It was a typical early summer day in Lamar, Colo. The temperature was in the upper 90s under a cloudless sky and what little wind there was gave you the impression that you were standing in a convection oven. In Prowers County there is very little that conveys the stereotypical vision of Colorado. The land is flat as far as the eye can see, and elevation changes are measured in inches. In Prowers County is the lowest point in Colorado’s elevation at 3,350 feet.
Driving through southeastern Colorado along US 287 under a moon lit night sky, the area seems almost barren. When the sun rises and illuminates the hundreds of thousands of acres of golden wheat, you realize what makes the Eastern Plains of Colorado and Prowers County so special. The plains of Colorado are part of the great wheat producing region of the central United States that stretches from central Texas to the Canadian border.
Colorado has a long and proud history of wheat production. The skill required to grow and harvest this “prairie gold” has been passed down from generation to generation, and more than two million acres of wheat are currently planted in Colorado each year. Members of the Hixson family have been growing wheat in Prowers County, just south of Lamar since the 1930s. Currently, that job is being done by the sibling team of Ron, Eric and Jillane Hixson. Ron and Jillane live in the area and Eric lives in Denver and returns home for harvesting.
There is a lot about farming and ranching that must have a ‘hands on’ learning experience. On a family farm, the teaching of important skills starts early. Eric Hixson’s 17-year-old son Jonathan is an important member of the harvesting team. “I’ve been down here helping since I was about 4-years-old. I’ve been learning how to drive this machinery since then,” said Johnathan, “I remember when I was about six sitting in my dad’s lap in a combine figuring out what all those levers do.”
Wheat farming in Prowers County is dryland farming. Dryland farming is used in the Great Plains, the Palouse plateau of Eastern Washington, and other arid regions of North America and winter wheat is the typical crop. The Hixson’s, like most farmers in the area, plant Hard Red Winter Wheat. Hard Winter Wheat is used for yeast breads and hard rolls since it is high in protein and strong in gluten.
Winter wheat is a hardy plant and it has to be, because, with dryland farming, the only moisture that a crop will get falls from the sky. The average rainfall on the Hixson wheat is 12- to 15-inches per year and “that’s not enough,” according to Eric Hixson, “This country is getting dryer and dryer all the time. You have to use better methods to conserve your moisture.” Irrigation is out of the question. “There’s not enough water out here,” said Eric Hixson, “The wells are real deep around here. They are 500-feet deep and it takes too much power to pull water that far.”
To compensate for the lack of moisture, multiple conservation methods are used to enhance the soil, increase production, conserve moisture and reduce erosion. In the dryland farming of Prowers County, it takes two years to grow a wheat crop because of the minimal rainfall. Half the acres are planted one year, while the other half remain fallow accumulating moisture. The next year, the fields are reversed.
To conserve what moisture they do get, the Hixson fields are contour terraced. The tilt of the land to the east is almost imperceptible, but it means the difference in how fast rainfall runs off. “My Dad, he spent a lot of money in all these terraces years ago,” said Eric Hixson, “They sure pay for themselves though, it helps hold the soil from running off down into the creek. If you don’t have these terraces here, you just have gully washers that go straight to the creek.”
When it is time to harvest, farmers have the choice of doing it themselves or hiring teams of contract harvesters to do the job for them. Combines are incredibly expensive, but doing it yourself lowers your cost per bushel and increases your profit. Contract harvesting is a big business. Some companies in the heart of the wheat belt will have as many as 20 combines and the tractors, grain carts, grain trucks and personnel required to run them. They will spread their resources out on different jobs. They start in the warmer climates of Texas and move north with the summer and finish up in Canada. There are pros and cons to each approach. The Hixson family has two combines and do their own harvesting.
Modern combines are massive machines which can cut and process a 30-foot swath in a field while moving at a speed of over 4-miles-per-hour. They come equipped with on-board electronics to measure threshing efficiency. This new instrumentation allows operators to get better grain yields by optimizing ground speed and other operating parameters. Previous combines paid little attention to the comfort of the operator. Newer models have air-conditioned and quieter cabs to minimize the stress of the long days and nights that are required to get the harvest done before the hail producing summer storms come.
A lot of scientific thought and engineering talent goes into designing a combine. Combines do three separate tasks simultaneously and do them well, but looking under-the-hood, they give the appearance of being designed by a bunch of committees that designed separate components and did not talk to each other. One thing is for certain, modern wheat farming could not exist in its present form without them.
Farming is an incredibly risky business. There is so much that can go terribly wrong and most of it is totally out of the farmer’s control. If your crops have survived all the pitfalls of planting and growing, then you have to safely harvest, store and get it to market at a decent price.
“That’s the thing about farming, you’ve got to have everything just right,” said Ron Hixson, “You’ve got to have your equipment and yourself ready to go. If you are working on equipment or not mentally ready when it’s time to plant or harvest, you’re in trouble.”
But, in the end, no matter how good your equipment and methods are, the amount of success or failure that you are going to experience is going to come down to how much rain you get. ❖
“I’ve been down here helping since I was about 4-years-old. I’ve been learning how to drive this machinery since then, I remember when I was about six sitting in my dad’s lap in a combine figuring out what all those levers do.”
~ Johnathan Hixson