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Learning from themselves: Farmers use data to improve in face of climate change

From the State of Change series

RAPELJE — The difference between pretty and ugly in a wheat field can be subtle. Weed growth, some variation in color, extra space between the rows of seeds. Spotting the differences from the road takes someone like Gary Broyles. He's learned what to look for over more than four decades of raising grain here. 

This July, most of the wheat on the farm he runs with his son Paul was pretty. Tall and green and thick, boosted by regular rainfall — the dry land farmer's dream. In the pretty spots, single kernels produced a dozen or more stalks, each with a head with forty or more kernels. 

There was a bit of ugly, too. Driving down a dirt road next to one field, Gary stopped the truck and pointed to a patch about 100 yards off the road where the space between the rows became obvious and the tops turned a little off-color.

After wading through the thicker grain to take a closer look, he saw how stark the difference was. There, just a few stalks sprouted from each kernel. The heads weren't as full.

"Obviously you can tell that something is stressed about it compared to the rest," Gary said. 

Rapelje Farm

Gary Broyles holds up two examples of wheat grown on his family farm. The one on the left received nitrogen treatments this spring while the plant on the right received none.

Gary and Paul knew exactly why it was more stressed. The field is part of an experiment they're running with Montana State University to dial in exactly how much nitrogen fertilizer the crop needs each spring. The ugly spot was a control — it got no extra nitrogen this spring while the grain around it got as much as 175 pounds per acre.  

It has been known for decades that fertilizer helps things grow. Finding out just how much is needed isn't as easy to figure out. Bruce Maxwell, the MSU scientist behind the project, said dialing that in could reduce pollution from agricultural runoff and help farmers save money by using less fertilizer. 

The project is also building databases for the fields involved. High-tech farming equipment is already tracking crop performance. Maxwell's project makes use of that data, analyzing the yield and protein content in wheat fields where different spots got different amounts of fertilizer. 

Playing with fertilizer is just one way to use that data, and Maxwell sees this sort of research as something that's going to help farmers gamble with the weather in the face of climate change. 

The ways climate change will challenge farmers are numerous and varied. The growing season is expected to get longer, but there will be more hot days, which could make it tougher for crops to absorb water. How and when that water arrives is also likely to change, too — less rain in the summer, more in the fall, winter and spring. Drought, when it happens is expected to be more intense. 

In the middle of all that, farmers will still be trying to make a living. They'll make decisions about what and when to plant and how much fertilizer or other chemicals to use. The impacts are going to vary from farm to farm, and this sort of field-specific research can help farmers make better guesses about what to do next. 

"We can take that data and that response we expect from the field and then we let you simulate different outcomes," Maxwell said. "We can say, what if it turns hot and dry, and what if you get three and four years in a row of hot and dry? What should you do then?"

Rapelje Farm

Gary Broyles points to large kernel at the top of a wheat stalk on July 16, 2019, at his Rapelje farm.

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There are still many farmers and ranchers who don't acknowledge climate change, but they all fret about the weather. Snow, rain, sunshine, and don't even mention hail — it's all on their mind every day. Because of that constant interaction, thinking about the big picture is tough, said Mike Gaffke, who raises hay, grain and cattle west of Bozeman.

"Our relationship with the weather is so intimate that it's really hard to talk about climate," Gaffke said.

There's also some confidence among farmers that they can handle whatever comes, whether it's drought, flood or fire. Agriculture has always been a game of adaptation, and producers are used to the uncertainty. 

The 2017 Montana Climate Assessment described a future full of uncertainty for agriculture. It said there will be a need for more climate projections, historical data and analysis of crop responses to varying conditions, but that such work is a little late. Climate change is already here, and it's still coming. The report also said building social and economic resilience has always been key for farmers in the past and will remain important into the future, as will climate projections and more extensive analysis of how crops respond to varying conditions. 

Some of the shifts already show. More winter wheat, which is planted in the fall, is grown here now. That's a sign of the a movement away from spring wheat, which struggles with high summer temperatures. There's been a boom in pulse crops, resulting in more farmers adding things like peas and lentils to their crop rotation. A drought in India increased demand and helped build the market for those products, according to the assessment. 

The Broyles family has adapted over the years. They grow mostly winter wheat, plus some barley. Over the past five years, they've added peas to their crop rotation. It's the result of the market being available, they said, but they also like what it does for their soil. 

They've also responded to an increase in spring precipitation. Paul said it changes the timing of when they add the nitrogen to their winter wheat. He said they used to plan for about April 1. Now he prefers to have it done in late February or early March, provided their fields aren't still buried in snow. 

"We need to take advantage of the cooler and wetter time of year," Paul said.

Rapelje Farm

Gary and Paul Broyles discuss a Montana State University study on July 16 on the family farm in Rapelje.

Gary and Paul don't deny that the world has gotten warmer, but they don't buy the idea that humans have accelerated climate change. They say that there have been hot and cold cycles forever, and they think it's "somewhat arrogant" of mankind to think humans alone could cause such a rise in temperatures.

That said, they don't think that gives them the right to pollute or make things worse. They still believe they have a duty to protect their land from any undue harm. 

"I think that excuses us from nothing as far as being good stewards," Gary said. "We don't want to unnecessarily pollute anything — air with dirt, water with excess fertilizer. Our goal is always to leave this place better next year than it was this year."

Gary is 69. Paul is 45. Gary first leased this farm in 1978. They've had several different landlords since then, but the Broyles family always was able to stay. The most recent sale made that more permanent — the family bought the land in 2012.

Since coming here, they've made several changes to be more efficient over the years. It began with the switch to no-till farming — growing crops without busting up the soil each year — in the 1980s. As time has passed, they've acquired better equipment that helps them avoid wasting seed or chemical when they're working. Paul said the sprayer they have now turns off when he drives it over land he's already sprayed, meaning he doesn't spray stuff twice. That has the farm using 15% to 17% less chemicals each year. Every little bit helps. 

"When you're making payments on this land that seem pretty steep, it behooves us to try to figure out how to produce the most for the money," Gary said.

Those high-tech systems are part of a broader industry trend toward "precision agriculture." It spreads to every piece of equipment farmers use. For example, most combines now have a yield monitor that tells farmers in real-time how many bushels per acre they're getting as they cut wheat.

Once he started seeing that data coming into the combine, Gary knew they should start keeping it. He figured that within a few years, scientists would find a way to use it to tell them something valuable. 

Rapelje Farm

Paul Broyles climbs down from a sprayer on his family farm, July 16, 2019, near Rapelje.

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Agricultural research has historically taken place at experiment stations. Places with small plots that may or may not produce results that work elsewhere. Maxwell said that in part led farmers to adopt a simple response to any failures — if something isn't working, just put more chemicals on the field.

"Put on more fertilizer, put on more herbicide, put on more insecticide," Maxwell said. "That way you could squash the uncertainty out of the system."

The work he's doing now takes a different approach, and it's looking for a better answer than pouring more chemicals on a field. It brings the research to the farmers themselves with the idea it might be more useful than something that comes out of an experiment station. Using the high-tech equipment, they can do what Maxwell calls "on-field experimentation." 

"Our primary focus at this point is trying to develop a way for farmers to learn from themselves on their farms," Maxwell said.

The first project they did like this focused on weed management. They mapped the weeds that showed up in a field and, the next year, had the farmer spray herbicide only in those spots instead of the whole field.

It worked. The model was developed by Chuck Merja, a farmer near Sun River. He's been using the idea ever since, and he said it's saved him thousands.

That's a big deal in an industry where the bills add up fast. Maxwell's fertilizer study targets one of the bigger expenses for farmers. Gary Broyles said their fertilizer bill for the 3,000 acres they farm surpasses $350,000 each year. That makes for thin profit margins, especially when international trade relations aren't exactly copacetic.

In all, there are five different farms involved in the study, including the Broyles place.

Merja is also involved. He farms about 4,500 acres south of Sun River with his brothers. They've been using some sort of precision agriculture equipment since the mid-1990s, and they've even dabbled some with artificial intelligence.

They grow mostly winter wheat. Merja thought the answer to poor performing crops in certain spots would be adding more fertilizer. But once he started with this study, he found he was wrong. Sometimes it's just not worth it. 

"In general, we find there's not much response to fertilizer in especially the lower-yielding areas," he said. "You can pour fertilizer on but it just doesn't do any good." 

Information like that has a lot of value for him. It saves him money, and he expects it will help as climate change continues. He's no climate denier, and he thinks too many farmers are. He called farmers "the canaries in the coal mine as far as climate change goes," saying they're "on the front lines of too much rain, too little rain, too late of frost, too early of frost, too many hot days, etc."

"It makes us a little bit more resilient I think in being able to adapt to the changes that are occurring," Merja said. 

Rapelje Farm

Paul Broyles points to a section of a field on his family farm that received less fertilizer on July 16, 2019, in Rapelje.

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In all their time here, Gary and Paul Broyles have seen a lot. They've seen good years and bad years. They've survived them all. 

In all that time, though, they've never seen crop yields like they have the past few years. The long-term average for bushels per acre across their farm is in the mid-40s, Gary said. In 2019, their average was 77 bushels per acre.

The research has shown them they can get more out of their fields by adding more nitrogen. They've increased the minimum amount they put on the entire farm. 

"We were underestimating the productivity of our land," Paul said.

Rapelje Farm

Gary and Paul Broyles itch at bug bites in the middle of a green field full of ripening wheat on their family farm, July 16, 2019, near Rapelje.

Post-harvest soil testing is also showing that their fields are actually using all of the fertilizer, meaning there's not excess that can runoff or seep into groundwater. The crops are using it all.

Some other things have gone right for them, too. This big yield follows another big yield in 2018, both exceptionally wet years. This year, the farm near their homes missed out on a hailstorm that knocked down wheat elsewhere, including in a field they lease near Molt. 

No matter their views on climate change, they know they can't count on these conditions being the case forever. They know there are dry years in their future. Taking advantage of the good makes the bad easier. 

"In dry years, good stewardship and good fertility pay dividends," Gary said.

Now they're trying to get next year's crop planted, despite a fairly wet fall. They're also trying to time the sale of their grain right. They'll make plans for adding nitrogen next spring based on what data they have, and they're hoping the next gamble will work out. 

They put a lot of faith in hard work spread over time. It's how they explain a lack of weeds in their wheat fields, and the looks of their place altogether. 

"There's a lot of elbow grease in pretty," Gary said. 

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1. 

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