Glenn Schurr and Barry Evans sit in Evans' Kress, Texas, grain company office, alternately checking commodity prices and watching the sky.
They wonder if the tornado warnings broadcast over most available networks will wreak havoc on small grain crops that appear to have weathered, relatively unscathed, a mid-April freeze.
They talk about the potential for wheat — one of the best crops, so far, they've seen in recent years — and in the same breath, as if to ward off the bad juju of bragging on a crop, insist that a lot can happen before the grain is in the bin.
Glenn is making changes to his cropping system this year; Barry will stay with his 50/50 split of cotton and grain sorghum.
“That rotation works for me,” he says. Grain sorghum provides good residue for reduced-till cotton, and cotton stalks return the favor for the next grain sorghum crop. Soil benefits from the organic matter. Cotton yields get a boost from the rotation and, this year, grain sorghum prices suggest the crop will be a profitable rotation.
“That's not always the case,” Evans says. “Sometimes I don't make money on milo, but better cotton yields make up the difference.”
Schurr will branch out into more grain and forages, tapping into the increased double-demand from dairies and ethanol. He's sent forages to a national laboratory in Idaho to test for sugar content and biomass potential.
He says sorghum, including both grain and forage varieties, offer good possibilities for High Plains producers. “We have three products important to ethanol — we get grain, cellulose, and sugar from sorghum. Also, the increased number of dairies in the area creates a tremendous demand for forage production.”
He's working grain sorghum, sudangrasss, and brown midrib forage into his cropping plans, while cutting back on cotton. He also planted more wheat than usual last fall, reason enough to watch the weather.
“I planted the additional wheat to graze my own cattle,” he says. “I'll increase grain sorghum acreage about 10 percent and will increase seed millet production. Cotton acreage will be down about 20 percent.”
He says the cotton acreage cut isn't something new. “Over the past two or three years, I'm down about 40 percent.”
“The area isn't down quite that much,” Evans says. Long-time cotton farmers won't abandon it or even reduce acreage significantly, he says. “They have equipment investments that keep them in cotton. Some who climbed on the cotton wagon just recently may switch back to grain to take advantage of good prices.
“Those good grain prices may give some the opportunity to get into a good rotation system.”
Evans says area farmers may plant 20 percent less cotton this year, with increases for corn and grain sorghum.
“Less wheat will be terminated this spring.”
It's the first time in years farmers have rotation options with a profit potential, Schurr says.
They turned to production costs, which will not be lower this year. Beneficial winter and spring precipitation, including some fairly good snow accumulations, have created a good soil moisture profile for planting. That will save some money.
“At least we won't have to pre-water before planting,” Evans says. But he's a realist and suggests that whatever the moisture condition is at planting could be, and probably will be, different during the season.
“We always plan on dry weather. Folks in other parts of the country don't realize just how dry we get in West Texas.” Annual rainfall is 18 inches per year and that meager amount rarely falls just when it's needed to make or save a crop.
“Seed, fertilizer and energy are our biggest costs,” Schurr says. “We can't really cut back on any of those and make (profitable) yields.”
They say urea price is up 40 percent from three years ago. “We'll pay double what we paid three years ago for 32,” Evans says.
“Electricity and natural gas prices are still high,” Glen says.
“Even with good gain prices, higher production costs take a lot of the gross,” Evans says. “Grain sorghum is a relatively cheap crop to put in, but then we have to water it. With cotton, we have a big investment up front. Fortunately, Monsanto's (and seed companies') risk share programs help a lot with cotton.”
Schurr says cottonseed prices may account for a significantly bigger chunk of production costs than was the case a decade ago.
“But seed technology is one reason we're making better yields. Genetic engineering will provide the tools we need to increase profit potential.”
He says conserving water is another priority and has turned to reduced tillage systems to help. He's also interested in irrigation research that will show the similarities and differences of various irrigation systems.
“We've learned that subsurface drip irrigation systems require more management than we expected.”
He's looking for more information on better soil management, more drought-tolerant varieties, and better methods to schedule irrigation.
“We've seen a lot of changes in the water table in this area,” he says. The changes diminishing water levels go back 20 years or more. He says water district sensors in abandoned wells show how much one new well draws down the water table. Technology permits data collection at 15-minute intervals.
“We get real-time data,” he says. “We're starting to monitor things we didn't even think about monitoring just a few years ago.”
Grain sorghum and forages fit into his water-conservation efforts. “There is a lot of interest in forages from dairies and we can produce ensilage with a lot less water than corn for grain. Nutrition value is the key — we have to provide the nutrients the dairies want.”
While grain prices show promise, cotton is stagnant and not moving out of warehouses, which are 70 percent full, Evans says.
“It's not moving and that's a big issue. Farmers are taking big hits, too, because the government is no longer paying compression charges.”
“It costs us $15 a bale to sell cotton out of the loan,” Schurr says. “That comes right out of the farmer's hide.”
They say losing Step 2 has hurt cotton flow.
“Step 2 added flexibility to the average world price (AWP),” Evans says. “The AWP isn't an exact science.”
He says administrative changes could get cotton moving again.
“It's already budgeted,” he says. “It's just administration — USDA can take actions to adjust the AWP and get cotton flowing again.”
Another appointment waits, so I pack up the camera, stick my reporter's notebook in the back pocket of my Levis, and head out. Schurr and Evans fire up the computer and check grain prices.
“Corn opened up, but has fallen off,” Evans says.
And storm clouds begin gathering off to the west.