Sandy Soil Just Right for Nebraska Harvest

Published online: Oct 12, 2017 Articles Lori Potter
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Source: Farm & Ranch Network


As he sits in his office along busy Highway 10 north of Minden, Neb., next to climate-controlled warehouses, CSS Farms manager Ben Zechmann knows one thing for certain: Most of the people driving by have no idea the storage buildings hold locally grown potatoes.

“The vast majority of people do not know that potatoes are grown in the Kearney area,” he says.

They also don’t realize that most of those potatoes are trucked to a Frito-Lay chip plant in Topeka, Kan., from August to late April or mid-May.

“I can tell you if you’re in Kearney and eat Frito-Lay potato chips, you’re eating ours,” Zechmann says.

CSS Farms was born in Watertown, S.D., and the first expansion was in 1993 to the Platte Valley, where there are farms in the Minden and Columbus areas.

Zechmann, an Elm Creek, Neb., native with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from the University of Nebraska at Kearney, started at CSS Farms as a part-timer in 2002, was named lead agronomist in 2004 and has been the Minden farm manager for four years.

He oversees production of 80 million pounds of chip potatoes on 1,600 leased acres along the south side of the Platte River between Odessa and Gibbon. Zechmann says that’s 200 acres fewer than two years ago, so meeting the same yield goal requires greater efficiency to fill the bins.

The Minden farm has 17 full-time farm, shop and warehouse employees, plus 10 to 20 part-timers and 50 to 70 seasonal workers. Three of the seven potato harvesters are operated by South Africans. Zechmann says it’s difficult to find local people with the required skills who can work only at harvest time.

CSS Farms also contracts with Kearney trucking companies owned by Jack Bullington and Steve Roeder for field-to-warehouse and warehouse-to-processing plant hauling. Farmland is cash rented. Most of the same landowners are involved from year to year, Zechmann says, with eight this year and up to 14 some years.

Most farmers use a three-year potato-corn-corn rotation, but Zechmann would like to see soybeans added between the corn years.

“We have no GMOs because most of our crop is sold to Frito-Lay, and they won’t take any GMO,” Zechmann said, so using crop rotations and herbicides with older chemistries and multiple modes of action are important for weed management.

Innovations developed by CSS Farms with grower and university partners to help control the potato psyllid insect pest include releasing pirate bugs and a stinky fish oil spray.


Growing Season

“We want very sandy soil,” Zechmann says, and that soil is found in fields within three miles of the river that once were part of the riverbed. “It’s almost entirely for ease of harvest. The harvester essentially sifts the sandy soil away from the potatoes.”

He says the soil’s organic matter must be lowers than 1.3 percent, but averages 0.7 percent in the potato fields.

CSS Farms does all the growing season through harvest work, which starts with chopping cornstalks and preparing the ground to plant seed potatoes from other CSS farms. Also, ryegrass is planted as a cover crop within 24 hours of harvesters leaving a field.

Soil temperature is critical throughout the growing season. Zechmann says planting usually starts between April 10 and 15, but the soil temperature must be at least 50 degrees or “on its way up strongly.”

Fields aren’t touched after early May, so later applications of fungicides or insecticides are done by airplane. Dry fertilizer might be applied right after planting, but most nutrients are spoon-fed through pivot irrigation systems.

“We plan to be here a long time, and I don’t want my kids drinking something I put in the water years ago,” Zechmann says about using smaller amounts of water and fertilizer over time so they don’t go past the root zone and into the aquifer.

Soil and plant tissue tests are weekly throughout the growing season to check on water and nutrient needs. “We want our plants to be healthy, but we don’t want to waste money or contaminate the groundwater,” he says.

Overall water use is equal to or less than what is necessary for corn, Zechmann says, but pivots on the potatoes are run more often at a rate of no more than 0.6 inches at a time. Pivot end guns are shut off to save water in fields with an average of approximately 120 planted acres.

Soil and nutrient testing also is done after harvest in some fields so landowners know the conditions as they prepare for a new crop. “I think we have some of the best farmers in the world,” says Zechmann. “You have to be with the sand.”


Harvest Season

Another benefit of sandy soils is that they dry more quickly. “We had only a day off after three days of rain,” Zechmann said last week. “That’s a big advantage because if it freezes, it (the potato crop) is junk.”

The race against having potatoes still in the ground at freeze time usually starts Sept. 15—Sept. 16 this year—because the average date is Oct. 10 for the first hard freeze of 28 degrees for at least three hours, Zechmann says.

Harvest can start when tuber pulp temperature is 50 to 65 degrees. If it approaches 65, the temperature is checked at least every hour.

“We could be done by the Oct. 10, but it probably will be more like 85 percent,” Zechmann says, explaining that his two crews of three or four harvesters each can cover 100 acres a day.

“We have to move almost a whole city from field to field,” he says, a process that can take four hours and includes harvesters, trucks that run alongside them, conveyors that move potatoes from those trucks and into warehouse transport trucks, and tractors that pack furrows left by the harvesters.

Great care is taken to avoid potato damage. Workers adjust conveyor heights and speeds to make sure potatoes aren’t dropped into trucks or on warehouse piles, and to ensure there are no spaces as potatoes move along.

“We really want this to flow like a river. You want potato on potato everywhere,” Zechmann says. “We rip them out of the ground and then move them around real gentle-like.”