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Balancing the variables of farming and ranching

After several late night sessions of helping my husband plan for the next year on the farm, I'm reminded why I chose to make my living with words rather than with numbers.

It's not that I'm bad with numbers — quite the opposite, actually. I've always been quite adept at algebra and math in general. But focusing on the minutia of possible financial projections is not exactly what I would call a good time.

It's not the math that made it a tedious chore, though. Instead, it's the many, many unknowns, both in agriculture and in the world at large.

For instance, what crops should we grow? We live in Stutsman County, N.D., one of the top soybean producing counties in the country. Soybeans have been a pretty safe choice in the crop rotation until this year.

But with trade wars raging — with no obvious end in sight — soybeans are far less attractive at the moment. If prices stay in the area where they are right now, going that route would likely mean big losses.

So, we toss around a variety of other crops, trying to find a combination that would, even in the most conservative yield estimates, lead to a profit. Would we be better off planting forage for hay and selling what we don't need? What if it's a late spring? How many acres should we put in for feed? Are we better off with more cash crops or more feed crops that we can market through our feedlot?

Then there are cattle. We are, at the present time, moving away from a cow-calf operation to focus more on custom feeding and custom grazing, which work better for our labor situation. Still, there are questions. How many calves can we get in, and when? What's our most cost-effective feed source option? How many months can we graze cattle on the acreage we have? What if there's another drought year? Will there be stubble or cover crops to graze in the fall? And, is there any way to foretell when the heavy snow will fall?

And then there's the perennial worry of, how do we control our expenses? We can't stop a tractor from breaking down, a well from failing or a winter full of blizzards that require constant snow removal. Duct tape can take us only so far.

We have a plan to go forward that appears like it'll work out. But our nights of staring at numbers and picking at the "what ifs" made it all seem like an exercise in futility.

We can't control the weather. We can't control the markets. We can't force the government to do anything, and, as of late, we can't even count on the government to do anything that makes sense.

There really is no way to know how our plans will work out. A year from now, we'll have a pretty good idea how it went. For now, we research and we hope and we work. But so many variables are out of our hands that it can seem hopeless.

All businesses have questions that can't be answered. But right now, it seems like agriculture has almost no questions that can be answered. It would be nice to get some certainty on something.

Our nighttime math exercises always make me wish, just for a moment, that I had taken some accounting classes at some point in my academic career. By daytime, though, I'm happy to be back at work in my words, and I'm thankful for an off-the-farm career that can help get my family through these uncertain times.

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