impact on the soils in Oklahoma.  

“I don’t really have the data but can imagine how it might happen,” he said. Ochsner explained that 2011 was a brutal year and that a lot of pasture and cropland were hit hard. Without vegetative cover and with little residue being returned to the soils, it is likely these harsh droughts have caused a loss of topsoil, increased soil compaction, and as a consequence, reduced water infiltration and reduced the water availability capacity of the soils. 

One stark example was the dust storm that shut down I-35 in October 2012. Ochsner explained that the dust wasn’t just coming from cropland, but the range was also contributing to the massive amount of dust being generated due to a lack of vegetative cover. “If we lose topsoil to wind and or water erosion, we are going to reduce water availability capacity,” he explained. 

A rule of thumb in Oklahoma has always been that you’re never more than two weeks away from a drought, Ochsner said. Oklahoma soils do not have a large water storage capacity to start with. “Best case scenario, take the top 32 inches of soil and that might store 8-9 inches of water.  [Then, you] Get into peak of summer with evapotranspiration rates approaching half inch a day. That doesn’t give you many days of actual supply.” 

We discussed that it’s possible the erosion of topsoil from the successive droughts since 2005 may have reduced that two-week rule of thumb to something like maybe 10 or 13 days. That could be a big deal and one of the reasons we are seeing a disparity between our indicators and impacts on the ground. Bottom line, there’s a chance we don’t have the same amount of reservoir capacity in the soils we did prior to all these drought events.

This is not good news as we are in the middle of another drought in parts of the Southern Plains. The most recent three-month forecast is showing it could be another hot and dry summer, and in many places, we are going into it with severe moisture deficits. 

There is some good news, though. Ochsner and I left our conversation with him telling me that he and colleagues at OSU have soil samples from several sites across the state that were sampled before the 2005 drought. They will compare them to samples taken more recently to look at this question of changes in soil structure and composition. So, while this question about how we observe drought and understand the potential cumulative impacts is still out there, at least we recognize there is a problem and isn’t that the first step in getting help.

This story was adapted from an article in the Livestock Weather Journal, which is a publication of Livestock Wx. Chad McNutt is the co-founder of Livestock Wx and editor of the Livestock Weather Journal.

Cattle industry insight from Lee Borck: Big risks, bigger rewards, best decisions

Lee Borck - Beef Management Group
Lee Borck has been disrupting the cattle feeding status quo for three decades. He shares his insights and best decisions with BEEF readers in this unique interview.

By Brandi Buzzard

Editor's Note: This is Part 1 in a two-part series. Read great cattle feeding insight in part two.

Imagine a beef industry in which producers raised cattle their own way, with no regard for consumer demand, neither in terms of quality or quantity. Additionally, their paycheck and livelihood is determined solely on how cattle looked, without regard to what was truly under the hide.

Insane, right?

That environment was the reality a mere 30 years ago, before Lee Borck and the Beef Marketing Group (BMG) burst on to the scene and upset the proverbial apple cart. Borck and his partners, which he attests got him through the early years of his career, ruffled quite a few feathers when they created BMG; however, more importantly, they revolutionized the way cattle feeders have marketed and raised beef for decades to come.

Starting out

Lee Borck

Borck is the fourth generation to grow crops and raise cattle on his family’s land in Marshall County, Kan. His great-grandfather homesteaded the land just south of Blue Rapids, Kan., and was originally a Hereford breeder.

A forever Wildcat, Borck graduated in 1970 from Kansas State University with a degree in agricultural economics and immediately went to work in the Farm Credit system in Larned. Cattle feeding was in its infancy in those days, so Borck was spending a good deal of time at western Kansas feedyards learning about risk management from men like Keith Mull and Jim Reeves. 

After eight years, Borck decided to venture into cattle feeding with a few partners by buying into Ward Feedyard near Larned. A few years later, another opportunity arose to purchase the remainder of the feedyard and Borck jumped on it with backing from his partners, laying the groundwork for great things to come.

Cattle feeding cartel

By the mid-1980s, the cattle feeding business had expanded and the feedyards in western Kansas had grown much larger; by comparison, Ward Feedyard had a one-time capacity of 10,000 head. Consequently, western Kansas feedyards could sell cattle for roughly 50 cents per cwt more because they had greater numbers of cattle available. Borck decided to buck the trend and call his cattle feeding competitors in central Kansas to see what could be done about improving their collective pricing potential.

This meeting of bulldogs, unbeknownst to them at the time, would completely change the cattle feeding and marketing landscapes. Borck laughs while recalling the meeting room in 1988, “We were so distrustful of each other, we had a court reporter there to ensure clarity and details for future communication.”

From that meeting, nine central Kansas feeders decided to cooperate and form an entity that would share marketing information every time they traded cattle from the feedyard.

“If I traded at 10:30 a.m., I would send a fax around and the whole group would know by 10:45 a.m. The packers didn’t like it at all, since they had been making a living off of the lack of information in the industry. But when we had our first large contract of 50,000 head of Holsteins with Excel, well, that blew the top off of things.”

This “Central Kansas Cartel,” as they became known in the days of OPEC, did not find themselves receiving flower bouquets and congratulatory greeting cards. To put it lightly, they were not fondly regarded.

At that point, Borck and his partners decided to form a marketing cooperative and operate under the umbrella of the Capper Volstead Act of 1922, which would exempt them from anti-trust laws on a national basis. Soon after, they left Excel and transferred their business to Tyson (formerly IBP), which Borck professes is his career’s best gamble.

“Choosing Tyson as a partner was a great decision. Their plants fit us very well and the agreement has been mutually beneficial. For our plan to work, the street has to run both ways.” 

As BMG was taking off, Borck continued to collaborate and increase his overall cattle feeding capacity. Ward Feedyard merged with Great Bend Feeding to form Innovative Livestock Services, Inc., (ILS) which has headquarters in Great Bend and Manhattan, Kan. Purchases of eight additional yards have brought ILS to its present capacity of 200,000 head.

Beef Marketing Group, of which ILS is a majority owner, has a one-time feeding capacity of 325,000 head, and although it has added several new members over the years, the same basic contract is still at its crux.

Disrupting the status quo

As one can imagine, this disruption, as some might call it, of the cattle feeding and beef marketing business received a heap of negative attention. Captive supply had become a touchy issue and BMG received the lion’s share of the blame.

As an early player in the marketing game, BMG negotiated the option to market cattle on a grid as IBP was looking to expand. Today, most cattle in the industry are marketed on a grid because feeders are producing what the packers demand and being paid for it.

“One of the reasons quality has improved is selling on a grid for what you produce. We have improved the industry to where we sell 75-80% Choice beef. It’s now an expectation. When Tyson has a product they want, they adapt their buying practices in terms of size, quality and price,” he says.

“This is a very successful way to market cattle, although the rest of the industry didn’t seem to agree at the time. There was more than one lawsuit filed against IBP, claiming that a packer didn’t have a right to pay more for these cattle. However, Tyson knows what our cattle will look like hanging because we have a performance history and today, 80% of cattle are sold in the same fashion as BMG.”

Borck adds that ILS, working with Tyson, has developed grids for many different types of cattle. He explains, “They all have their own assets and liabilities so we have a different grid for each one.”

Check out Part 2 of our interview with Lee Borck and see what advice he has for young producers starting out in next week’s Cow-Calf Weekly.

Brandi Buzzard Frobose is director of communications with the Red Angus Association of America. This article is the first in a series of “Best Decisions” interviews with influential beef industry leaders, featured exclusively in BEEF.



The rise of compact track loaders

utility tractors

By Jason Boerger

Equipment trends over the past decade reveal no bigger success than compact track loaders. These durable, versatile and cost-effective loaders have continued to reign in the compact equipment industry because of their power and ability to work in all seasons. In fact, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) shows that compact track loader sales have grown by roughly 20% in the agriculture market from 2015-2017.

Powerful pushing, digging and lifting performance; exceptional traction; minimal ground disturbance; increased flotation; and attachment versatility are just a few of the features and benefits that make compact track loaders one of the most popular machines in the agriculture industry.

Better maneuverability in challenging conditions

Compact track loaders allow operators to work year-round thanks to a unique balance of torque and tractive effort, which provides greater pushing power and mobility.

More ground-to-surface contact optimizes a compact track loader’s power and performance on rough terrain, inclines and uneven surfaces. When traveling over established surfaces, tracks distribute the machine’s weight across a larger area, minimizing ground disturbance. To best match ground conditions, compact track loaders can be outfitted with narrow or wide tracks and different tread patterns.

The tracked undercarriage of the compact track loader provides low ground pressure and enhanced flotation and traction when working in soft, sandy, wet or muddy conditions. Multiple undercarriage styles, including solid-mount and suspension undercarriages, are designed with a suspension system to increase operator comfort by minimizing vibration. Features like cab enclosures, heat and air conditioning, suspension seats and radios further enhance operator comfort. Some manufacturers even offer faster travel options on their compact track loaders to reduce time spent traveling across the farm.

These machine features and benefits can translate into increased efficiency, allowing you to complete more work in less time throughout the year.

Powerful lifting abilities

Many compact track loaders have high lift capacities for loading and placing materials. Many manufacturers offer a choice of two distinctive designs – a vertical lift path and a radius lift path – to match the level of lifting to your most frequent tasks.

For example, a vertical lift path loader provides higher lift capacity and more reach at full lift height than a radius-lift-path loader. When maximum reach is achieved at full lift height, it is easier to clear high-sided mixers and to perform jobs that require repeated lifting at taller heights.

A radius lift path loader raises the load in an arc that provides maximum reach at truck bed height. This machine design excels at jobs with mid-range or lower working heights, like dumping material over a wall, backfilling or loading, unloading flatbed trucks and leveling and grading.

Multiple attachment offerings

To increase the versatility of the machine, some manufacturers offer more than 70 unique attachments for compact track loaders, including pallet forks, snow pushers, snow blades and rotary cutters, to increase the versatility of the machine.

Attachments can help you take on season-specific work and may even replace the need for multiple machines. For example, you can use an auger to dig post holes; an industrial grapple to grab hard-to-handle objects and transport the material; a snow pusher to clear farmyards and driveways; or an angle broom to sweep dirt from paved areas or loose straw from the barn.

It’s also important to assess the value of high-flow auxiliary hydraulics for compact track loaders and attachments that can benefit from an extra power boost.

Cost of ownership

While it’s true that similar-sized skid-steer loaders typically have a lower initial purchase price compared to compact track loaders, rubber tracks can last about twice as long as tires, if proper operation is followed. Track and tire life will depend on the surface where the loaders are working. For example, loaders working on concrete or asphalt will generally need replacement tracks and tires sooner than loaders performing tasks on dirt.

Minimizing the operation of compact track loaders on asphalt and concrete surfaces helps keep operating costs down and increases the life of rubber tracks. Make gradual turns, rather than sharp turns, to increase the rubber track life and to prevent damage to established surfaces such as lawns.

Producers should also consider downtime costs when evaluating compact track loaders. If ground conditions are soft, sandy, wet or muddy, skid-steer loaders may not be able to work. A compact track loader is designed to handle adverse underfoot conditions, so weather won’t halt your productivity.

Ignoring compact track loader maintenance may lead to expensive repairs and unplanned downtime. Always perform preventive maintenance tasks, such as greasing the loader and checking the hydraulic oil site gauge, on a routine schedule. These are outlined in your Operation & Maintenance Manual. In addition, turn off the machine or lower the engine throttle when you’re not working to save on fuel. Over the course of a day, this time will add up and lead to fuel savings.

Based on information provided by AEM, compact track loader sales continue to rise in agriculture, particularly for producers who are cleaning barns and need extra traction or those working in wet conditions that require the additional flotation a compact track loader provides. Equipped with multiple features and attachments, you can work longer, harder and smarter all year long.

Jason Boerger is a marketing manager for Bobcat Company.

We’ve come a long way in producing high-quality beef

Prime beef sales

The focus of last week’s Industry At A Glance was on the importance of the top-end of the beef market to the overall industry. Most notably, during the first several weeks of May, the aggregate of Prime and branded sales represented approximately 26% of all boxed beef revenue – that market share is a new milestone. Moreover, May witnessed Prime and branded weekly sales totaling nearly $160 million in mid-month, also a new record.

That focus draws attention to this week’s focus: weekly Prime load count. The industry has proven very successful at producing more high-quality beef. That’s readily evident in this week’s illustration. It highlights just how far the industry has progressed at the very top end.

Looking back 10 years, the industry was selling between 25 and 50 loads of Prime product per week. That average didn’t surpass 50 loads on a consistent basis until late 2010. But fast forward just two years, and the beef industry started piling on. The momentum seems to be gaining speed.

Weekly sales of Prime product have consistently gone up year over year since that time. The consistent increase during the past five years is remarkable. And note that this spring has seen new all-time records. 

Meanwhile, conventional wisdom would tell us that the premium for Prime versus Select would decline over time, given the surge in available product.  That hasn’t occurred: In fact, the premium in May hovered around $27 per cwt – that’s $2 better than May 2008 while selling more than five times the amount of product. 

That’s an overwhelming demand signal for high quality beef. How do you perceive this trend in the marketplace? What changes have you made, and/or making, to adapt to the changing beef market environment? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below. 

Nevil Speer serves as an industry consultant and is based in Bowling Green, KY. Contact him at [email protected]


MIDDAY Midwest Digest, May 31, 2018

Founded in the heartland of America, Sears and K-Mart have closed stores due to declining business, along with online competition. 

Bob Barker contributed $1 million to Drury University, his alma mater. 

National Donut Day is tomorrow, and is 80 years old this year. It started as a fundraiser in Chicago for the Salvation Army.


James Cavender passes at 87

James Cavender, 87, founder of Cavender's Boot City, was born March 22, 1931, in Idabel, Okla., and passed away May 29, 2018 in Tyler, Texas.

He was founder and CEO of Cavender's, a major Texas-based western wear retail chain that now has stores in 11 states. He was known for his incredible work ethic, disposition and joy when helping customers. He was fortunate to attract many loyal associates over the last 53 years; many have been with the company for 30 or more years.

Trade issues dominate ag forum with Moran, Roberts and Perdue

Sen. Jerry Moran, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Sen. Pat Roberts
FARM FORUM: Sen. Jerry Moran (left), Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Sen. Pat Roberts take questions from farmers and commodity leaders May 30 during a forum in Manhattan, Kan.

Kansas Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran joined U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to hold a forum Wednesday with Kansas farmers, ranchers and rural advocates in Manhattan, Kan.

Roberts told the group that Congress is fully aware of the serious challenges farm country is facing, both from the weather, with almost a quarter of the state still mired in drought in spite of recent rains, and from a fifth year of low commodity prices and farm income that is down 54% from two years ago.

He promised action on a new farm bill, saying it will on President Donald Trump's desk before the current bill expires Sept. 30. Moran, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Congress is committed to making sure that there is funding in Fiscal Year 2019 for conservation, crop insurance, research and rural development programs.

But it was trade issues that brought the most questions and concerns from the farm leaders present at the forum.

Perdue said his administration is committed to negotiating solid trade agreements and finding the resources necessary to fight whatever tariffs China may impose as trade talks are carried out.

"Agriculture is lucky in that we inherited a good career staff of people dedicated to America's farmers," Perdue said. "There is no 'deep state' in the Department of Agriculture, just a bunch hard-working men and women."

EXPRESSING FAITH: U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told farmers and commodity leaders at a forum on the Farm Bill and trade issues that he has faith that President Trump's "unique negotiating style" will bear positive results as trade talks with China continue.

Lee Reeves, President of the Kansas Livestock Association said 20% of the production of Kansas stockmen is exported and that additional export markets are essential to keep producers in business.

"The president is very aware of the importance of ag exports," Perdue said. "We are optimistic that we are getting close on NAFTA. We are closer to agreement with Mexico than with Canada. Canada's protection of its domestic dairy industry continues to be a stumbling block."

Perdue said trade meetings with China in Washington in late May were a good start, with China agreeing to increase imports of agricultural products by $8 to $10 billion. But he acknowledged that the agreement isn't a sure thing.

"President Trump has a unique negotiating style and he has been very successful," Perdue said. "But certainty and predictability are not there yet on trade."

There are positive developments, such as an agreement to end the 179% tariff on U.S. sorghum in retaliation for U.S. tariffs on washing machines and solar panels, but more retaliation could be in store as tariffs on steel and aluminum are implemented.

Roberts said that Trump has suggested a program that would compensate farmers for lost trade, offering about $15 billion in aid for those impacted.

"We have made it clear that our farmers don't want another program or a trade subsidy. They want more markets," he said. "The trade representatives are headed to China in the coming weeks and I have confidence in Bob Lighthizer and Greg Doud to get the job done."

Moran said he has been working to make sure the administration understands that China is not a "captive" buyer for U.S. ag products.

"There's a popular notion among some people that China can't afford not to buy U.S. ag products," he said. "But the reality is there are plenty of options out there for China and for others to obtain farm products."

He cautioned that once U.S. ag customers find alternate suppliers, there is always a danger that they won't come back.

"Putting it simply, trade is the key to farm survival," Moran said. "There is nothing more important than trade. And it is not just ag. I was in Wichita last week for a ceremony commemorating a milestone in the delivery of Boeing 737 fuselages from Spirit Aviation. That airplane is 100% aluminum. Big increases in the price of aluminum is not a good thing for that production."

Moran said he is among a number of leaders who have explained to the president that the best weapon the U.S. has in the competitive struggle with China is membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. One of Trump's first actions was withdrawal from the agreement, which took years to negotiate and includes seven other nations.

SHARING CONCERNS: Jay Armstrong, left, with Armstrong Farms, takes advantage of the chance to share his thoughts with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue following a forum on the 2018 Farm Bill and trade issues May 30 in Manhattan, Kan.

Both Roberts and Perdue agreed that rejoining the TPP would give the U.S. a badly needed edge in the battle with China for markets, especially in Asia and South America.

Perdue expressed hope that might happen, but he said the administration needs to "rack up some wins" first.

"Basically, I just want to sell stuff," he said. "I think it is just a matter of time for TPP. But we need to get the steel and aluminum tariffs resolved and some wins on China. We need some wins on the board."

Moran said while trade issues dominate the conversation and farmers are concerned about the 2018 Farm Bill, he still has concern about the need to improve infrastructure with new roads, bridges and waterways to help provide relief for rural hospitals and expand technology.

"There's a lot of work ahead of us," he said

Feral swine rooting across Mid-South

Wild pigs were introduced to North America in 1493 when Columbus made his second trip to the "new world".

USDA Wildlife Services is one agency working to reduce populations of feral hogs in areas where farmers are trying to plant row crops.

From helicopters to trapping, they are working collaboratively with other local and state agencies and organizations to curb this seemingly insurmountable problem. 

See: Feral swine program giving farmers a planting window

MORNING Midwest Digest, May 31, 2018

A slain officer was carried down Interstate 40 in Tennessee yesterday. The search for the killer is still happening.

Even if the House passes a farm bill next month, the Senate bill will be different. Those differences will have to be worked out in conference.

Rain fell in Michigan, and from Tennessee to Chicago. It came from the sub-tropical storm. 

Tomorrow is National Donut Day.

Farm Progress America, May 31, 2018

Max Armstrong offers insight into the "smoke and mirror" games being played with food labels. But one food company is sharing the news that safety is a key priority and that genetically modified ingredients are safe. General Mills shared the names of the agencies that say GMOs are safe around the world; and shared it uses those ingredients.

Farm Progress America is a daily look at key issues in agriculture. It is produced and presented by Max Armstrong, veteran farm broadcaster and host of This Week in Agribusiness.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images