Crop Tour Day 9
Monday, September 4
LEAAD Farms (with Cale Carlson & Family)
(Lexi Johnston, Julianna Tindall, Aneal Ramsewak and Noah Parnell)
Today, for our ninth day of the 2023 Midwest Tour we visited LEAAD Farms (Carlson Farms) in Marquette, Nebraska. We were greeted by Cale Carlson, a 4th generation farmer who grew up on the farm we were visiting and is raising his kids there too. He was incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic and was very well-spoken when answering the many questions our class presented him with. He talked briefly about his online presence on social media sites YouTube and Twitter and mentioned he would like to expand onto Facebook and TikTok in the future. He mainly does vlogs on these channels, showing the public what crop farming is really like, with all its ups and downs.
Cale initially didn’t know that he wanted to return to the farm, but after graduating from the University of Nebraska he returned. He has been farming the 2000 acres of land for over 20 years. However, the farm hasn’t always looked how it did today.
Cale told us that they were one of the last diversified farms in the county at one point, raising beef cattle and pigs along with growing various cash crops. They invested in multiple pig barns, and their pigs were very valuable, as they were F1 crosses. This means that they are a mix between 3 different breeds. However, labour was hard to find, and switching to a full-crop farm made the most sense for their business. His dad decided to keep half of the beef cattle, but the pig barns were fully empty.
Currently, they are farming a mix of seed corn, grain corn, and soybeans. With this plan, Cale can complete all farm work with just himself, his kids, his dad, one employee and a few truckers hired each harvest season. He has machinery that he uses to plant, spray, and harvest, along with multiple irrigation systems in his fields. His land is over some of the more plentiful areas of the Ogallala Aquifer. This means that there is plenty of water available, and his wells are around 100-200 feet deep as a result. He also explained his weed management program and mentioned he relies mostly on residuals and lesser tillage options (ie. modified ridge till) to suppress weeds within his crops. For fertilizer, he mainly uses nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. He also applies 6000 lbs of manure per acre and employs radishes and turnips to act as a reservoir for excess nutrients where they can stay close to the top of the soil. He said that one of his better ideas was to have management strategies in a way such that there is less fieldwork needed overall. Not only has this resulted in good control of his weeds and other pests, but with newer varieties of corn he has noticed a dramatic decrease in water usage, and nitrogen requirements overall.
A trait that stood out to the class about this farm was how incredibly family-oriented it is. We learnt that LEAAD is an acronym for Cale's children, Laura, Ethan, Amanda, Adam, and David. During our tour, we had a chance to meet Cale’s wife Megan, (who served us delicious fresh-baked cookies), his mother, and one of his sons as well. Everyone seemed very involved in different ways on the farm, and Cale mentioned that they never pressured the kids to come back and farm. Regardless they want the land to stay as farmland and not be sold for other uses. Communication is key in their family and a succession plan, although uncomfortable, is something they feel needs to be decided on early for the best chance of success. His mother has a great quote, “Do your giving while you’re living so you’re knowing where it’s going”. Cale illuminated that it only takes one generation to lose a farm, as there is no plan once the parents die, and nobody wants to take it over and the farm is lost. Planning early allows for a smoother transition, and Cale said he feels fortunate to have this long to acquire different parts of the farm.
Growing Seed Crops
Cale raises about 2000 acres of irrigated cropland of which half he owns, and half is rented. His crop rotation is seed corn, followed by grain corn and then soybeans. Each crop is grown on roughly one-third of his total land area. Growing seed corn is very niche, growers must be selected from a seed company to be allowed to grow seed for them. It is also quite profitable, so Cale didn't hesitate to say yes when he was approached by a seed company to grow seed corn.
When it comes to growing seed corn it has many similarities and differences from grain corn. Seed corn is grown in a 4:1 pattern, which means there are four female plants for every single male plant. The females carry desirable traits such as ear size, standability, drought tolerance, hardiness etc. The males carry GMO traits such as herbicide resistance and insect resistance. Males pollinate the females leading to a hybrid with the traits of both the female and male plants. Cale is responsible for planting, spraying, irrigation, and chopping of the male plants. Male plants are chopped about two weeks post pollen shed. During this process, Cale spreads his cover crop which consists of turnips and radishes. These cover crops are grazed by his cattle in the fall and then terminated in spring with a herbicide. The female plants are sterile and therefore de-tasseling is not necessary however, the seed company does come in and de-tassel the females to ensure all pollination is completed by the males. The seed company is also responsible for the harvest, and Cale is very appreciative of this. Plants are desiccated prior to harvest as this locks in the proper kernel/seed size, it also allocates all nutrients to the seed. This year Cale is growing only one variety of seed corn, however, he does not get informed on the specific traits of the variety he is growing. He is told what chemicals he can and cannot spray on the variety, but other than that he has free reign over the spray program, irrigation, and fertilizer program. The price for seed corn is based on the average yield of commercial corn in a given area. Roughly 30 growers in Cale’s region harvest a pass or two of their commercial corn and if the average yield amongst these 30 growers is say, 250bu/acre, then the seed company will set the yield goal for seed corn at 100bu/acre. Growers can receive a premium if their seed corn yield is greater than 100bu and a deduction if the yield is less than 100bu.
The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the largest aquifers in the United States and runs from Nebraska south through Kansas and Oklahoma into north Texas. This aquifer is a robust freshwater system that gives growers throughout Nebraska the ability to continuously irrigate leading to high yields when conditions are not ideal. This aquifer plays a large role in the high land prices. The price varies from $10,000 to $16,000 at the highest, with the rent price being roughly $500/acre. Cale does not have any dryland, all of his 2000 acres are fully irrigated. The Ogallala aquifer has had fluctuations in the water level since 1956. Cale explained that with today's advanced irrigation equipment and new hybrids water use is much more efficient. Today he can use half the amount of water it would have taken in the 50s to grow 250 bushels of corn. The water level of the Ogallala aquifer today is at the same level as it was in 1956. His wells are between 100-200 ft deep, he can pump at 30-60 psi which allows him to get 600-800 gal/min. He has no restriction on how much water he can pump, he also does not have to pay for the water but, he does have to report the volume of water he uses in a growing season. Cale regularly does soil tests to help determine how much irrigation is required, this works out to be 10-12 inches per year. It takes about four days to irrigate 160 acres at 1-1.25inches/acre.
These pivots themselves are made up of seven tower sections and an eighth section being a corner pivot that allows the corners of the field to get irrigated. They pivot around a central point making a big circle within the field. The eighth tower swings into the corners of the field allowing them to get water, without this tower there would be larger portions of the field that would not be irrigated. When Cale paid for his pivots the first seven towers cost roughly $100,000 and the eighth corner tower was an additional $60,000. Today this same setup would go for about $240,000.
Cale has made himself very involved and present on social media, specifically X, formerly known as Twitter and YouTube. He is also present on Instagram, Facebook & TikTok. His social media presence is purely for his own fun and is something we could see he was very passionate about. He mentioned that he would love to see it become a side business for their family and to start getting some compensation but at this moment, that is not their main priority. When asked what type of content he produces, Cale explained a lot of it is raw unedited vlogs that showcase an irrigated farm in Central Nebraska. A majority of Cale’s social media existence is on X, which he described as a great place to keep up with the latest in the agriculture industry as well and it has allowed him to grow friendships and learn what is going on outside of his county. X has been a great way for him to innovate and meet people across not only the USA but also in Canada. The biggest challenge for Cale is finding enough time to edit & upload videos on his YouTube challenge, as the farming business is their family’s number one priority. Forward-thinking has Cale discussing the idea of starting his own podcast. His Daughter Laura Wilson has followed Cale's footsteps on social media promoting agriculture and sharing their operation with the world. She operates under Laura Farms with a presence on Instagram and YouTube. She has recently gotten married, and she is now farming with her husband. The family prides themselves on their communication within their family but also on the way they share information through social media. It was clear how passionate Cale was about agriculture and is truly a great advocate for the industry.
Following our stop at LEAAD Farms, we visited a very historical Aggie spot for lunch, Glur’s Tavern in Columbus, Nebraska. This bar, in the past, has hosted many Aggie classes and was a destination on each Midwest Tour until 2002, when they stopped. We were able to visit for lunch, look at all the decorated ceiling tiles from past classes, and even make our own! The owner told us that in the 90s the students who visited each year would bring him a different Canadian bill signed by the whole class, all the way to $100. After this, they got him a Canadian coin set, and he even got an OAC hat along the way he showed to us. We were proud to be back, and hopefully, Glur’s will become a tradition once again.
Overall, we learned a lot about many different things at LEAAD Farms and hope it will stay as a permanent stop for years of Aggie classes to come. Cale is a captivating speaker with an obvious passion for agriculture and sharing what he experiences with the world. We are heading to the Corteva Seedcorn Plant in York, Nebraska, and we are excited to see how their information builds on what we have been taught today.