Texas farmer keeps eyes on soybean rust

Brazos County farmer Tom Rotello offers a simple observation about dealing with the threat of Asian soybean rust.

“Plant more cotton.”

Rotello drove up the road a bit from his home near Navasota recently to attend the annual Commodity Classic, the joint annual meeting of the National Corn Growers Association and the American Soybean Association, held this year in Austin, Texas.

Asian soybean rust topped the list of hot topics during educational seminars, around industry exhibits at the trade show and in small groups during breaks. Growers seem concerned but less than panicky as they make plans for the 2005 crop.

“I'm concerned,” Rotello said. “I didn't see any rust in my fields last year, but that doesn't mean it can't come in.”

Rotello, who grows soybeans, corn, wheat and cotton, said cotton production, even with prices in the doldrums, comes with less risk than either soybeans or corn.

“I'm a little worried about corn,” he said. “If Midwestern growers are afraid of Asian rust, they might lean more to corn and put a pinch on corn prices. With irrigated cotton, the numbers just look better.”

He said geography might work against him in soybeans. He's only 135 miles from the Gulf Coast and is vulnerable to infections blowing in on south winds.

“We're also only about 150 miles from the Louisiana state line, and they identified rust over there last fall.”

Continuation of the weather pattern that has dominated South and Central Texas also could prompt an Asian soybean rust outbreak this summer, he said. “If it stays wet, that could be a factor.”

One reason Rotello and other Texas farmers like to keep soybeans in their rotation is that it's typically an economical crop to produce. That could change if Asian soybean rust becomes a consistent problem. “Farmers along the Texas Gulf Coast might better count on using a fungicide on soybeans,” he said. Multiple applications may be necessary to prevent damage, he said, and that adds significant cost to production expenses. “That adds economic risk to a crop that's usually cheap to grow,” he said. “With corn and cotton, I have less pressure from diseases.”

Timing fungicide applications also will be critical, he said. “We need a plant pathologist on the farm to offer recommendations. We have to be careful with timing. If we are a week or so late with an application, we may be too late to do much good.”

He relies on Texas A&M Extension recommendation for fungicide selection. “I think it makes sense to rotate products,” he said.

He'd like to see resistant varieties, especially in late-maturing soybeans. “We need group six of seven soybeans in this area,” he said. Typical yields with those maturity groups run 40 to 50 bushels per acre, he said. “My 10-year average has been 48 bushels per acre. That's an economical crop.

“But we need more options on late-maturing soybeans. Later maturity gives us more opportunities to set a crop. With a group three, four or five soybean, we have about a 15-day window to set pods. If something goes wrong then, we lose the crop.”

Rotello is a soybean pioneer in Texas. “I grew the first commercial field of soybeans in Texas,” he said. “That was in 1965.”

He said his father thought he was foolish to try soybeans, until he sold them in the fall and made a significant profit.

He said cotton has become his most reliable and most profitable crop, but said soybeans paid a lot of bills for a lot of year.

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