- DTN Headline News
View From the Cab
By Pamela Smith
Sunday, June 16, 2024 10:15AM CDT

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Fathers and farming seem to go together like soil and water. Often, great things germinate from the combination. Other times, the relationship can get downright muddy.

Ramey Pottinger and Quint Pottinger will tell you that their farm partnership thrives because they don't sugarcoat anything. "Blunt honesty is how we roll, and it is what makes things work between us," said Quint.

"We work in a business where a lot of people depend on us. Open discussion is critical to making sure we don't make mistakes," added the New Haven, Kentucky, farmer.

Dan Lakey wishes he could still sit down with his father, Dwight, to discuss farm business decisions. His father died unexpectedly of COVID-19 in 2021 and he misses his guidance.

"It's getting a little easier, but for the first couple of years, I'd catch myself working in the shed and wanting to ask him how to do something. Or maybe we'd land a special contract rate for grain and I just yearned to tell him about it," said Lakey, who farms in southeastern Idaho near Soda Springs.

Pottinger and Lakey are participating this year in DTN's View From the Cab series. They volunteer their time to report on crop conditions and rural issues. This is the 8th article in the series.

This week, on Father's Day, the two farmers talk about their farming fathers and how the crop is progressing. The wheat combines were making their first cuts in Kentucky on June 14 and it looked as though planting might finally roll to a close just as temperatures start to sizzle. By contrast, Lakey was watching temperatures dip and worried about a late freeze.

DTN Ag Meteorologist John Barnack shares both concerns. "In New Haven, the heat will be getting cranked up Sunday (June 16) and should last the entire week. Daytime highs in the 90s, and possibly approaching 100 Fahrenheit, are possible all week long," Baranick said.

"The precipitation is tricky here, as moisture coming up from the Gulf of Mexico may or may not produce showers and thunderstorms in the Eastern Corn Belt. Models have been mixed about that for the last week, but chances I think are low for getting anything meaningful into the area. If they do see some showers moving through, that could limit the heat somewhat. But a lot of areas that have had limited rainfall recently and the lack of rain in the forecast along with the blistering heat could create a "flash drought" situation if it continues beyond this week. Models are mixed on that, too," Baranick said.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, in Soda Springs, there are chances for a few showers early this week, but cold days threaten. "The cold could lead to some areas of frost in those higher elevations. Frost isn't completely unusual in the early summer, but it is unfortunate. Warmer weather returns for late in the week though, but so does drier conditions," Baranick added.

DAN LAKEY: SODA SPRINGS, IDAHO

This past week was a "Goldilocks period" for Dan Lakey. The canola has snapped back from a series of frosts without a need to replant. Leftover moisture from the winter has given other crops just enough moisture, but not too much. The thermometer has finally tickled the 80-degree mark -- just right to jumpstart the crop.

"Everything has finally really started to grow," he said. "If we don't get a rain in the next week, the crop will start going backwards. But most everything is still small here -- except for winter wheat, which is in the boot stage."

Father's Day weekend is typically when wheat heads out for in this region. "Which consequently is the same weekend we almost always get a frost. They are calling for 30s, which at our elevations puts us in the mid-20s," Dan said.

That late cold snap happens so often that it's referred to as the "Father's Day Frost."

"It's about as reliable as the four seasons," Dan said. He remembers one year when temperatures dipped to 18 degrees for six hours on three consecutive nights. "Farmers in other areas talk about their 'million-dollar rains.' We have a 'million-dollar frost' and that's not a good thing," he said.

Even spring grains can be vulnerable to this late cold snap. Getting a spat of rain at the same time as those low temperatures can potentially help protect the crop. "A dry frost really zaps things, particularly barley. We've never had to replant due to this frost, but it has the potential to significantly reduce yields," he explained.

That dry climate has the benefit of low disease incidence, though. Stripe rust in wheat, for example, is typically a once-in-a-decade kind of problem.

This year, Lakey Farms is trying fungicide on a few hundred acres. It's an attempt to get a plant health response that might allow the crop to weather some of the extreme swings in temperatures.

The $6 per acre cost for the fungicide is at the lower-end cost spectrum for inputs. "I kind of hope we don't see any yield difference because it will mean we've been right about not regularly using fungicide.

"But drought really zaps us most years. We want to see if it is worth it to buy a little stay green," he said. Combining the fungicide in the same pass with herbicide and some foliar nitrogen and sulfur helps spread application cost and reduce time in the sprayer.

Lakey Farms fields are spread over some 50 miles. That requires a hard look at extra applications, especially if timeliness is a factor. "There's a lot of talk about spoon-feeding your crop and giving it exactly what it needs throughout the growing season. We've tried that over the years, particularly with nitrogen," he said.

"The only place that it ever really makes any sense for us is under irrigation when we can use chemigation." Examples of crops grown under irrigation include field peas, hard red spring wheat, beardless barley for cover crop seed.

Those kinds of crop observations are just the kind of thing Dwight Lakey might have penned in one of the many small pocket notebooks he kept over the years. Seed companies used to give these notebooks away. After Dwight died, the family discovered his handwritten farm diaries tucked away in the pickup, in tractors and many other spots.

"I've been going through them gleaning little words of wisdom and trying to decode some of the formulas and other chicken scratches," Dan said. "Dad never owned a smartphone. He didn't text. He had a flip phone that at best he would answer half the time. These books were his lifeline."

They are now priceless mementos that have led Dan to start handwriting more notes himself. Somehow dedicating thoughts to paper still helps cement the idea.

When Dan was in high school, Dwight pulled him into the farm shop and discouraged him from returning home to farm. "He encouraged me to go to college, get a degree and a job where I could earn a living," Dan recalled. At the time, his grandfather, father, uncle, and a brother, David, who is 16 years older, were all farming together.

In other words, the farm was crowded. "Looking back, he did me a huge favor," Dan said. Eventually, those personnel dynamics changed and there was an opening on the farm. When his father offered the opportunity, the son brought the experience of those off-farm jobs home with him.

"Everyone has heard the stories about the 90-year-old father who passes away and the 70-year-old son who has never been allowed to make a decision.

"My Dad didn't want that to happen on our place. Even though I was really green at farming, he allowed me to start the process of decision making at a young age and having the successes and failures that come along with that," he said.

"While we thought he was going to live forever, it didn't work out that way. And he prepared both David and I for that eventuality by giving us freedom to make decisions," he said.

Dan said he especially misses his father's quiet voice of reason when markets or weather conditions look dire. "It drove me crazy at the times, but when I'd be worried about the crop failing or that we weren't making anything at current prices, he'd always have a story about some year that he'd survived worse.

"I didn't always want to hear it. I wanted him to confirm how bad it was right then and commiserate with me, but he'd never take the bait," he said.

These days when he wants to feel that connection, he fires up the 1971 Chevrolet Chevelle SS that once belonged to Dwight. It recently got new tires and Dan, along with his two young sons drove it to his father's gravesite on Memorial Day -- just to make sure he approved of the upgrades.

"It's supposed to be my car now, but I don't really look at it that way. He's just letting me use it," he said.

QUINT POTTINGER: NEW HAVEN, KENTUCKY

You might say every day is Father's Day at Affinity Farms. Ramey and Quint Pottinger merged their operations in 2017. Since then, the operation has grown from around 600 acres to nearly 3,600 acres and the farm has tapped into specialty markets such as distiller's grains.

Ramey told DTN that father and son get along well because they share the same love of agriculture. "I had a good relationship with my father and that set a standard," Ramey said. "He was innovative. He was one of the first to try no-till farming, for example.

"Quint likes to try new things. I was like that when I was his age, so I want to accommodate that desire," Ramey said.

Farming and juggling a full-time career in education administration also shaped Ramey's management and listening skills. But both men agree that being candid and not leaving things unsaid is the secret sauce to making their partnership work.

"People who overhear us may think we're awfully blunt, but if we don't have those discussions, details can get missed that can lead to very big mistakes," Quint said. Key to that relationship is trying not to second-guess the person who is onsite and making specific decisions, he added.

One thing that binds the entire farm crew together is they take time to talk, Quint said. In fact, the farm provides lunch each day for all the staff. It's a communal time to come together and share plans and assess how those plans may need to adapt and change to current situations.

Weather has tested their grit this year. "I've been doing this since the '60s when I was in high school. This is probably the worst weather year that we've had for being delayed that I've seen since 1979," Ramey said.

There's not a lot to do about it, he added. "Quint gave me a rain gauge the other day and told me I'd better put it up. I did and it hasn't rained since," Ramey joked.

An ongoing concern is that wet springs often lead to dry summers. On June 14, the farm still had a few first crop soybeans to get into the ground, but it appeared they would smack them in before the prevented planting deadline. They were still hoping to patch in some wet holes in cornfields. "It's been hot and dry for a week, but the ground is still wet underneath," Quint noted.

Another surprise during this quirky year is how quickly the wheat has ripened, given the abundance of rain and relatively cool weather. Combines started to roll on June 14. Yield goals are in the 85 to 90 bushels per acre range.

Most of that wheat will go to nearby distilleries. Quality standards are high for these end users. For example, smells and flavors such as those imparted by wild garlic can result in loads rejected. Quint said bins and trucks must be cleaned carefully lest they cause wheat to absorb what is called "barnyard flavor."

Even removing the truck tarp too soon can cause a load to be rejected if the wheat absorbs the smell of diesel fuel, he said.

Wheat acres will be double-cropped with soybeans after wheat harvest. The farm is experimenting with intercropping this year. On March 30, soybeans were direct seeded into standing rye and a few acres of wheat that will be harvested for grain. Some farmers achieve the practice by splitting the row or leaving a skip row, but the farm doesn't have reliable RTK guidance in the area to keep the planter lined up. Instead, interseeded soybeans were planted on a 15-to-20-degree angle to the already growing winter cereal crop.

"One thing we are noticing in those planted into rye is the soybean stem is thin and viney, compared to those planted in wheat," Quint said. "I don't think it is variety related. It seems more to do with the competitive rye."

Ramey admitted that he gives Quint some pointed criticism at times, but that he feels his son takes it well. As for retirement ... well ... that's an open-ended question.

"Quint always says I've got five more years on my contract," Ramey said, noting that contract never changes with advancing age.

"He told me when I turned 70 that I could consider myself semi-retired. I asked him what are the benefits to that? He thought for a few minutes and said: 'Well ... as far as I'm concerned, you can go home every night you want to after 10 o'clock."

Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.Smith@dtn.com

Follow her on social platform X @PamSmithDTN


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