Few farmers across the Southwest, indeed across the nation, would disagree that falling farm profits are a real challenge and have been for some time since crop prices sharply declined.
Two Texas A&M cropping specialists put their heads together recently to help producers minimize the impact of low crop prices by finding more efficient ways to manage farm operations in the short term.
Ronnie Schnell, assistant professor and Extension specialist, and Gaylon Morgan, professor and state Extension cotton specialist, both at Texas A&M University at College Station, developed a paper recently addressing the issue, offering tips that may help farmers weather the storm of falling farm profits.
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"Low commodity prices often result in a shift in acreage from one crop to another. However, when crop prices are low across the board, growers must look for alternative ways to remain profitable," the two said in their recent report. "Crop inputs are naturally the first place many will look. Will reducing input costs increase net returns? The wrong cuts could result in yield reductions and/or detrimental impacts over the next several years, such as with poor weed management. Increasing efficiency may be a more viable option."
Four areas that could save producers dollars this year, and during other times when profit margins shrink or disappear, include a closer look at seed choices, pest control, efficient equipment and fertilizers.
Weigh pesticide and weed control as a single unit
Starting with pest management, Schnell and Morgan say pest control inputs for cotton, corn and grain sorghum may include weed, insect and disease management, and say weed control represents one area that should not be sacrificed. Most herbicide programs are designed to address specific weed issues, including herbicide resistant weeds. Starting the season weed free, using residual herbicides, and post-emergence herbicides with different modes/sites of action will be essential for managing resistant weeds now and moving forward.
They warn farmers that allowing resistant weeds to produce seed could drastically increase the cost of weed control and reduce yields of future crops. And they should also remember that early season weed competition can reduce yield significantly.
"For example, cotton needs to remain weed free for six weeks after planting to minimize yield loss from weed competition. The bottom line [is] weed management programs should not be adjusted to compensate for lower crop prices," the report indicates.
The specialists also note that insect and disease control will remain important to maintain yield. Economic thresholds have been established for major crops and pests in Texas and they advise farmers to take advantage of available tools, apps and calculators. For example, sorghum headworm, stinkbug and midge calculators are available through the Texas A&M University Department of Entomology. (http://entomology.tamu.edu/extension/apps/)
"These calculators take into consideration grain value and the cost of application to determine when insecticide applications are economical. Economic injury levels should also be applied for management of crop diseases. (Also consider) preemptive fungicide applications that may contribute to improved plant health but may not contribute to higher yields or a positive return on investment," they report.
Additional sources of information for pest control:
Consider best seeds for the money
Seed costs differ proportionally by crop depending on production cost and technologies within the seed. The first decision for planting is variety or hybrid choice. Consistent yield performance should always be the first criteria. Selecting the wrong variety or hybrid can result in yield losses greater than 10 percent. Information on statewide yield performance for cotton, corn and grain sorghum. Following yield, other characteristics, such as herbicide tolerance and insect protectants, should be considered.
After the seed is selected, farmers need to determine seeding rates.
"Some crops can compensate for changes in population by adjusting yield components. Grain sorghum can compensate by adjusting head size and tiller number per plant to maintain grain yield per acre. Cotton can compensate by adjusting the boll size and number of fruit per plant. Therefore, minor reductions of seeding rates could be implemented with minimal impact on yield," Schnell and Morgan say.
Uniform stands (no long skips) may be just as important as final plant populations. Additionally, with lower seeding rates, seed quality becomes more important, and more attention should be paid to germination rates and varieties or hybrids with better seedling vigor.
"Corn can compensate for changes in plant population to some degree. This is often referred to as “flex” versus “fixed” hybrids. All corn hybrids will respond to changes in plant population by adjusting the number of kernel rows and/or the kernels per row. The larger issue when deciding if corn-seeding rates can be reduced is the yield potential of your environment. In high yielding environments (irrigated corn), reduction of seeding rates may not be justified."
Yield reduction from small changes in seeding rate would likely exceed savings on seed costs. In low yield environments, small reductions to seeding rates may be economically justified.
Importance of equipment
Planter maintenance and setting is also critical for efficiency with seed. Proper maintenance and adjustment are necessary for achieving the target population with uniform spacing. Maintenance goes beyond routine cleaning and lubrication. Cropping specialists warn producers to ensure that all row cleaners, coulters, opening disks, seed meters, closing wheels, and such are properly adjusted and replaced if worn. Then it becomes important to calibrate seed drop using the seed that you will be planting. Check again if changing to seed of a different size, and look for doubles or triples and within row spacing and make adjustments if necessary to achieve uniformity.
Finally, don't forget to dig and ensure proper seed depth and repeat when moving to new fields. Uniformity and precision will save seed cost and optimize yield.
Farmers have many options for becoming more efficient with fertilizer. This includes subsurface banding and variable rate applications. Yet, the basics are the best places to start. Fertilizer applications should always be based on soil test results. Soil nutrient levels could be higher than you expect, which may enable farmers to reduce or eliminate unneeded applications.
In addition to routine 6-inch depth soil samples, soil sampled to a depth of 12 inches, 18 inches or 24 inches can be submitted and credit given for residual nitrate-nitrogen (NO3-N). Use the form and the instruction found on the link below. Studies across Texas have demonstrated the ability of crops to recover NO3-N to depths of 2 feet, and 100 percent credit can be given to nitrate-nitrogen found in the soil samples. The amount of residual nitrogen found in soils is uncertain but the economic value could be substantial.
Useful soil links: