Crop production decisions for 2010

Kenneth and Kendal Wright find themselves between a mud puddle and a wet spot as they try to finalize their 2010 cropping plans.

They typically plant a wheat and corn rotation, along with milo some years, but a disastrous corn crop they couldn’t harvest in 2009 and a rainy fall that prevented them from planting as much as 60 percent of their intended wheat acreage has the father and son tandem looking for alternatives.

Kendal also has seen his custom application business decline because of reduced wheat acreage in the area. “I sprayed only 1,500 acres last fall,” he said. “I’ll pick up some Roundup applications this spring, but the wet fall hurt all of agriculture this year. Even truck drivers are idle. They have no grain to move.”

He and his dad spent much of the winter on paperwork, looking for crop options and techniques to manage production costs on their Hunt County and Collin County, Texas, farm. Possibilities include: filing prevented planting insurance instead of planting idle wheat acreage to corn or another crop; using grain storage bags instead of building on-farm bins to hold wheat; trying strip-till on limited acreage; replacing some corn with milo; and using a legume such as cowpeas to add nitrogen to fields and reduce fertilizer demand for subsequent crops.

“We’re considering grain bags for on-farm storage,” Kenneth said. “We have very little grain storage in the area.” That situation has worsened since last year with the forced closure of a nearby large grain facility.

They believe storage capacity improves market efficiency. “Grain bags are economical,” Kenneth said. “Building on-farm facilities, however, would be expensive.”

They’re working out a scheme that would make it feasible to bring all the bags to a central location, near their headquarters. That would allow them to haul grain to market at any time instead of being subject to field conditions. Often, farmers leave grain bags in the fields where the crops are harvested. Wet conditions, the Wrights say, could prevent moving augers and grain trucks into the fields on a timely basis.

They plan to use the grain bags, three-ply polyethylene tubes, for the 2010 wheat crop.

They hope for better results from this crop than they got in 2009. “We left 700 to 800 acres in the field because of a late freeze,” Kenneth said. “The rest of the crop was damaged by the April cold snap.”

Last year’s corn crop was also a catastrophe. “We planted late because of rain and the crop never developed a good root system. We had a dry spell and then rain again. We did not harvest the corn.”

They said aflatoxin levels were so high the corn was not marketable. “We’ve been feeding feral hogs all winter with corn left on the ground,” Kenneth said. “We have folks hunting them now.”

They don’t hold much hope that hunting will significantly reduce populations; even hunting from helicopters in adjacent counties has done little to reduce herd numbers.

“We will plant less corn this year because of the hog population. We see hog tracks all over. We will plant more milo. We’ve always planted some, but have had some concerns with standability.”

Johnsongrass is another issue. “Weed control is tougher in milo, but wheat and milo were our main rotation options until 2004,” Kendal said.

“We always made good milo,” Kenneth added, “but corn has provided a better opportunity to make more money per acre. This year corn also offers the opportunity to lose more money per acre.”

He said insurance coverage helped with the aflatoxin losses last year. “But it still hurt.”

They’re looking hard at insurance options for the 2010 wheat crop and are leaning toward taking the prevented planting option and leaving the unplanted wheat acreage idle. “We planted only 40 percent to 45 percent of our intended wheat acreage,” Kendal said.

“Not getting wheat planted hurts our rotation. We seem to see more Johnsongrass without the wheat.”

But the prevented planting option will pay 70 percent of yield. If they plant something else, they get 35 percent and yield penalties the following year. “We’d get hit on the 2011 crop if we planted an alternative crop in the non-planted wheat acreage,” Kenneth said. “If we take the prevented planted option, we don’t get the penalty.”

They’re spending time the last few weeks before planting season to figure ways to cut production costs.

“We’re looking at planting cowpeas, which put more nitrogen into the soil than soybeans, or something else that will cut fertilizer costs,” Kenneth said. “We’re going back to the things we did in the 1950s.

He said fertilizer prices will not be as high this year as they have the past two, but saving nitrogen helps reduce costs. “And we can catch cowpeas at harvest for replant, unlike soybean seed. We’ve tried soybeans behind wheat before to get nitrogen into the soil. The seed was costly. Peas also are more drought tolerant than soybeans.”

Peas are a short-season crop, so “we can plant wheat behind cowpeas in the fall and use less nitrogen. We would not need any nitrogen at planting and none until topdress.”

They said production costs on cowpeas will be relatively low. Seed may be a tad expensive, but they need only a little potassium and phosphorus and something for grass control. “We have the equipment we need for peas. We can harvest with our grain combines. Newer models will handle peas.”

Strip-till may offer another opportunity to reduce production costs. “It’s a possibility. We may try strip-till on a few acres this year,” Kenneth said.

Jim Swart, Texas AgriLife Extension integrated pest management specialist at Commerce, said farmers could see a slight yield drag from strip-till the first year or two. “But production cost may be less.”

“I like the potential strip-till gives us to place fertilizer right where the plant will be,” Kenneth said. “I think a deep-rooted crop will go through drought better with fertilizer closer to the root system. Roots pull up the nutrients as the plant needs them.”

They’ve used a similar approach with wheat and have seen advantages. “We use less fertilizer and still feed the crop.”

Kenneth and Kendal are both board members of Cereal Crops Research Incorporated (CCRI), a farmer-supported northeast Texas organization that supports basic and applied research focused on the crops and conditions unique to the area.

“We’ve used CCRI religiously to evaluate wheat varieties,” Kenneth said. “We’ve changed varieties because of their test trials (conducted by Swart, agronomist Curtis Jones and others at the Texas A&M-Commerce campus).

“We planted a hard wheat variety this year, the first time we planted hard wheat since 1980. We see some advantages with a hard winter wheat that will hold up in this area.”

He said the price differential for hard wheat over soft is not as great now as it has been. Last year hard wheat held a $1 per bushel advantage over soft wheat. “We lose a little yield with hard red winter wheat, but we can make up the difference with price.”

He said CCRI tests are helping farmers find other hard wheat varieties that work in northeast Texas, where soft wheat has been the standard.

“They also do fertility work and are looking at specialty crops, such as oil seeds — sunflower and canola. We’ll never compete with the Midwest on corn and soybean yields, but we have an advantage with some oil crops for renewable energy. We have a longer growing season, for one thing. We can produce above the national average with wheat and milo,” Kendal said. “We can’t get there with corn and soybeans.”

“CCRI gives us an opportunity to study new options and then look for long-term applications,” Kenneth said.

The Wrights said GPS technology also helps with efficiency. “We have GPS on sprayers and a tractor. We like it a lot,” Kendal said.

“Now we can plant a straight row,” Kenneth added.

“I could always plant straight,” his son said, proving that even with a calamitous year behind them and some uncertainty ahead, they somehow maintain a sense of humor.

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