Max Swinburn will not abandon cotton this year, even though he has good land and good pricing opportunities for corn — but he will alter the ratio a bit to take advantage of what markets offer.
Swinburn, who farms in Castro County, Texas, not far from the small town of Earth, typically plants about half his acreage in cotton. the rest in corn.
“I'll probably increase corn by about 40 percent this year,” he says. “That's as much as I can water.” He irrigates everything, but has “some weak spots, so I put corn where I have the best water.”
He's going into planting season in good shape. “We had a lot of rain by mid-March, so the soil profile is pretty full, and we're in a good position to get started.”
Swinburn says he often has to use several inches of water to wet the soil profile to germinate corn seed, but probably won't have to do that this year, thanks to the March rains and several winter snowfalls that put moisture into the ground. He typically plants corn from early to mid-April.
“I have all low elevation center pivot irrigation systems, and I put the nozzles as low to the ground as I can get them.”
He's hoping for timely rains during the season to keep the crop making progress and to reduce irrigation expenses. “I typically apply from 22 inches to 24 inches of water on corn.”
He's also cut back on tillage to save soil and water and to reduce production expenses. “I have some no-till corn, planted into standing cotton stalks. I usually plow behind a corn crop but still make only four trips, including planting.”
He follows that practice whether he's following corn with cotton or planting corn behind corn.
“This year will make two years in a row for planting corn, I normally don't do that. A cotton and corn rotation works well, and cotton yields typically go up following corn. That system also helps with weed control, since we use different herbicides in corn than we do in cotton.”
He's using Liberty Link cotton varieties because of morningglory problems. He'll also plant some Liberty Link corn, but says a broader herbicide spectrum allows him to plant other varieties. “Atrazine and some other herbicides allow us to hammer weeds down in corn.”
He will apply a burndown herbicide to kill winter weeds in no-till fields. “As soon as it dries up enough, we'll get started. I'm not certain what we'll use this year for burndown.”
He likes Pioneer corn hybrids and is growing everything for grain, with both yellow corn and white food corn. “The white goes to Azteca. Both markets look good.” (He did note a March drop in corn futures, however).
The food corn and yellow corn markets work off December futures. “We still have an attractive (opportunity) for corn.”
The ethanol push has been a good catalyst for corn prices, Swinburn says.
“I think it will continue to move the market. The Bush Administration seems to believe in it, and we see a lot of interest in ethanol production — that's why corn moved up so quickly.”
Ethanol comes with a few challenges, he says, including making certain farmers produce enough grain for the U.S. livestock market.
“It makes sense for us to produce renewable fuels, but livestock producers need an affordable feed source.”
Adding a few more acres of corn will not strain Swinburn's labor or equipment needs. “I have everything I need to grow more corn,” he says.
He's making no changes to his cotton production system, except for planting fewer acres. “I hope we do a better job of getting this crop sold. We have a lot of cotton in the government loan, and as good as the 2006 crop was, we couldn't sell it.”
That's another reason he feels cutting back a little this year makes sense. And he and other Southwest farmers with good moisture are fortunate to have corn as a potentially profitable option for 2007.