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Corn revenues too good to ignore

Five late model cotton pickers are lined up outside Brian Fyfe’s Lyon, Miss., office. Two of them haven’t moved in a year and that number may grow to three this year.

But it’s not a big deal to Fyfe, who oversees spraying and seed selection on Cliff Heaton’s 13,000-acre farm. Seven-dollar corn and $15 soybeans are a soothing salve for parked picker syndrome.

Mid-South farmers like Fyfe know the math all too well. Multiply 180 or so bushels of corn times the $7 cash price for corn and a farmer can generate almost $1,300 an acre in gross revenue from corn. It would take some extremely good cotton prices of over a dollar a pound to compete with that.

The math means cotton on Heaton Farms has declined by half from 2006, going from 8,000 acres to less than 4,000 acres. Meanwhile, corn acreage jumped from zero to 1,300 acres to 2,100 acres over the last three years.

At Bobo-Mosely Gin across the road from Fyfe’s office, cotton business has slipped from 40,000 acres in 2006 to 23,000 acres in 2007 to a likely 16,000 acres for 2008.

Farm employees have had to learn corn cultural practices quickly, although several were around when the farm tried out corn in the late 1990s. But most have found corn a simpler crop to grow, albeit just as expensive as cotton.

In the fall, phosphate and potash are applied — based on recommendations from Pettiet Ag Services. Corn land is rowed up in the fall or spring on 40-inch rows.

In early March, the farm will burn down with glyphosate and dicamba, “then we drag it down or roll it and plant,” Fyfe says. “We try to start planting around mid-March. This year, we started at the end of March and finished up toward the end of April. We were a good month behind.”

Corn is planted in twin rows with a Monosem 12-row planter at 35,000 to 36,000 seeds per acre. On the twin-row configuration, Fyfe noted, “We had heard you could get a good yield increase with twin-row on some hybrids.”

Fyfe planted about 70 percent of the farm’s corn in the twin-row configuration. Rain delays forced the farm to bring in cotton planters to finish the job. Plant population on the single-row corn is around 32,000 plants per acre.

For hybrid selection, Fyfe pores over yield trials from universities and data from seed companies. This year, he planted Pioneer, Terral and AgVenture hybrids, half Roundup Ready and half Roundup Ready/Bt.

“As soon as the corn comes up, we put out Dual and atrazine or Resolve and atrazine. “If that goes out timely enough, that’s all we have to do for weed control. If we wait a little while like we did on some of it, we may have to mix in some glyphosate.”

Fyfe also applied Halex GT — a pre-mix of Touchdown, Dual Magnum and Callisto — on a few acres, where corn got too big for atrazine. “After it started raining, I just couldn’t get in the field to make the atrazine application.” On some marestail acres, Fyfe added Status to a tank mix of glyphosate and Dual Magnum.

“The weed control chemicals in corn work great in a rotation with cotton,” Fyfe said. “We’ve been putting out Roundup on these cotton and beans for years. When you put Dual and atrazine out there, you get a great control of what’s out there.”

After corn emerges, Fyfe employs a local fertilizer applicator, Harry Graves, to put out 90 units of nitrogen. “Then we come back with our knife rigs and put out another 140 units of nitrogen.”

Corn irrigation with center pivots and rollout pipe begins right before tasseling, “because we don’t want the crop to stress,” Fyfe said. As of June 25, the farm was watering corn for the third time.

In 2007, the corn crop was sprayed for stink bugs early in the season. But Fyfe did not spray for worms and did not put out a fungicide to the crop. This year, however, Quilt was applied at tassel on fields in their second consecutive year of corn.

Harvest starts when moisture is around 14 percent. In 2007, the farm cut about 190 bushels an acre, well above expectations. “We budget for 175 to 180 bushels. We think we have a good chance to make 200 bushels this year. We’ve had a tough spring with all the rain, but we’ve been checking some ears and the yield is there.”

The outlook for grain encouraged the farm to add 100,000 bushels of grain storage in 2007, and it is adding 165,000 bushels of storage this year. That’s enough to store its entire corn crop, but the farm may still need to find additional storage. With the wheat basis at $2.25 under, they’re storing wheat in the new bins, meaning they’ll have to deliver a lot of corn in the fall.

“But it was something we had to do. We can’t give away $2.20 on the basis when we had the bins sitting here.”

For the second year in a row, some corn may be stored in boxcars. Last year, a local railroad employee arranged to deliver boxcars with hopper bottoms to the local railroad. Each holds about 4,000 bushels.

“We put about 50,000 bushels in them last year and kept the corn in there from September to January. Delivery was a little slower, but they’re going to do some things this year to help us move a little faster.”

The farm also bought two grain trucks for this year and have hired outside haulers as well. Corn and soybeans are delivered to McAlister Grain in Friars Point, Miss., or ADM or Bunge in Helena, Ark.

Fyfe isn’t sure where cotton prices have to be to get all five of the farm’s cotton pickers rolling again. But there’s little doubt that high corn prices, the expectation for significant yield increases in cotton following corn and the resistance management benefits from using corn weed control products will keep corn in the rotation.

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