The most important tool Eric Akins will use this fall will be a pencil.
“That should always be the case,” says Akins, a Grayson County, Texas, wheat and corn farmer who was cutting his last field of less-than average corn in mid-August and contemplating how much wheat he wants to plant this fall.
“The pencil is where it starts,” he added. “We can’t always plan right and we have to be flexible. The plans we make now may change. Mother Nature can always have an effect.”
Akins has followed a 50/50 wheat and corn rotation for the past few years and says that ratio has worked well for both crops. “I’m just not sure about 2016 yet. I’m not sure I like either option. I haven’t put a pencil to it yet.”
He is sure that 2015 didn’t meet expectations. “We were too wet to plant until we were too dry to plow,” he said.
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Persistent spring rains, starting back in March, curbed wheat yields. Akins averaged about 50 bushels per acre, down significantly from the 80 plus he’d made the past three years. “Making 80 bushels three years in a row was unusual,” Akins said, “and 50 bushels per acre this year, considering the conditions, was a heck of a deal.”
Corn fared even worse. Of the 2,900 acres Akins planned to put in, wet conditions limited him to 190. “I took prevented planting on the rest,” he said. He averaged just under 85 bushels per acre on the 190- acre crop, less than usual but not bad considering the year. The near historic wet spring planting season gave way to drought that began in June and persisted well into late summer. By the third week of August much of East Texas, including the Northeast corner where Akins farms, had moved out of drought-free status back into the abnormally dry to severe drought range.
Wheat harvest was also a chore, requiring rice tires on the combine to get through boggy fields and large puddles that combines splashed through to cut grain before it sprouted. “We got about two-thirds of it cut before sprouting hurt us,” Akins said. “The last one-third was not as good.”
As he completed corn harvest he was looking to crop mix options for 2016 and any changes he might make in wheat production. “We will stick with tried and true practices,” he said. “But we will also see what’s changed and consider anything new we might want to try. We have to look closely at what we’ll spend on what.”
With prices depressed for both corn and wheat, spending will be an issue. “We will have to sharpen the pencil.” He said managing equipment costs will be critical.
Variety selection will be a key factor for wheat. “We always plant three wheat varieties,” he said. “That helps us spread risk. We had one variety that usually produces well but did not this year. We will look at some new options.”
He intends to maintain a fungicide application program on wheat. “We want to get it on in a timely manner. That means spraying early, when we see a few heads and a lot of flags. This was not a good wheat year; it was too wet and disease pressure was greater. Some dry years, we do better with wheat.”
But wheat farmers have options. “Some neighbors expected pretty good yields and then rust got it. We can do something about that. I know I need a fungicide, and I can spray tebuconazole, which is an inexpensive treatment.”
Test plots and farmer surveys in the area this year showed significant yield advantages from timely fungicide applications, says Jim Swart, retired Texas AgriLife Extension integrated pest management specialist and now executive director of the Cereal Crops Research Incorporated (CCRI).
He’s concerned about the increasing difficulty controlling ryegrass in wheat, exacerbated, he believes, by a wet year that limited a typically effective herbicide program. A relatively new product, Zidua, however, “looked pretty good.”
Akins is still looking at the farm program and says he’s uncertain how well it work. “I’ll just have to let it play out and see,” he said. “I do think that the Supplemental Coverage Option (SCO) for wheat would pay on wheat this year. It was a rough year for wheat and SCO is not overly expensive considering the additional coverage it offers.”
Insurance is key
He said the insurance subsidy available through the Agriculture Act of 2014 is “the best thing we have in the farm program, especially in a year like this one.” But he’s concerned that Congress will be pressured to cut back on the subsidy. “People don’t realize how fortunate they are that food is so abundant and affordable in this country,” he said. “They take it for granted.”
Akins will also be looking at his corn program this fall and winter but knows he’ll continue to apply an aflatoxin prevention material, either Afla-Guard or AF-36, both atoxigenic strains of aspergillus that, if applied on time, out-competes toxic aspergillus flavus that can make a corn crop unmarketable and destroy the market for an entire region.
Akins, who also has an interest in a grain elevator, says he is not interested in accepting corn that is not treated with one of the atoxigenic products. “We haven’t seen any aflatoxin yet,” he said. “Most farmers in the area applied one of the products. That has become a tried and true practice for corn growers in the area. Several years ago we were close to losing the corn market because of aflatoxin. Technology saved us with Afla-Guard and AF-36.”
He said elevators sample each load out of a field. “We build load-by-load samples so we can identify any hot spot. We can also identify the best market for any load with contamination.”
He explained that the “hot spot” definition has changed in the last few years. “We are not seeing any loads with 500 parts per billion,” he said. “A hot spot now is 50 to 100 parts per billion. We can find markets for that grain.”
In late August Akins was cutting that last field of corn and starting to smooth out fields that were rough and rutted from harvesting wheat in wet conditions. And he was already thinking about what and how much to plant for 2016 harvest, how to take advantage of available farm program options and where he can cut expenses without gouging profit potential.
He said he knows the first plan he draws up likely will undergo several alterations before he puts the first seed in the ground, but he has to create a blueprint before he can start planting. He said his sharp pencil needs an eraser.