Cautious fertilization adjustment planned for 2006 wheat and corn

Bobby Sollis has done the math. With fertilizer prices the highest he's ever seen, pushing for higher wheat and corn yield makes little sense for 2006.

“The extra bushels I might get will not pay for what it costs to make them,” Sollis says. “I don't think I will lose as much by cutting back on fertilization a little.”

It's a decision he's not made lightly. He figures he's built up a little reserve in his Grayson County, Texas, soils.

“I've fertilized a long time to raise a good corn crop, and the cost of fertilizer and fuel will kill us this year if we don't economize.”

He also plans to reduce tillage in corn and save some diesel fuel.

“I'll switch to a minimum-till system and may cut out one or two trips,” he says. “I'll eliminate one disking or a trip with a chisel plow. In the past, I've plowed in front of my corn planter. I quit that last year. I'll just leave the land through the winter and plant on an undisturbed seedbed.”

He says his Northeast Texas fields are too heavy for true no-till.

He's also planting more wheat this year. He normally puts half his acreage in wheat and half in corn. Last year, his wheat crop didn't make a stand so he killed it and planted corn instead. And he had been moving to more corn anyway.

Rotational balance

“I'll plant two-thirds in wheat this year,” he says. “With no wheat last year, I have some fields that had been in corn for four years straight. I need to bring my rotation back in balance.”

He's seeing more rootworm problems in fields with continuous corn crops. “Fields in corn for four years show the worst rootworm problems,” he says.

And he's committed to using a higher rate seed treatment, Poncho 1250 instead of Poncho 250. “I didn't use 1250 on all my acreage last year,” he says. “I should have used it across the board.”

He says rootworm damage was significant but he believes injury was worse because of prolonged drought. “We had no rain and I think we would have seen less insect damage if we had gotten a little rainfall. In some fields, we had normal size stalks but no ears. We had a lot of stalks with nothing but nubbins and some just fell over.”

“This is the first time I've seen rootworm infestation this widespread,” says Jim Swart, Texas Extension integrated pest management specialist at the Texas A&M-Commerce campus.

“We needed to spray for beetles in-season,” Sollis says. He intends to in 2006. “We will watch closely and if we see beetles, we'll spray them.”

Sollis says a normal yield goal for his dryland corn is 100 bushels per acre. Until 2005, that had been a reasonable target. “We made about half a crop this year,” he says. “For the last few years, until this year, we had done quite well with corn. I've seen 140-bushel-per-acre yields.”

He cut back on wheat fertility as well. “I typically use 10 gallons of 10-34, drilled in the row,” he says. “I cut back to seven. I will not apply nitrogen until I see what the crop is doing later. As high as fertilizer is it doesn't pay to put on more than we need to. It might pay to test for residual nitrogen in wheat land.”

More certified wheat

Sollis planted more certified wheat this year than usual because he made no seed to save in 2005. “I dropped seeding rate to 75 pounds per acre with certified seed,” he says.

He's kept up with replacing equipment the past few years. “We try to keep relatively new equipment because we can't afford down time,” he says. “We do most of our own repairs and the key is keeping things in good condition.”

Sollis also owns cattle, just under 100 commercial brood cows. “Cattle prices have been good,” he says, “but it will be a tough winter. We are short of hay; we didn't get enough rain to make hay or to establish winter pastures. We may have to graze some wheat to make it through the winter.”

He says a lot of cattlemen will be looking for hay this winter.

Sollis is also looking at his marketing strategies. “We have to get a better price for what we grow,” he says. “That's the only way we can come out. We've been trying to out-bushel ourselves for the past few years.”

He says with higher input costs and lower prices, making a living is becoming almost impossible. “It's hard to pencil in a profit.”

He's looking at hedging and other marketing alternatives. “We don't pay as much attention to marketing as we need to and we will have to do a better job. We have a tendency to spend more time on our tractors than we do with marketing. I'd rather do the manual work.

“I've used a market advisor before and think the service helped some. I also store a lot of corn and move it in the winter. I've done well with that.”

Corn had potential

Sollis says the 2005 corn crop had the potential to be very good. “If we had gotten just two more rains, we would have made some good corn,” he says. “It's a crop we'll remember, but not fondly.”

He expects a bad year occasionally, but says farmers need a reasonable price for their crops.

“All we can do is the best we can,” he says. “We can't control the weather.”

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