Last fall, Alan Ewell looked at the price of cotton, the cost of growing it and the labor necessary to harvest it and decided not to plant any this year.
"It appears to be the right move," he says.
That decision leaves Ewell, who farms with his wife Alisa in Madison County, Tenn., to depend on soybeans in a year he expects will be one to just hang on until the ag economy improves.
He's planting a few acres of corn, mostly on farms he's bringing in this year as well as some that are vulnerable to deer damage. Pigweed pressure on some of the new farms he's working also convinced him to plant corn.
"Deer damage in soybeans got so bad we had to do something different," he says. "Some new farms are rough, weedy, and had not been taken care of. I planted corn to help with deer and pigweeds."
No cotton in 2020
He typically would have planted one-third of his roughly 3,400 acres in cotton and two-thirds in soybeans. "I hate to have everything in one crop," he says, "but most of the acreage will be in beans this year."
He's planning on 3,100 acres of soybeans and 330 in corn. He says price for soybeans is not all that much better than cotton or corn, but he sees some advantage in production costs. "Soybeans demand less labor, less input up front. We don't have a lot more help around here than we did two years ago."
The labor issue played a key role in his decision to eliminate cotton this year. He says price was a concern, "but not the only one. Price was not all that good last fall, and we had missed a spring rally.
"Labor was a big factor. We ran two cotton pickers, two boll buggies, and two module builders with seven people involved in the process. That's too much. We even looked at a bale picker — glad we didn't follow through on that."
Ewell says the 2018 cotton crop did very well. "It was an outstanding crop and we marketed it well, averaged about 27 cents to 28 cents on equities in 2018. We're averaging 3.5 cents this year. That's a tremendous difference. We made a real good cotton crop last year, but we didn't make a lot of money."
He says corn also requires less labor than cotton, "but if we make anything, we still have to handle the volume. This is only the third corn crop I've ever grown."
Row crop concerns
He's concerned with the row crop economy and potential effects of the coronavirus pandemic shutdown. "We don't know how it will affect us. Ethanol production has already been limited or shut down. The grain demand on the livestock side is also a big worry. If livestock processors close, corn may drop below $3."
Weather has set him back a bit, too. "Normally, I would be planting soybeans by now (late April)," he says. "Weather has been skittish. I'm just waiting on beans. A few farmers have planted some soybeans around the area, but I’m waiting until the ground warms some.
"We planted some corn in early April, but about a third of it is really struggling." He says weather and a few rough farms he picked up this year challenge corn planting. "We had to smooth out a lot of fields. We're putting out fertilizer now."
Sold on cover crops
One thing he has not changed is planting cover crops. "We have cover crops on most of our of fields, 1,400 to 1,500 acres. We may increase that and put some of the farms picked up this year in cover. I'm a big proponent of cover crops."
He says this year's persistent rainfall is proof enough of cover crop value.
"We have to go no further than the side ditches after a big rain to see the benefits. The water may not be crystal clear, but it is a far cry from when I was growing up and it looked like the muddy Mississippi in every ditch."
He recalls seeing water wash out of the field and carry silt onto the road.
"The 2018 and 2019 rains on cropland where we had established cover, I can't say we had no washes, but it was miniscule compared to fields with no cover crops and a lot more erosion."
He says cover crops have improved soil structure, water infiltration, and reduced runoff and soil loss.
He plants a mix, including wheat, crimson clover, daikon radish, forage turnip and cereal rye.
"The radishes leave a big indention in the ground when they decay, a 2-inch diameter hole that water soaks into. Turnips have a big taproot."
He typically terminates cover two weeks ahead of planting. With rain delays this year, he terminated some a month ahead of the planter.
"We are planting dicamba trait beans, so we don't have to terminate as far ahead as we did a couple of years ago."
Last year they planted into green cover, including fields with cereal rye standing at 5.5 feet or taller. "That was our first time to plant into green. It did well. We have two farms we will plant into green this year."
He says other than effects on markets, the coronavirus has been little more than an inconvenience on production. "We haven’t had any disruption personally for getting supplies. We can't go into facilities, but we are still able to get what we need. It's a little awkward getting parts since we can't go into the building. We call ahead to the suppliers and co-ops and work with them.
"I like to be ahead of the curve and get things booked in December when I can," he says. "I grow a lot of early soybeans. We started growing Group 3 soybeans about 15 years ago and always tried to book ahead. Back then, it was not common planting Group 3 soybeans in April. A lot of farmers now grow Group 3 soybeans in west Tennessee, so I book early."
Ewell says he has 75 percent of the soybean seed he needs in place and about 75 percent of the chemicals. "It's been a little inconvenient but not a problem as of yet. As far as I know, we got everything we ordered. We have been fortunate."