Price of inputs surpassing weather as farm challenge

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
Farmers faced with the same energy costs as everyone else, only several fold, may take a strategy of higher risks this year, according to agricultural observers in Marion County.

Dry, hot years with reduced yields, shrunken soybeans and threatened wheat crops would seem to make water and rainfall chief concerns of crop producers.

As for current moisture conditions, Rickey Roberts, Marion County extension agent, said: “We’re not in that bad of shape right now. The snow, and what rain we’ve had have helped conditions. I’m still optimistic about the wheat.

“What I’m most concerned about, and I think most producers feel the same way, are the costs of inputs, mostly fuel and fertilizer.

“With fertilizer prices getting high, some guys will be looking at crops that require less fertilizer, certainly a legume such as soybeans fits the category.”

Here’s where more risk comes in. If a legume that fixes nitrogen out of the air with root bacteria such as soybeans is so good, why not plant more of them all of the time?

Roberts said that since this area is on the western edge of adequate moisture for soybeans, “they are a risky crop around here,” although the increased use of the herbicide Roundup with genetically altered Roundup-ready beans “makes them easy.”

Wayne Friesen, crop production supervisor for Cooperative Grain & Supply, said Roberts’ anticipation of producer willingness to take the soybean risk appears to be taking shape from what he hears.

Friesen said after at least three years of marginal and losing soybean crops, “We had anticipated that more people would be switching to milo.”

Roberts said milo is probably the best row crop in this area for withstanding heat and dry weather. It more reliably yields an adequate or even high grain yield if rains follow the dry weather before maturation has proceeded too far.

Friesen said the price of the primary nitrogen fertilizer used, anhydrous ammonia, which is manufactured from natural gas, was at around an acceptable $250 a ton at the first of the year.

Then, with a cold winter increasing demand for natural gas, coupled with all the psychological factors of war anticipation and oil shortage fears, gas prices went up.

Anhydrous followed the price increase of gas to where it is now $350 a ton, Friesen said. Gas prices are headed down again, but nobody knows whether fertilizer will follow suit immediately, and whether that will be in time for all spring planting needs, he added.

That defines the problem of farm strategy this spring, Roberts said.

“I doubt that anyone can know the answers to all of these questions today,” he said.

Roberts said milo, or grain sorghum, is the feed grain of choice to grow on most upland fields and many lower bottom fields along streams where the best soils are.

People who will choose to plant corn are probably doing so because it fits their needs for grain or silage feed, and they’ll plant it only on the best soils. On upland fields that dry faster, “it’s too risky,” Roberts said.

Fuel prices are up no matter what a farmer plants. But at least, Friesen said, chemical prices, such as those for Roundup, stay relatively stable.

“Roundup will usually only take a little jump in price, usually around 2 percent,” he said. “But this year it stayed steady.”

Farmers could choose to go to another legume crop, such as alfalfa, “a decent crop” that can withstand dry weather even though yields drop, and one that has to be planted only once every several years.

But Friesen said it’s also a specialty crop that requires more time and effort on the part of the producer to market it.

Even with high nitrogen prices, Friesen said many farmers are still coming to Cooperative Grain to get wheat topdressed with fertilizer as it greens and grows in the latest spring warmth.

Friesen said wheat is “beginning to look in better condition now,” although looking back to St. Patrick’s Day a year ago, he doesn’t think the wheat is as far along as it was then.

Roberts said it’s beginning to get to the late end of time for crop dressing, but he said it does look like one more Kansas wheat crop is coming on, “barring a late freeze, normal rainfall this spring, and nothing weird happening.”

He added: “Wheat is a great dryland crop. As long as it gets what it needs at the right times, it will come through a lot.

“Thankfully, the markets are up a little compared to a year ago, but my concerns are for the cost increase of inputs.

“Usually 35 bushels an acre is about the break-even yield for a wheat crop. With these inputs now, it will take 37 to 38 bushels an acre.

“Of course everything can change in 30 days, absolutely,” Roberts said.

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