Rotation, limited alternatives

Two factors will decide corn acreage cuts Corn acreage in the Texas South Plains and Panhandle could drop as much as 25 percent as growers look to lower-input crops such as cotton, grain sorghum or sunflowers.

Acreage across the state, however, will not take as big a hit, according to Texas A&M Extension and research specialists.

"Rain and extremely wet soils have delayed everything in central Texas, including the decision-making process," says Thomas Gerik, professor of crop physiology and production at the Blacklands Research Center in Temple. "Most growers have not made up their minds," Gerik says. "And much will depend on March and April weather."

Gerik expects little shift in acreage, however. "I think we'll see some growers move to grain sorghum, cotton or soybeans. But I don't expect to see anything as extreme as the cuts they're contemplating in the Corn Belt or the High Plains, where natural gas for irrigation is an added factor."

He says central Texas farmers have few options. "Soybeans are not well adapted to the high pH soils of the Blacklands. The wet weather we're experiencing now, in addition to the wet conditions predicted for the next three months, is not conducive to soybean growth, especially on heavy clay soils.

"The limited infrastructure in place for cotton limits large, rapid shifts in that direction," Gerik says.

He expects that corn growers will cut back on nitrogen rates but, again, not to the extremes that are more likely in the High Plains and Corn Belt. "Most central Texas growers have been facing cost pressures for years and have already cut fertilizer rates to the bone. Ultimately, most will stay the course with small adjustments."

Gerik cautions central Texas corn farmers against severe reduction in nitrogen rates. "Growers in this region tend to fertilize conservatively, anyway," he says. "Further rate reductions, especially when faced with current wet conditions and a potentially wet spring, will limit production."

He says a series of meetings in early spring will feature a computer model, CroPMan, that illustrates the impact of fertilizer cuts. "Perhaps growers can use this model in their planning."

Brent Bean, Extension agronomist at Amarillo, expects a significant acreage drop in the Texas Panhandle and South Plains. "We could easily see a 20 percent to 25 percent reduction," he says.

Acreage could switch to cotton, grain sorghum or sunflowers. "We're seeing a lot of interest in sunflowers," he says.

Bean says a few farmers are looking at narrow-row corn to improve profit potential but says the practice so far "has not given us near the yield boost they've made in south Texas. A few farmers are on 15- to 20-inch rows, but I do not see a lot of interest yet."

Cloyce Coffman, Extension agronomist at College Station, says corn planting intention has been discussed in many of the producer meetings he has conducted this winter. "Most farmers are thinking of staying with their intentions to plant corn. Obviously, if planting time should be delayed significantly, that could cause a change in plans.

"Fertilizer prices likely will not cause many producers to reduce corn acreage," he says, "but higher prices may cause farmers to use lower rates or delay application. For instance, they may plant with a minimum amount of nitrogen fertilizer and side-dress as the season progresses, if moisture conditions are favorable and indicate good crop prospects."

Paul Bertles, director of production and marketing for the National Corn Growers Association, expects to see no more than a 5 percent acreage drop in the central Corn Belt. Cuts could be more severe in the western part of the belt, where higher natural gas prices will add to irrigation and fertilizer costs.

"We've heard a fair amount of discussion on the effect natural gas and fertilizer costs will have on acreage," Bertles says, "everything from no effect to `the sky is falling.'"

He says his prediction for the central Corn Belt could change. "The caveat is serious weather problems or natural gas prices going dramatically higher."

Bertles says most Midwestern farmers stay close to a 50/50 rotation with corn and soybeans. "They are not likely to screw that up."

He also noted that seed dealers are reporting a lot of soybean orders but not cancellations for corn seed. "Farmers may be hedging their bets," he says.

Bertles says higher natural gas prices that add to irrigation costs may convince farmers in the western part of the Corn Belt and into Texas to reduce corn acreage. "The prices for June or July gas futures are considerably lower than current rates," he says, "but they still are more than double what they were last year at the same time."

Bertles says the Corn Growers Association is cautioning members to stay flexible. "Don't lock into anhydrous," he says. "We could see shortages, so look at other nutrient options.

"Also, if a farmer booked fertilizer last fall, he needs to make certain dealers will be able to deliver it. In some cases, they may not be able to. Don't assume it will be available.

"Farmers should consider nitrogen credits from a legume crop or manure," Bertles says. "And they should check with Extension fertility specialists to determine if they can cut back without hurting yield potential. If farmers have been over-fertilizing, this will be a good time to get fertility rates in line."

Bertles also recommends that farmers do the math before they switch from corn to another crop. "We've seen some decent prices on the Board of Trade recently," he says. "Look at the basis to determine if a profit is possible. Also, look at a market plan. Farmers must make certain they haven't already sold (more than they will plant)."

He also recommends studying markets for other crops. "In Kansas some farmers are switching to grain sorghum, but sorghum prices there are even with corn. A board member in the Texas High Plains says a good number of farmers are considering cotton."

Bertles says the year is shaping up to be an interesting one. He says in some Midwest areas farmers last fall applied up to 60 percent less nitrogen than usual. Late harvest and early cold weather delayed application.

"Farmers are caught in a squeeze," Bertles says. "They can't cut costs much more. And they should check with Extension specialists before they make drastic changes. Conditions and recommendations will vary widely from state to state. And in areas where farmers have to irrigate with natural gas as a fuel, it could be a tough year."

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