Doing The Math

A father-son farming team—one a former math teacher—find margin in a tight farming economy. See how equipment choices help.

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole

This isn’t the first time the Wallace family has stared down a tight time in agriculture. Roger Wallace now farms with his son Nate in Kewanee, Illinois. He was a part-time farmer in the 1980s when he split his time between the family ground and Kewanee High School, where he taught math.

“I remember paying 10%, or maybe more, in interest for an operating loan,” he says. “It was a challenging time then to balance out income. But we came through it and actually bought some farm ground,” he says.

Roger retired from teaching and turned to full-time farming in 2004. Nate worked for a while in the insurance field but now says he’s focused full-time on farming as well. It takes a full-time focus to “balance out income,” as Roger put it. “I’ll be honest with you,” he says, after reminiscing about the 80s, “it’s interesting times right now, with anhydrous and other inputs as high as they are, and fuel… It may seem like crop prices are pretty good, and they are, but when you subtract the expenses, the margins are tight,” he says.

Meanwhile, finding ground to farm, outside of the acres the Wallaces own, is expensive and competitive. “We’re near an ethanol plant, too,” says Nate, aside from sitting on some of the best corn ground in the world. The father and son team add some custom work into the mix, but “it comes and goes,” says Nate.

The Wallaces grow corn and soybeans on land that Roger describes as “hilly” … “We need a little extra power to pull the hills at times,” he says. Nate says that a tough growing season last year meant they did a little more tillage than normal, but that they “generally just no-till both our corn and beans,” he says.

Roger acknowledges that every farmer has to be something of a mathematician, but he believes his “math background helped out quite a bit” when it came to making purchase decisions, especially for land and equipment. In a tight land market where expansion might not always be possible, income growth meant “farming the land we have better and more efficiently,” he says.

A big step on that efficiency path was upgrading planters, which the Wallaces have done twice in the past five seasons. The first upgrade was “three or four years ago, when we got all the Precision Planting technology,” says Nate. “We saw a considerable bump in our yields, especially on corn,” he says. “We were thinking, ‘We can get by with our older planter,’ but we were leaving money on the table.” Improvements in singulation—“the SpeedTube is great,” says Nate—and planting speed were an excellent first step that were impressive to both the Wallaces and to landlords. “We felt like it put us on a good path going forward,” says Nate.

The Wallaces added a Fendt 1042 tractor to the operation a couple of years later, and first noticed the comfort and ease of operation. “It’s a large tractor, from the standpoint of horsepower, but it really doesn’t handle like a big tractor,” says Roger. “It handles like a smaller tractor. But then, we have the power we need to climb some of these hills, and pull some of the tillage stuff that we have,” he says. “And it’s very comfortable to run. You could run this tractor for a lot of hours and get out not feeling nearly as fatigued,” he says.

Nate says the Fendt Tractor Management System, which controls the engine and the transmission so they are always working most efficiently, took some getting used to. “We were used to cranking it up and running our throttle wide open” on other tractors, he says. As a result, “we’ve seen quite a fuel savings,” says Roger. “We’re planting at somewhere between 1100 and 1200 RPM and it just kind of stays there.”

Speaking of planting, the most recent upgrade in the operation is the Fendt Momentum planter. Besides the Precision Planting technology that that Wallaces were already used to, the Momentum adds a flexible frame to keep ground contact in hilly areas, Delta® downforce control to maintain a consistent planting depth, and Load Logic® weight distribution that virtually eliminates pinch rows and helps control compaction.

In a difficult planting season, “we will get a lot done in a shorter amount of time” with the Fendt setup, says Nate. Meanwhile, the ultimate goal of “picket fence corn,” says Roger, is achievable with the 1042 and the Momentum planter. A plant that comes up late or out of place “acts just like a weed,” he says. “And we want to avoid that if at all possible.”

So is the math working out? “We’ll see when the combine runs this fall,” says Nate. But combining the fuel savings with the advantages of upgraded planter has the Wallaces hopeful. “We’re probably looking at a difference in yield that would be significant,” says Roger.