Jeff Moore feels pretty good about soybean prospects for 2004.

“This time last year soybeans were bringing about $4.50 a bushel,” he says. “They've been as high as $9 and are holding above $7. If they can maintain that or move up a bit, we'll be in good shape.”

Moore, 25, has farmed on his own since 1998 in Red River County, up in the Northeast corner of Texas, near the Oklahoma State line.

“I've helped my dad all my life,” he says, “and I've never wanted to do anything other than farm.

His father, Harry, has farmed here all his life and says Jeff has been his right-hand man “ever since he could sit on a tractor.”

They realize that even with promising prices for soybeans and corn and a fair wheat crop coming along, they'll face some tough challenges in 2004. Fuel cost tops the list.

“Last year we paid about $1 a gallon for diesel,” Harry says. “The last we bought cost us $1.28 and it's still going up.”

“We're doing all we can to conserve,” Jeff says. “Most of the land we've farmed for several years we've converted to a minimal till or no-till system. We're having to plow some land we're farming for the first time this year, but we'll eventually cut back on tillage.”

Jeff says a full-tillage program means as many as seven trips across the field. “We're making just three or four on most fields,” he says.

“Less tillage means less fuel and less labor,” Harry says. “Also, we put a lot fewer hours on these tractors and that saves money, too.”

Ugly but economical

Jeff says some of the reduced tillage fields “may look ugly, but they're saving us money and that's what counts.”

On their old fields, they spray Roundup to kill winter weeds and then plant. They may do some minor field preparation in the fall.

They plant all Roundup Ready soybean varieties, mostly four to late four varieties. “I'll plant some fives late,” Jeff says. Occasionally they plant late into wheat stubble.

“We had quite a few of those last year,” Harry says, “and they've done OK for us.”

Roundup Ready has simplified their weed control program. They use Roundup and occasionally add Classic or 2,4-DB to control morningglory in soybeans.”

“We occasionally use a little atrazine with the Roundup,” Harry says.

“And we tried some Extreme last year,” says Jeff. “We sometimes spike it with an additional pint of Roundup.”

They say they need a little extra charge for morningglory and other vines.

“We now have some excellent weed control options for soybeans,” Harry says.

He is concerned about potential weed resistance and selection as Roundup removes weeds that are susceptible and takes away competition for those that are more tolerant.

“We'll start rotating chemicals the same way we rotate crops,” he says.

Three-way rotation

Rotation is a critical part of their system. “We rotate soybeans, corn and wheat,” Jeff says. “Fields we rotate and plant minimum till are mellow so we're improving the soil as well as cutting costs.”

Harry says even with higher production costs this year soybeans and corn still offer profit potential.

“It all depends on rain. If we get timely rains in the summer, we can make pretty good yields.”

County average is 22 to 24 bushels per acre. “We usually average around 25,” Harry says. “If we make 30 to 35, we think we have an excellent crop.”

He says dryland corn average hangs around 100 bushels per acre. “If we don't get rain, we may get 80 and if we get good rain, we can make 125,” he says. “I don't know a farmer who doesn't talk to the Lord every day.”

He says soybean and corn prices are “just getting to the point where we can make a profit.”

The Moores expect Red River County soybean acreage to increase above the usual 8,000 or so, but still way down from the early 1980s when farmers planted as many as 50,000 acres.

“I think acreage will be up,” Harry says. “I've seen a lot of pasture land plowed up for soybeans.”

He says most of the good farmland is already under cultivation.

“Good land is awful hard to find,” Jeff says.

Harry says farming continues to be a tough way to make a living, “especially for a young man like Jeff. If I had not been farming there's no way he could have started.”

“Lenders don't even want to talk to you about farm loans anymore,” Jeff says. “It's like that Listerine commercial where the whole family takes off. You mention farming and lenders all disappear. And the federal government won't help either.”

Harry says a farmer invests a lot of money and takes a huge gamble to try to net just $30 to $40 per acre. “If he farms 1,000 acres, he's looking at an income of $40,000 a year.”

Farm sizes grow

“That's about what some entry-level white collar jobs pay,” says Red River County Extension Agent Lynn Golden. “And farmers have a huge investment at risk.”

Harry says 1,000 acres is considered a small farm these days. “It's hard to operate 1,000 acres efficiently. It takes several $100,000 tractors to farm that acreage and we need 500 acres to make the payments on one tractor.”

He also says that netting $30 an acre is never a sure thing.

“Some years we will not make that much and in a real bad year we may make nothing at all.”

Jeff says he's looking for ways to add revenue to the farm operation. “I have some acres with tall vetch and ryegrass. Before I plant I'll cut and bale it. I can get $3 a bale for the hay.

“We also do some custom work. That gives us another revenue source and helps make payments on the equipment.”

He also works part-time for the local ambulance service as an EMT.

“But that's just part-time. This is what I want to do.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com