Farmers share insight about their operations during panel

A farmer learning from other producers is what makes the farmer panel the most popular session at an educational event. Farmer U was no different. Held Aug. 17 and 18, in Mulvane, Kansas, Farmer U was sponsored by High Plains Journal.

Included on the farmer panel were Ki Gamble, fourth generation Greensburg, Kansas, farmer who grows corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, milo, and sunflowers on dry and irrigated acres; Matt Splitter, a fifth generation farmer from central Kansas who raises corn, sorghum, soybeans and wheat on dryland and irrigated land; and Travis Schnaithman, a fifth generation farmer from north central Oklahoma who strives for an intensive management approach on his wheat, soybeans, sorghum and corn acres.

Q: What is the biggest challenge your farm is facing right now?

“There’s a whole host of answers to this, but the two that I come back to routinely would be—as a young farmer—young farmers’ access to capital, and the regulations surrounding that,” Splitter said.

He struggles with the ever-changing regulatory scene and is frustrated by being told one thing by suppliers and agencies doing another.

Gamble has had a challenging year with access to parts and supplies.

“They’re hard to get,” he said. “And in agriculture. We can’t wait two days, three days, four days for John Deere, Case IH, whoever to get the parts to us.”

Second is labor. It has been getting worse every year trying to find people who want to work.

“And that’s not been helped any at all in this COVID situation and unemployment benefits,” Gamble said.

Schnaithman on the other hand has had decent luck with hiring those workers who are on H2A visas.

“It’s been really an extremely big blessing to our family, our operation,” he said. “They’re here to work. They don’t have a wedding to go to or T-ball game. So that’s been a big game changer, a big benefit as we’re putting in long hours harvesting.”

He’s struggled in the last year finding the inputs he’s needed with fertilizer plants being shut down and other bottlenecks caused by weather or decreases in production.

Q: What is the one management practice that has been most influential in increasing crop yield on your farm?

Gamble is a multiple time winner of the National Sorghum Producers annual yield contest, and said there’s really not any one thing he does better than other sorghum producers. He’ll field calls from those wanting to also grow high-yield grain sorghum.

“Sometimes it becomes very frustrating because five minutes into the phone call, you realize that if this guy’s going to try to grow high-yield grain sorghum like his grandfather farmed in 1940—it’s not going to work,” Gamble said. “And the three of us aren’t any better than anybody else.”

But for Gamble, and the other operators, modern equipment and technology is a must.

“That’s where a lot of the high yields come from, along with timeliness, efficiencies,” he said. “You can’t drive a Toyota to the party and expect to come home in a Cadillac if that makes any sense. You’ve got to have the modern tools and technology that these equipment manufacturers have given to us to be able to do that.”

Splitter agrees, and since custom farming is such a big part of his operation, he has found having the right equipment and plan can make his operation much more efficient.

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“When we first started doing custom work it was a relationship builder,” he said. “We’ve tried to be as timely and efficient (as we can), we probably won’t be the cheapest.”

His goal is to cover quality acres in the most efficient manner. And sometimes that means not taking on those acres that take more time.

“The custom farming has been a big, big advantage to us to buy the newest technology. To buy the state of the art tractors, combines, sprayers, things like that,” Splitter said. “And it’s kind of crazy, that just by way of efficiencies we have excess capacity. We’re exceeding what they would consider industry standards for the machines that we’re running today.”

Splitter has found that by doing business the way he has been was possible because of supportive landowners and customers. One custom farm has enough acres where the owner could justify having his own equipment, but “he’s very business savvy, and figured out it was cheaper or equal to hire everything done and manage it.”

“He doesn’t have depreciation schedule. He doesn’t have the asset base. He doesn’t have debt,” Splitter said. “He doesn’t have any of those things. He’s a full fledged farmer, but he’s just managing it.”

Schnaithman also found that custom farming is a way to build relationships that get your foot in the door. It also helped him early on realize that running his equipment ragged to custom bale hay didn’t pay.

“So anyway, after weeks of doing $20,000 in gross revenue that one summer,” he said. “By the time we paid depreciation and repairs, my brother and I split $2,000.”

Most recently they’ve ran one line of equipment on the farm, and this past year they’ve come to the realization they have to run two.

“We’ve got too much to justify it,” he said.

Q: What’s the No. 1 lesson you’ve learned in production agriculture?

Gamble said one of the biggest lessons he was handed was when the EF5 tornado tore through his town in 2007.

“We lost our whole town,” he said. “I lost my farm. It was right on the north edge of town. Not only did I lose my farm, but I had all the town’s junk on my farm to pick up.”

A farmer can be the most successful one in the neighborhood on paper, but all of that is for not if you don’t share it.

“Unless you give back to your community—financially, time, whatever you can afford—you’re not going to have a successful small town anymore in western Kansas,” Gamble said.

For Splitter, it was three things. His biggest struggle is finding a work-life balance.

“My mentality—it’s not been one to find that balance,” he said. “Kind of paying for it now.”

The second one would be to be kind. He never really was one for the political and competitive side of farming where someone looking to take over a piece of ground wrote a letter to a landlord or found a way to make himself look better than another potential tenant.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why we are successful is because we just do our work, and we’re kind. We’re generous.”

Splitter also said he was blessed to have mentor in his life who was quick to teach him about farming after his father passed away.

“If you’re an older farmer, find the young guy who’s willing to learn,” he said.

Mental health awareness is also something Splitter has found to be important.

“Because farming is so competitive you’ve got to find some one to talk to,” he said. “You got to find somewhere to just have those candid conversations. It has been by far the best thing for my mental health is to find a group of like-minded people that are fighting the same situations.”

Schnaithman said for him, farming has always been a matter of finding what’s worth doing. Do what people want.

“My dad used to always tell us kids—and I think it applies to everything, maybe more so to farming than anything we’ve ever done—if you want to be successful do what other people won’t,” he said. “And I think that’s been one of my brother and I’s biggest competitive advantage. We’ve always been hungry.”

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Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected]