High-Flying Farmer

November 24, 2010 05:48 AM

Ryan Christopherson has been on the fly for most of his adult life. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., he started piloting fighter jets and became a naval aviator. By 1990, with knowledge from his mechanical engineering curriculum, he was already deep into such technologies as GPS. After a 15-year Navy career, Christopherson returned in 2003 to his family farm near Clarkfield, Minn.

The fifth-generation farmer didn’t leave all his Navy experience behind. He applies his technical knowledge to every aspect of the family’s 6,000-acre operation.

“He’s an expert with electronics, and that’s the name of the game in farming today,” says Christopherson’s business partner and father, Richard.

“We learned every minute detail about aviation in flight school, and we never stopped learning,” says Christopherson, who plans to bring a whole new level of professionalism to his family’s operation.

Today he still studies hard, learning every aspect about agriculture because, as he says, it’s attention to details that pays off in the long run. “When we pay attention to the little things, we can streamline our operation all the way through, from planting to harvest to storage. Risk management means analyzing every unknown operating expense and minimizing it any way you can,” Christopherson says.

Running Fast. On a bright spring morning, Christopherson is in the cockpit of a construction crane as he, his father and their crew raise the roof of a new grain bin. They are constructing two 17,000-bu. wet holding bins for the new power dryer they installed last year, when they also built a 375,000-bu. corn bin. Their total grain capacity now stands at 750,000 bu. The Christo-phersons have taken bin construction into their own hands, to the point where Ryan has been certified to operate the crane, which they purchased for this and other projects.

“We really have to become our own grain elevator, or else pay someone else to store all of this and then be forced to wait on their other customers,” he says. “We have to run fast, especially with margins as tight as they are. That means things like expanding storage or purchasing a crane so we don’t have to wait on an outside contractor to put up our bins, or building our own fertilizer plant—which we did in 2008.”

Christopherson notes the savings in expanding their power drying capacity alone. The dryer can handle 3,500 bu. of corn per hour, and the Christophersons need 10 hours to 12 hours of wet-storage capacity in order to keep harvest rolling in the field. With their own power drying facility, drying cost has dropped to 1¢ per bushel as opposed to about 6¢ per bushel at the elevator in town, Ryan points out.

Richard, who joined his father, Hiram, on the farm in 1963, adds his historical perspective: “Not many years ago, we thought 85 bu. to 100 bu. of corn was great. Now we think that 150-bu. to 160-bu. yields are a disaster. Then it all snowballs. Every time you add 25 bu. to yields, you have to add trucks and then expand your grain handling capability.”

Fine-Tuning Fertilizer. Two years ago, the Christophersons built a state-of-the-art fertilizer plant with the capacity for 40,000 lb. of anhydrous. The dry fertilizer warehouse is divided into six bunkers with a total capacity of 1,800 tons. “With this size of a facility, we must have co-op certification,” Ryan says.

Parked next to the bunkers is the Christophersons’ fertilizer “train,” consisting of a 48' chisel plow followed by a 14-ton air cart containing the phosphate and potash, followed by dual anhydrous tanks holding 2,000 gal. of anhydrous. Pulled by a 600-hp Cat 875B tractor equipped with tracks, the train measures 110' from tractor nose to the back of the anhydrous tanks. The rig covers 50 acres an hour.

Christopherson says that by banding fertilizer 8" deep in 1' increments, they can save 30% on phosphorus and potassium. “Variable-rate nitrogen allows us to cut back on spots with 1.5% or less organic matter, so we put the nutrients in the right places at the right amounts,” he says.

And, he points out, a real boost in efficiency comes from the reduced slip of the Cat tracks. Properly weighted down, pulling the long fertilizer train, the Cat has 3% to 4% slip in traction—and at times as low as 1%, he explains, versus 14% to 15% slip with his former wheel tractors. “That’s generally a 10% savings in fuel and boost in productivity,” he says, noting that if it costs $200 to $250 per hour to run the 875B, at 10% savings “I’m saving at least $20 per hour right off the bat.”

Those numbers improve even more when Christopherson compares overall efficiencies between tracks and tires. At 1% slip, he says, the tracks boost efficiency to around 98%, as opposed to 60% to 65% with tires. “With a 33% efficiency improvement at $250 per hour, that is an $85-per-hour improvement,” he adds. “At 3,000 hours on the average tractor, it amounts to nearly $250,000, which approaches the cost of the tractor.”

Christopherson embraces as much electronic technology as possible and takes it to the limit, including auto-steer and yield monitors. “He has really stepped up our tiling since he’s been back,” Richard remarks. “Ryan uses the yield monitor to scope out our wet spots and determine where we need to tile in order to boost yields in those spots.” The tiling projects, Richard adds, are crucial to the bottom line: “It’s hard to adjust for fertilizer application rates if you haven’t done the proper tiling first.”

The younger Christopherson says, “We’re here to learn and try things we haven’t done before. There’s no hierarchy here. We go with whoever’s idea works out best.

“It’s the small increments in everything that add up. You just have to pay attention. We’ve taken the time for loading trucks out of the bin from 20 minutes down to six or seven minutes. That really adds up. You just have to be thinking, thinking, thinking about the details all of the time.”

Top Producer, December 2010

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