Brown family may use rain-damaged wheat as fall cover crop

CM-MR-2-Brown family 1by Karl H. Kazaks
SNOW CREEK, VA — At this time of year farmers are thinking about what to use as a fall cover crop. Here in southern Franklin County, Doug and Charlie Brown are thinking they may already have theirs.
About 230 acres of their wheat crop is still standing, rain damaged, blighted with vomitoxin, and sprouting. Early July rains made it so the Browns were unable to complete their harvest (which was delayed to begin with thanks to the cool, wet spring).
“We’ve never had this issue before,” Doug said. The quality of the wheat has deteriorated so much that it’s no longer suitable even for chicken or hog feed.
“I’ve been fooling with grain all my life,” said their father, Ruben Brown. “I’ve hauled wheat to the mill for over 50 years and this is the first year we haven’t been able to harvest and market it all.”
The Browns — who operate a 150-cow 2x Holstein dairy (Twin Oaks) and raise corn, wheat, beans, and hay — started their wheat harvest the third week of June, about a week later than usual.
“We went in on it pretty hard,” Doug said. “It’s unusual, the extreme weather of the last few years.”
In particular, last year’s derecho — the straight line wind event of late June — was highly destructive.
“It was devastating to the corn crop,” Doug said, particularly in areas with overlapping planting. Because there was too much competition from too many plants growing in those spots, the corn plants were spindly and more susceptible to the damaging wind.
In part because of that experience, the Browns bought a new 12-row planter with automatic row shutoffs. Now they don’t have to worry about the consequences of cross planting or situational overplanting.
With their new, larger planter, the Browns were able to get all of their corn planted in good time. They grow 700 acres of corn, keeping about 200 for the dairy and selling the remainder, dried in the field, as a cash crop.
“We’ve had to fertilize extra,” top dressing the corn, Doug said, but aside from that their corn production is on pace.
Likewise, their hay production is going well. They’ve already made two cuttings of grass hay and three cuttings of alfalfa, some 2,000 total 3 ft. x 8 ft. bales.
“We’ve had really good luck with hay,” Doug said, “working with very small windows.”
The Browns were able to stay on top of the work by being “pretty aggressive,” Doug said. “It was extra work trying to get all the work in around the rain.”
Despite the frequent rains, it appears the Browns will cut a full five cuttings of alfalfa. “Productive cuttings, too,” Doug said. They grow about 75 acres of alfalfa, using three-quarters of it for the dairy and selling the remainder to horse owners.
The Browns opened their dairy on Aug. 1, 1981. Ruben had bought the farm in 1965, raising crops and commercial Angus cattle (they still keep beef cattle). When his two boys decided they wanted to farm, he decided to start the dairy to generate more income.
“I was raised up on a dairy farm in Glade Hill,” Ruben said. “In 1950 we were milking 32 cows by hand,” making $4 per cwt. In 1954 they switched to electric milkers and started selling grade A milk for $7.50 per cwt.
Like other dairymen, Ruben marvels at how the price of milk has lagged behind the price of so many other things, particularly farm inputs.
His consolation?
“Farming you don’t have to worry about unemployment,” he said. “Or getting a 40-hour week.”
This year, the Browns may also not have to worry about planting a cover crop on the 230 acres of standing wheat. Since it’s sprouting, once they go in and bush hog it (which they’ll likely do once the insurance adjuster inspects it), it may provide enough seed for a cover crop before planting corn next year.
“We’ll see how it turns out,” Doug said. “I’d rather have harvested it.”

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