Prospects for 2006 improved by more than an inch during the hour or so Kenneth Griffin discussed the outlook for next year's wheat and corn crops.
That's what the rain gauge measured about halfway through a Halloween storm that brought most of Northeast Texas some much-needed moisture that should get the wheat crop up and begin replenishing soil moisture depleted by a three-month drought.
But Griffin sees more challenges ahead for his Collin County farm.
Low commodity prices top the list, Griffin says. That, coupled with production costs significantly higher than last year, create what might be a dire outlook.
“But I'm not big on doomsday predictions,” Griffin says. “My first inclination would be to draw in and plant a cheap crop. But that's not a good plan and I'll hold on with what I've done for the past few years.”
He'll plant 30 percent of his acreage in wheat and 70 percent in corn.
“I hope energy and fertilizer prices decline before planting time,” Griffin says. “Either prices have to go up or inputs have to come down.”
He bought diesel in late summer. “It had dropped below $2 a gallon. But I need to price some more, now,” he says. “I'm running a bit low.”
He made a quick call to a local supplier and found diesel for just above $2.10 a gallon, a bit cheaper than he had expected but still a substantial increase over what he's been used to.
Griffin says the cost/price squeeze comes at a particularly bad time for Northern Blacklands corn farmers who made far less than normal yields from the drought-ravaged 2005 crop.
“But in this part of the state we know we'll get a bad year and will miss a crop,” he says. “Most farmers have decent yield histories and can weather a bad year with crop insurance. We had three good years in a row.”
He says cutting back on inputs could hurt more than help.
“We can't cut back in agriculture,” he says. “We have to make the yield.”
He'll likely reduce tillage but says the heavy clay soils do not lend themselves to no-till farming. “We have to manage the residue and the land just doesn't dry out if we don't till it,” he says. “Insect problems also seem worse in reduced-till fields.”
He may need to escalate his corn rootworm control program a bit next year anyway. He's using a seed treatment, Poncho, and says the technology represents one of the most important advances he's seen in corn production. “Treated seed makes a huge difference,” he says. “We don't have to handle insecticides any more and that's huge.”
He says Poncho 250 has done a good job controlling chinch bugs and other pests except rootworms. In fields that had heavy infestations last year he'll switch to Poncho 1250. “I'll also rotate fields that have been in corn for three years,” he says.
He uses Pioneer corn hybrids and the seed comes pre-treated.
Cutting back on fertility with corn makes little sense to Griffin. “I'll stay with the same program I've used for the past few years,” he says. He usually puts down 200 to 250 pounds of nitrogen behind the planter and adds about 550 pounds of 32.
He changed wheat fertility slightly, cutting preplant application a little. “I don't like to have all my fertilizer out early,” he says. “I can lose too much that way. I always top dress and if we get plenty of rain and the crop looks promising I can add more fertilizer in-season.”
He thinks he'll pick up some residual nutrients from the corn crop that didn't yield to expectations. “And we had no hard rains to drive the nitrate deep into the soil,” he says.
Texas integrated pest management agent Jim Swart, who works out of the Texas A&M-Commerce campus, says farmers can be flexible with pre-plant wheat fertility. “We can get too much nitrogen on wheat,” Swart says.
Griffin plans to monitor wheat conditions next spring to determine if he can justify a fungicide application. Most farmers in the area who applied fungicides last year indicate the investment paid dividends, especially on stripe rust infestations. “We sprayed Quilt one time and it paid off,” Griffin said. “We'll just wait to see what we need to do.”
Swart says stripe rust first showed up in a heavy infestation in 2000. “We used to see it occasionally and then it would go away,” he says. “But in 2000 it came in and stayed.”
Griffin planted one stripe rust resistant variety, Pioneer 25R49. “Unfortunately, it has terrible leaf rust tolerance,” Swart says.
Griffin also planted Pioneer 25R47 and is trying 25R63 this year.
He'll use three or four corn hybrids, including Pioneer 31G65, a Roundup Ready hybrid that “excelled last year. It seems to be more drought tolerant,” Griffin says. “I'll go heavier with it this year but no more than 50 percent of my acreage.”
He also plans to use Pioneer 31R87 and maybe 31G71, a stacked gene hybrid.
He's not certain about the Bt corn yet. “I want to see more research on it,” he says. “I'd like to see how it expresses itself in the ear. If it keeps earworms out, I'll plant some. I have to look at it.”
He's staying with usual seeding rates. On bin-caught wheat seed, he drilled 110 pounds per acre. On certified seed, he cuts back to 85 to 90 pounds per acre.
“It's often hard to control planting depth in our variable soils,” he says. “We need extra seed to make certain we get a stand. Seed, especially bin-run, is pretty cheap insurance.”
Corn seeding rate remains at 25,000 seed per acre.
He relies almost exclusively on Roundup for weed control and keeps the process as simple as possible. “I may use a little atrazine. I've even cut out spot treatments for johnsongrass. It saves a trip and I can clean it up with Roundup. Corn grows quickly and shades out weeds.”
His wheat/corn rotation also helps with weed management. “We still need something to control ryegrass in wheat,” he says. “Rotation is still our best management technique.”
Griffin keeps equipment costs as low as possible. “I've been picking up used, low hour combines and tractors. I will buy a new planter.”
He says a 24-row planter improves efficiency. “We get less wear and tear on a big planter than we would a smaller one. It takes less time to cover the same ground.”
Griffin says he's basically optimistic about agriculture, but he's also realist enough to recognize that conditions must change for farmers to survive.
“With higher inputs and lower prices, we've gone past tough. We're doing more chores that we used to hire custom operators to do.”
He says cooperative arrangements among farmers may help and says a three-farmer investment in a grain elevator has improved his market options.
“We can't do like we used to and just cut back on inputs and still make it. We have to have the yields. In the 1980s, we could pencil in a $100 per acre profit on corn and make a good living on 1,000 acres. Then profit potential dropped to $50 an acre and we had to double the acreage.”
That equation continues to plague Griffin and other farmers and he says at some point they'll have to pull in and get by on less.“We've streamlined all we can,” he says. “Now, things will have to change if we stay in business. Either prices have to go up or input costs have to go down; otherwise, we'll have to find something else to do. I think we're going to see changes.”