Northeast Texas grain farmers are cautiously optimistic about the good start they’ve seen from winter wheat stands but say a lot has to go right between now and May to put it in the bin.

They are also looking hard at planting options for 2012, considering alternative crops to spread risks and, in some cases, reduce potential for feral hog damage.

Eight farmers from the northeast corner of the state gathered in Kenneth Griffin’s equipment shed near Howe recently to talk to Southwest Farm Press about 2011 results and possibilities for 2012.

Most made fairly good wheat last year but were not happy with production from 2011 summer crops. It’s primarily a corn production area but extreme drought and high temperatures reduced production significantly. They say they made some corn, but not much.

“We got a little more rain in our area,” said Mike Fallon, and made a little more corn. Good yields last summer were significantly below average for most.

“It seemed to be drier in the East part of the area than the West,” said Eric Akins. “I was actually surprised that we made as much corn as we did. We harvested early. We were done by Aug. 1.”

Scott Bourland said he made as much as 80 bushels of corn per acre. The yield had less to do with more rain than soil. “We had heavier soils that produced well,” he said.

For a drought year, aflatoxin contamination was exceptionally low. “We didn’t see it where we applied AF-36 or Afla-Guard,” Akins said. “That’s become a cost of doing business in this area.”

Those two products are atoxigenic strains of the aspergillus fungus and applied at the right time are able to out-compete the toxic strain. Widespread use is restoring buyers’ confidence in Northeast Texas corn, Fallon said. “Buyers have said they are willing to buy and pay a little more because we’re using these products,” he said.

Akins, who is co-owner with Griffin of a grain elevator, said buyers are asking about it. “We didn’t have any corn coming into the elevator this year that tested above 100 parts per billion,” he said.

The area remains in a drought. Area lakes are at an all-time low level and stock tanks remain dry. But they have received enough timely rains this fall to germinate wheat and get it up to a decent stand.

Fallon said most of his acreage “is wet to a foot depth. Our driest fields have gotten 3 to 4 inches of rain.”

“We’ve had light rains for the most part,” said George (Chico) Light. “We didn’t get a lot of runoff.”

He said most of his wheat is up to a good, uniform stand but the later planted wheat “is not up as well.”

“Most of our wheat is looking good,” said Griffin, who farms with his son Chris. “The later wheat is struggling a little bit but looks decent.”

Richard Sells said his wheat “looks good except a little on the end.”

“It’s a good start,” said Jim Swart, Texas AgriLife Extension integrated pest management specialist. “We planted at the right time, and we got rain but no hard, pounding rains. We have a good potential for this crop.”

He said wheat producers “planted all the wheat they wanted.”

Replant?

Swart said a few farmers may consider replanting if stands are not as uniform as they like. He offers an easy test to evaluate replanting decisions. “Toss a baseball cap over your shoulder. If some part of the cap lands and touches wheat, that spot will not affect yield.” He recommends performing that test about ten times across a field to determine if replanting is necessary.

Planting options for 2012 will favor corn acreage. “We’ve ordered the seed,” Akins said, “but if it’s bone dry at planting time we may rethink a little.”

Light will plant corn and maize. “I’ll take a close look at milo,” he said. “I’ll plant and hope. We sure can’t plan the weather.”

Farmers are looking at a few other options.

Chad Wetzel, who farms with his father Bruce, planted a few acres of cotton last spring and is considering more in 2012.

“We made about 200 pounds per acre,” he said. “That was okay, considering the weather. If the price stays up, we’ll plant some more next year.”

Fallon will plant corn but is also considering confectionery sunflowers. “I’ll plant sunflowers where I can spray by plane (away from residential areas).” Since dwarf varieties for confectionery sunflowers are not available, spraying the crop by ground is not practical.

Fallon also said he’ll put sunflowers in areas where feral hogs are causing significant damage to corn. “I’m tired of feeding hogs,” he said.

Wetzel and his father planted sunflowers in 2010 but not last spring. He’s considering it again for 2012, “if we can get a good contract.”

Sells will plant corn and milo. “I think I can make more money with corn than with milo. Last year I made 3,500 pounds per acre on milo and 75 bushels with corn.”

Whatever the crop mix, these eight farmers remain committed to growing grain in the Northeast corner of Texas.  They’ve endured drought in recent years and have been prevented from planting by wet conditions a time or two and have watched fields decay at harvest time because of heavy, persistent rain.

They’ve seen wheat crops destroyed by late cold snaps and corn quality ruined by aflatoxin. But they continue to adopt new technology, depend on old-school practices such as rotation and look for alternatives to spread risk.

Somehow, they endure.