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Cautious management is key for young Central Texas farmer

Caleb Martin's training might be a factor in his cautious approach to farm management. He earned a master's degree in agricultural economics from Texas A&M, and worked with the Texas Land Bank for more than eight years, before coming back full-time to the family farm in Frost, Texas, last December.

“I had farmed on the side before but I had an opportunity to farm with my father full-time. My last work day with the Land Bank was Dec. 31.”

His father, Ronny, has since retired, so Caleb farms with his brother Joshua on a 75 percent, 25 percent partnership, with Caleb holding the larger share. They manage 2,400 acres of milo, corn, cotton and wheat, and run a few cows.

Acreage is up this year and Martin says expansion is always on the table, but only under the right conditions. “We always want to expand, but we have to be cautious. We always face weather issues and now markets are volatile.”

He says any young person interested in getting into farming these days “either needs to have an off-farm job or to have a family farm already established to come into.”

“We don't have many young farmers in this area (the Central Texas Blacklands),” says Glen Moore, Extension integrated pest management specialist. “I know of about eight farmers in the area who are either retiring or about to retire.”

But Martin is where he wants to be. “I am blessed to have good land — centrally located and close to a grain elevator and a cotton gin. It does get bad when it doesn't rain, though.”

He says 2008 crop prospects are promising so far. His wheat crop has had ample moisture throughout the winter and looks good as it fills out. Cotton, corn and milo are all in the ground. Milo and corn were out of the ground in mid-April and cotton was “struggling to break through a crust,” he says. Cotton needed a rain to push through.

“We had gotten good rains, about one a week, so subsoil moisture has held up. The wheat crop looks really good.”

“Most of the wheat in the area is clean,” Moore says. “We have not seen much disease.”

“We did not have to spray wheat with fungicides,” Martin says. He's hoping the crop equals what last year's promised. “We had 50-bushel wheat, but we couldn't combine it,” he says. A rainy spring and early summer prevented harvest of much of the area's wheat acreage.

Martin says crops this year will be more expensive to produce than they were in 2007, but he limited cost increases with early purchase. “We got fertilizer in before the peak price,” he says. “If we get adequate rainfall, we'll capitalize on those early purchases. Next year, production will be much more costly. Phosphate is up to $1,000 a ton. If farmers make a profit this year they need to be careful with their money. It will be expensive to make a crop next year.”

Diversification helps Martin spread production risks. Crop mix includes 900 to 925 acres of cotton, 700 acres of corn, 650 acres of milo, and 130 acres of wheat.

He's looking for ways to reduce risk even more. Less tillage is one possibility.

“We don't plow as much as we used to,” he says. “We rely more on chemicals and are looking at more reduced tillage. We just about have to cut tillage trips to save money.”

He says diesel at $4 a gallon means nearly $4 per acre fuel cost every time he runs across the field. “With heavy plowing we use at least three-fourths of a gallon of diesel per acre,” he says. “Last year we paid $1 per gallon less.”

He says fertilizer was about half or even less than half the price he has to pay now. He says fertilizer prices have doubled just since October. “And the October rate was higher than last spring. But there we can't do much about fertilizer costs. Not fertilizing is not an option. That just cuts yield.”

He says better soil testing might help. “But we're not set up to do variable rate analysis and application.”

“We need more deep fertility analysis,” Moore says. “We're finding more nitrogen deeper in the soil than we expected.” He says some soils show phosphorus levels ranging from adequate to high — high enough in some cases to interfere with minor nutrient availability.

“We need deep soil tests in the area to determine fertility levels. Some farmers have fertilized aggressively over the years.” Those rates may have left residual they can tap now, with prices high.

“We could begin to reevaluate fertilizer needs,” Martin says.

He evaluates variety selection every year, based on performance, but sticks with Deltapine cotton. Most of his 2008 acreage is DPL 445BG/RR. He also has some DPL 164B2RF. “The 445 has been the best performer,” he says, “but the Flex technology is good.” He averaged 600 pounds per acre across the board last year, all dryland production.

He likes Pioneer 31R87 corn and also plants Garst 8482 and Dekalb 73. He plants 90 percent of his milo acreage in Pioneer 84G62.

“Daddy always grew more grain sorghum than he did corn,” Martin says. “Now, I plant a little more corn.”

He says milo is a bit more drought tolerant and cheaper to plant. “But in a good year, corn will beat milo. And milo is not that much cheaper to grow.”

The recent upswing in milo prices has helped. “It's also a good grain for drought years since it has no aflatoxin threat.”

A grain and cotton rotation also helps. “I like to plant cotton behind grain sorghum or corn,” Martin says, “and wheat behind cotton or corn. We have some alkaline soils where we can't plant cotton.”

He says those fields are prone to root rot. “We plant wheat there. I like a 50 percent cotton and grain rotation, with about 1,000 acres for cotton, but in root rot fields, we can't plant cotton. Rain last year made those fields conducive to root rot.”

He says rotation also helps corn. “With a good rotation we can use less insecticide on corn.” Typically, he'll use Poncho 250 seed treatment in corn with a good rotation history. With a shorter rotation or corn behind corn he uses Poncho 1250. “We have to be careful of Mexican corn rootworm infestation in the area. Bt corn also helps but rotation gives us a big advantage.”

Seed treatments also help control chinch bugs, Moore says.

Martin farms in one of the last zones to go active in the Boll Weevil Eradication Program and says weevil pressure “has been light. I haven't seen a weevil in more than a year.”

He says cotton is better because of the program. “We'll begin to see a top crop now. We saw a little more last year, but this year we may really see a difference. The program sprayed a lot last year.”

Martin says rising production costs pose the biggest challenge to a young farmer. “Volatile markets also cause concern. We have to find ways to get some stability in a marketing program and lock in a profit. You can't go wrong by locking in a profitable price.”

The first part of the equation, he says is to “know production costs. We don't have a big sweet spot in farming. We have to know the line item costs and use spreadsheets to figure out price objectives.”

He learned a thing or two about spreadsheets, cost analyses and markets, as an ag economics student and certainly in his role with the Texas Land Bank. He's taking that education and that experience now and applying it to practical production.

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