Engineering For Success on a Family Farm
Jim Kopriva is a fourth-generation farmer in a challenging environment, where success means wearing a lot of hats and making precise choices on management and equipment. Here’s how he does it.
By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole
Farming is not a job where one can afford to be “narrow-minded,” says Jim Kopriva. That’s not a social or political critique; he means it in the sense of how family farmers—those with a certain size of operation—have to think about their business in order to be successful.
He means that farming is not a “day job.”
“I mean, you don’t have to worry about so many other things,” he says of his years in the corporate world before he left to farm full-time. “You can kind of do your job, and maybe you get to a higher level of management where you have other things to consider,” Jim says. But for family farmers these days, life is all about those other things to consider. “You gotta be an agronomist, an engineer, a mechanic, a businessman, and you gotta do all of that at the same time,” he says.
He pauses, then says: “Nobody can do all of that at once.”
The issue, though, is how important all those jobs are to the success of a family farm. “I think they’re all equally important,” says Jim. “You have to identify the things that you’re good at, and be willing to spend money to get the other stuff done.
“When you identify what you’re good at, that’s where efficiency occurs,” he says.
Jim is moving corn into storage on his farm just outside Atwood, Kansas. Jim’s wife, Brenda, and three children, Nathan, Adam, and Marissa, are due home any time. As on most farms this size, the job is a family affair. Brenda is a surgeon in town, but also works on the farm; “There aren’t many surgeons who can drive a tractor pulling a grain cart,” Jim says.
Just past the windbreak along the road in front of the farm, road grit and corn stubble whip around in a dust devil on a typically hazy harvest afternoon. “It’s drier this year, drier than normal,” says Jim. He says his farm started the year with good subsoil moisture in the spring, but a dry summer stunted yields. “Some of our wheat yields are 10 to 15 bushels below normal and our dryland corn is running 15 to 25 bushels below normal.” This part of Kansas is considered “semi-arid”; farmers here typically try to raise dryland crops on 18 inches of rain a year. Kopriva raises primarily corn and wheat, with soybeans rotating in every few years between irrigated corn crops.
Dryland corn “is what pays the bills around here,” Jim says, comprising more than half his acreage. It’s primarily corn-on-corn, followed by a fallow period and then wheat. “That’s kind of a typical rotation,” he says.
What’s less typical is his seed wheat business, and though it’s small in volume, it’s specialized to Kopriva’s location. “There used to be maybe 10 varieties of wheat that were good for this area,” says Kopriva. “Now there are about 25.” Kopriva offers at least two varieties each year to local farmers, planted as registered foundation seed and sold as certified. It’s important to the process—and to the added value of the crop—to preserve the purity of the variety.
So, harvest of the seed wheat is atypical, as well. Clean-out between varieties is crucial to prevent cross-contamination. Added to the job for Jim is the use of “stripper headers” in wheat, something that’s somewhat unique to this part of the Great Plains. “You get more bin capacity, which is good,” he says of the wheat stripper, “but that’s not the real reason you use them.” It’s important to Jim and other farmers in semi-arid climates to keep as much residue on the soil surface as possible to retain moisture. The stripper leaves the straw standing full-height, and it takes longer to degrade.
Gleaner: Created For Efficiency
Jim has earned his perspective on day jobs versus farming. While he grew up farming with his father here in Rawlins County, he did leave the farm to pursue a career. That career, however, didn’t stray too far from the land.
Jim’s college work at Kansas State in bio and ag engineering fit right in with his upbringing. “I was raised right here on this farm, (but) I went into the workforce as a mechanical engineer,” he says. He started in 2002 as a field test engineer with AGCO, working first on large square balers, and then on the “functional parts” of combines, he says, “like feeding, separating, threshing.” He worked with AGCO until he left to farm full-time in 2011, and his last project was the Gleaner Super Series (“S”) combines.
“Our work on the S Series was primarily increasing the capacity of the combine over the R series,” he says. “Our goal was to increase capacity by 20%, and I think in most cases we exceeded that.” Jim and the S Series team increased the size of the rotor from 25 to 30 inches, added larger accelerator rolls and replaced the distribution auger to feed them, and put in a larger cleaning fan. The S Series also got a Tier IV engine. Those developments are still present in the combine’s most recent update, the S9, along with improved electronics and the Vision™ Cab.
It’s no surprise that Jim runs Gleaner combines on his farm. “People could look at it and say, ‘Of course he’s going to buy Gleaner, because he worked on them,’” Jim laughs. “I know everything about them inside and out, but that’s not the only reason I run them.”
Jim says he remembers his dad running Gleaner on the family farm before him. There are elements of the Gleaner design over the decades that are still present today. Jim calls it “elegant engineering,” a simplicity that “allows it to be smaller, lighter weight, and more efficient,” he says. “It doesn’t take a lot of power to get it through the field. The fuel use is really, really great on them. The auger design is very efficient.”
Meanwhile, “Gleaner has been well-known for many years to provide superior grain quality,” he says. That’s especially important for his seed wheat. “The conditioner that cleans that grain for us has always told us that his customers that run Gleaner combines have the least amount of clean-out,” he says.
And that’s more than “engineer speak”—it pays off for the family farmer. It brings him back to the need for efficiency. “The farmer has to wear a lot of different hats,” he says. “Well… the machinery management side of it becomes a lot easier if you have the best equipment to do the job on your farm. And for us, the Gleaner combine definitely does that.” Maintenance cost, he says, are very low; “We don’t have to spend as much on wear parts as the competition does. And a lot of that has to do with the Natural Flow system… The way it likes to be fed and should be fed.
“They can do a lot, with less,” he says.