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Farmer, supplier find shift to corn challenging in 2007

It's news to no one this year that row crop farmers across the Southeast are changing with the times, and farmer Billy Joe Ragland in Bentonia, Miss., is no different.

Like many farmers, Ragland shifted acreage, decreasing his cotton acreage and opting to plant more corn. In 2006, Ragland planted 2,500 acres of cotton and 2,400 acres of corn. This year his farm grew only 425 acres of cotton, compared 4,150 acres of corn.

“We've been using corn as a rotation crop for 25 years, and since 2001, have been slowing transitioning to more corn,” said Ragland, who planted a total of 5,500 acres this year.

Not surprising, the input and labor costs on cotton have driven farmers like Ragland further from cotton over time.

Combined with attractive corn and soybean prices, the economic reasons to transition crops just make sense in today's market. Diesel costs have increased while fertilizer costs have doubled.

The shift, however, hasn't come without challenges. With more acreage planted in corn this year than since just after World War II, the first challenge facing farmers like Ragland has been seed supply.

Raised in Satartia, Miss., and having farmed in Bentonia for over 30 years, Ragland understands not only the importance of innovation, but the necessity of partnerships. Ragland, who has partnered with UAP for years, relied on his UAP field rep Shawn Manor and seed business manager Dale Brown to obtain seed.

“Mississippi grew three times as much corn this year,” said Brown, noting Mississippi farmers planted 980,000 acres in corn in 2007.

Since companies like UAP forecast seed two years out, the seed planted in 2007 was forecasted in 2005 and harvested in 2006 for planting in 2007. “Because we plan a year in advance, we couldn't anticipate the demand,” said Brown.

While Ragland planted 12 to 15 varieties of corn on his farm during 2007, only five or six varieties covered the majority of acreage.

“Seed availability was the primary concern this year,” said Manor. Dyna-Gro's 57K58, 58P59, 58K02, 57B90 and Pioneer's 32B23 were just a few of the varieties planted.

“After this season, the 32B23 won't be available anymore,” said Manor.

Manor makes at least several visits to Ragland's farm during a week evaluating crops.

Ragland has been involved for years in seed variety trials because he believes strongly in knowing what performs best on his land. “The closest university corn trial is in Yazoo City, 30 miles away. That doesn't mean I'd have the same results here.” He participated in over 14 cotton and corn trials, among others like fungicide trials during 2007.

Ragland farms on silty loam soil with no irrigation.

Although 2007 was exceptionally dry, he reported conditions on his farm have been dry since 2005.

There were extremes in yields within his 30-mile area, including fields that received some moisture and others that remained dry all season.

One 90-acre plot yielded 215 bushels per acre. On the other side of the farm, which has marginal land and less moisture, Ragland harvested 47 bushels per acre. On average, he harvested 120 bushels per acre.

Concerned about storage and delivery during harvest, Ragland decided early in the year to build two 40,000-bushel grain bins on his property, for a total of six that he began building in 1993.

“I decided to store about 40 percent and deliver 60 percent of the harvest,” said Ragland.

Working with his market advisor, Ragland sold approximately 225,000 bushels early, averaging $4.10 per bushel.

Looking towards 2008, Ragland estimates he'll have about the same or a slightly larger increase in corn acreage.

In looking at other crops, Ragland planted 1,000 acres of wheat this fall, compared to 675 acres in 2006. “We decided to grow more because the price is up considerably. It's up about a dollar per bushel over last year's price.”

Ragland has already contracted next year's crop. “We'll grow more next year because we've contracted into 2009.”

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