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kansasfarmer's blog

February 2009 - Posts

  • Here we go again.

    The older I get the more I see how time really does fly by.  Spring is just around the corner, only 60 days until we go to grass again.  The cows are calving full tilt, and soon the seed corn will be delivered.  The "informative meetings" put on by extension and various companies are at their peak, and most farmers either have firmed up their cropping mix for 2009 or are about to do so.

    What a difference a year makes.  Last year all the talk was the bold new frontier of prosperity agriculture was poised to enter.  Today, US farmers eye with a bit of apprehension what is bound to be a challenging year.  Tuesday and Wednesday were bleak days in both the grain and livestock futures markets, the tumbling prices make it ever more probable most of us will find it very hard to operate with anything but red ink for the coming year.  Stories abound of losses of $250-$300 per head on fat cattle coming out of the feedyards.  These huge losses combined with ever more anemic fat cattle prices are pressuring both feeder and stocker cattle prices.  Cattle producers can be thankful grain prices have slipped so far, because if corn was still at $5 or above, feeders and stockers would probably be nearly worthless. 

    For the grain farmer, the outlook is no better, especially for those who gave into the pressure and fear of no fertilizer this spring and paid cash in advance last summer for their 2009 fertilizer needs, some paying nearly 3 times the current price.  There is absolutely nothing they can do about it now, some farmers(including one I know personally) are in the frustrating position now of knowing when they pull into the field with the planter they are going to lose money on the 2009 corn crop, the only question is how much.  My attitude back when this "no fertilizer" propaganda was being pushed was that if there was no fertilizer, I guess I wouldn't be using any, there was no way I was going to borrow the money in August of '08 to buy fertilizer for '09, especially when it wasn't even assured we actually would raise a '08 crop. 

    The bad market news is not the only thing worrying me this morning, there is good reason to believe we have entered if not a drouth, a very dry cycle.  Fronts are now coming through dry time and time again, with just a windshift and temperature change to alert you to the fact a front has passed.  In February a drouth is quite pleasant,aside from fire danger there is very little downside to being warm and dry in the winter.  It would be great to have this dry cycle continue until about April 1st, then gradually trend toward more liberal rains(although hopefully not like last summer) but odds are, with a wet '07 and '08 under our belts, '09 may well be a duster.

  • At least I am not in Australia.

    Watching the news just now about the large destructive fires in Australia gives me much to be thankful for.  My thoughts go out to those folks down under struggling with fire and drouth.  Nothing is more frightening than a destructive wildfire, nothing more depressing than a severe drouth.  The deadly fires there make ours look like nothing.

    The several days of high fire danger have resulted in our fire trucks rolling out yesterday and today, and we have lost 4 buildings in the process.  Both fires could have been prevented, both could have been much worse.  The alarm yesterday was raised about 3pm.  Two guys running a Bobcat loader caught the grass on fire south of their barn, the strong winds fanned the flames into the barn, catching it on fire.  The barn burned to the ground, the embers from the barn blew out into the adjoining haymeadow catching it on fire.  It was well on its way to the road, and had it jumped the road would have been terrible to deal with, but we got it out before it jumped.  Today was actually a day that didn't seem to have the fire risk.  We had more humidity and less wind, I didn't think there was much fire danger(I carried my camera with me yesterday just in case, today I was confident we wouldn't have a problem and left it at home).  About 4:30 I spotted dark black smoke to the east, and not long after the alarm sounded.  I am a bit sketchy on the details but from what I can piece together a very eccentric elderly gentleman decided to burn some brush and weeds in a field north of his farmstead.  The dry grass carried the fire to his farmstead, catching 3 of his barns on fire.  He apparently was too proud to call the fire in, or too weird, and when neighbors came to investigate was trying to put one of the buildings out with buckets of water.  The best of the 3 buildings was filled with very valuable antique cars and farm equipment, we saved about half of what was in it. 

    Tomorrow is to be the last day hopefully for sometime with much fire danger.  We are supposed to get a good rain tomorrow night.  Generally a rain in February is not something I appreciate, I think a nice inch would be welcome if it cleared off after.


  • Red Flag warnings.

    The last month has been the most extreme temperature fluctuations I have ever seen.  I had 10F this morning, a few claimed 7F.  Tomorrow afternoon, it is forecast to be 65F. We went from being very wet most of the year to pretty dry at the surface.  The last few weeks have seen our afternoon humidity drop into the 20s, we had red flag warnings Saturday and already tonight they are talking about issuing  them tomorrow and Friday.  A red flag warning means extreme fire danger, and it is something we take very seriously on the Kansas prairie.  We had one of our two monthly fire meetings tonight and spent part of the time taking care of details on the trucks, and part of the time recalling the last time we had such low humidities day after day, 1996.  I have a few pics posted in my gallery from that year, for about 4 weeks beginning the middle of February we were run ragged with fires. The 3 big ones burned 9600, 10000 and 30000 acres respectively.  It may seem odd for a farmer on a farming forum to be so fixated with fire, but the two go hand in hand.  A huge fire that stopped just 3 miles from here in 1976 went through cows and burned their udders beyond salvage. 

     We have the largest land mass fire district in the state of Kansas(according to our chief) and every square inch of it is protected by volunteers, last I knew we had nearly 160 on the rolls in this county.  I think that is very impressive considering our population is barely 7000(about 7 people per square mile).  My farm sits in the middle of arable ground, so there is nearly no chance of a range fire reaching my buildings, especially since two rivers border the north and south sides.  However, my parents farm sits at the north side of about 1000 acres of prairie grass, my dad worries alot this time of year when it is dry about getting burned out.  To properly manage our native bluestem grass, we cannot graze it short like you do in the UK, ideally we try to leave half.  Since we stock based on average rainfall, a year like 2008 produces even more grass then the cattle will eat, meaning we have an impressive fuel supply to work with.  There are lots of seed heads as high as my chin in places(I am about 6'tall). The actual grass in most pastures is at least a foot tall, and in some areas 2 feet tall, and paper dry.  All it takes is a spark, from electric lines slapping together, a cigarette thrown from a vehicle, an electric fence, a faulty muffler.  The strangest of all time was when a hawk was electrocuted on a high line and started a fire, I did not believe the witness until we found the dead bird, nearly perfect except with one toe blown off of each foot.

    The lack of humidity is as much of a problem as wind when it comes to fighting grass fires.  Most years, a road will stop about 90% of the fires, but in windy conditions with no humidity to speak of a road won't even slow a fire down.  I well remember 1996 watching fire leap across the highway without hesitating.  The reality is, all we can do is chase along the firelines and try to save any houses in the path, and try to either backfire along a road, or run the fire into a creek or river.  In the conditions we have now hitting the headfire head on is nearly suicidal. 

    We will be hoping for the best the next two days.  It has been nearly 3 years since a fire of any size was in our district, that fire burned around 1500 acres.  In the 14 or so years I have been involved in the fire service, I only recall losing one occupied house to a prairie fire.  Our truck was only a half mile from that house, but we could not get through the fire to get to it.  No loss of life, so it was not as bad as possible.  Chances are, no matter how bad the next few days get, all that will burn is alot of grass, some hay, a few buildings, and maybe the odd cow or oil tank. If everyone is careful as they are being told to be, we probably won't even have a fire.  But, we will be on pins and needles, and try to stay out of the pastures with vehicles all together except in the very early morning.

     I tried to find a really good video of a Kansas prairie fire on youtube and couldn't, but found a decent one of a fire at night in our neighboring state of Oklahoma.  It will give a good idea of what a smaller fire is like.  Hope the link works

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