Wednesday, September 17, 2014
The Farm - How I started the farming part of the farm
I'm purposely leaving out any talk about the financial or money aspects of how I started farming because everyone is in a different situation, has different financial options available, has different risk tolerance, so my financial details would be of little use to almost anyone else except me.
Simply put, if you want to farm, you need access to some land and you need some start-up money. There are a bunch of different ways to come up with the money; you can use your savings, you can get a loan and borrow it, you can win it somehow, you can get a second job, you can sell off some of your assets, or someone can give it to you. I used a combination of almost all of those options.
By the time I actually started farming, my farming plans had changed to the less risky plan of a cow-calf and wheat farm. Everything I had read or heard about farming was along the lines of, "How can you make any money in farming when a brand-new combine will cost you $200,000?". Or, "There's no money in growing wheat since fertilizer costs $xxx/ton and wheat is only selling for $x/bu."
After years of reading those sorts of pessimistic claims, it dawned on me that I didn't need or want to buy new equipment, and it only really mattered how much of that "expensive" fertilizer it took to grow each bushel of wheat (i.e. I'll gladly spend $1 to grow something worth $2).
My first year of actual farming started in about June, right after the wheat had been harvested by the previous renter, but about six months before that had been spent getting some basic equipment ready to grow that first crop of wheat. The initial equipment was a well-used and abused IH 1586 tractor (160 hp of bulldog-ugly tractor), a IH 5100 drill that needed to be rebuilt, a worn-out John Deere disc, an old Chevy wheat truck, and a John Deere combine that needed a lot of work and welding.
It's been awhile, but I think the tractor cost about $6000 to buy and $2000 to put on tires, the drill was about $500 plus $300 in parts, the disc was about $1500, the truck was about $3000 and the combine was about $3000 plus $1000 in parts. But after fixing everything, if I had decided to sell everything, it was all worth more than what had been invested in it, which to my way of thinking was the best way to buy equipment.
I did almost everything wrong that first summer, I tried to disc when it was too dry or too wet, didn't get a good seedbed before I drilled my wheat, didn't fertilize enough, didn't plant at a high enough seed rate, etc. But somehow I lucked out, ended up with a good stand of wheat, got enough rain, and that first harvest ended up giving me both a decent yield and price. That first wheat crop easily paid for all my equipment with money left over. I'm not sure if I'd done a whole lot better if I hadn't made so many mistakes, but I like to think I would have.
After that first wheat harvest, I was making money and that's also when I planted my first grain sorghum crop. I planted about 20 acres of double-cropped grain sorghum and once again did almost everything wrong just like my first wheat crop. I planted it into a horrible seed bed that had almost no moisture, I planted at too high of a seed rate, had weed problems (I was walking the field with a hoe and a machete trying to control weeds), had some crop damage due to herbicide carryover from the wheat crop, had trouble getting the combine set up right at harvest, etc.
But once again I lucked out and got a decent harvest in mid-October just in time to plant the next wheat crop. I didn't make a lot of money on that first crop of grain sorghum, but I more than doubled my money, and had successfully planted two profitable crops in one year (which was supposed to be relatively difficult to do). I think that luck played an important role in being able to do that in the beginning.
I eventually ended up with a chisel plow (it was ugly, cheap, and worked great), a moldboard plow (mainly to fix terraces), and a field cultivator (bought in Iowa off of eBay for cheap) until I eventually switched to a no-till system which only needed a drill, a sprayer, and a planter. Over the years, I've went from tillage to no-till, went from continuous wheat to growing wheat, grain sorghum, sorghum-sudangrass, crabgrass, and a few soybeans, to experimenting with cover crops and pasture cropping (ask me what I think about pasture cropping and I'll probably talk your ear off).
That's the basic story of how I started the farming part of the farm. I doubt if my story is that unique, and if I can do it, then almost anyone else should also be able to do it.
The next part of the story is about the cattle, which I'll talk about in another post.