A Hays, Kansas farmer has declared a moratorium on growing wheat on his more than 4,500 acres of dryland crops. Why? Because it does not make economic sense, he told a crowd of producers who gathered on Feb. 13 at the South Hutchinson Community Center for an event sponsored by Cheney Lake Watershed.


Bryce Custer is a first generation farmer who has worked to buy his own land and lease the rest. Although he lives in Hays, his farms expand over two counties, Graham and Trego. Custer started his operation with 265 acres in 1993. Although he began dabbling in no-till farming in 1994, he did not go full force no-till until 2005. In 2008, he introduced cover crops.


"I was tired of bouncing across ditches with my tractor," Custer said.


Custer wanted to end the wind and water erosion on his land. He also wanted to make his farm sustainable and create soil that could store rainwater and not repel it.


The Economics of Wheat


In 2015, it cost him $205 per acre to grow wheat. This price included seeds, drilling, chemicals, harvest, fertilizer, land payment or rent, and crop and hail insurance. He sold that wheat for $171.


"I was losing $30 an acre with wheat," he said.


When he changed to a milo-milo-cover rotation in 2016, his profits soared. The milo yielded profits, and the cover crops helped increase his soil nutrition and make the earth more permeable. He also lessened the use of chemicals.


"I had a $160 (per acre) advantage not to plant wheat on my farm," Custer said. "Can I afford to grow wheat?"


Lowering Expenses


Custer told farmers they need to be wise with their expenses. Before starting no-till and cover crops farmers need to lower their debt.


"Get off your ego," he said. "Sell off machinery that has a poor ROI (return on investment)."


Along with lowering expenses by not fertilizing as much, and not using chemicals, Custer said producers need to stop emphasizing their yield. He explained that if your cost is low, then your break-even point is also low. He does not want producers to worry about their neighbors bringing in large yields when their yields might not even cover their costs.


"Kansas was ranked second in the nation for bankrupt filings for 2019," Custer said. "You might have to rent out your owned ground to get a cash flow. I don’t need $70 bushel wheat. Its risk management. Where do you want to have that risk at?"


But, Custer told the crowd, when you switch over to low input farming, you have to change your paradigm. A farmer’s income will decrease, but their profit margin should increase.


Stop Keeping up with the Jones’


Custer said he still has issues with convincing neighbors and landlords that he is managing his land, as the cover crops meander across acres of ground.


"I don’t care what my neighbors think of me anymore," Custer said. "Everybody calls us crazy for what we’re doing. It doesn’t matter."


Farmers in other parts of Kansas get the same quizzical look. Max Tjaden of Clearwater, Kansas said he has used no-till and cover crops on his land for decades.


"Everybody calls me the no-till nut," Tjaden said. "Sometimes I get phone calls with people asking me questions (about my farm)."


Rainfall


Custer said although where he lives he only gets around 20 inches of rainfall annually, he is able to use that rainfall in his crops.


"It doesn’t matter how much rainfall you get," he said. "It’s just how you manage the rain you’re going to get."


His farms still grow small amounts of wheat, but that is only when it fits in his system. For the most part, Custer stays away from the grain and leans heavily on soybeans, corn and milo. Recently, he introduced millet and uses cover crops of oats, barley, rye and triticale to nourish the soil.


Many of Custer’s cover crops survive on little rain. One of his favorites is German millet. Along with using little water, he said the crop’s residue is like "oats on steroids."


Education


A sixth-generation farmer, Connor Peirce of Partridge, Kansas, who recently graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in agronomy, said he learned all types of farming procedures at school. But seminars like this are very helpful to him as he helps run his father’s farm.


"I graduated," he said. "But I’ll never stop learning."


By educating producers, the Cheney Lake Watershed hopes to help farmers succeed.


"We’ve been planting the seed for seven years," said Howard Miller, outreach coordinator for the Cheney Lake Watershed. "Now, it’s finally taking root."