Since 2011, Jay Wilder has experienced both the driest year and the wettest spring he’s ever witnessed. At the same time, he’s watched cotton prices soar to heights he never dreamed of, soybeans peak near $18 a bushel, and corn and wheat markets set records. On top of all that, cattle prices have been remarkably good.
He’s also seen the bottom fall out of cotton, wheat, and corn, and a 50 percent plunge in soybean prices. Beef cattle prices have remained the one stable sector.
Wilder takes it all in stride.
“Agriculture is a roller coaster,” he reflected on yet another soggy June morning that showed signs of more rain following a three-inch drenching the previous night. Low clouds, seeming almost too heavy to float, trudged across the sky over Wilder’s central Texas farm near Snook, a short hop from College Station.
If not ecstatic about crop and market prospects, Wilder wasn’t despondent either. “Weather and markets are things we can’t do anything about,” he said philosophically. “It will all come out.”
He admits to facing some challenges with this year’s crops that were planted late, delayed by cool, damp weather, blown about by high winds, and waterlogged by ponding and flooding.
He grows cotton, milo, watermelons, and soybeans double-cropped behind wheat, all on 2,500 acres. He has another 2,500 acres of pasture and forage production for his commercial cow/calf operation, and raises a few registered Limousins for show animals.
He said the 2-inch to 3-inch rain the previous night, remnants of tropical storm Bill, “wasn’t as bad as the 6 to 8 inches they were predicting.” The rain came after a week or more of open weather that boosted his cotton seedlings.
“We had also just finished cutting wheat a week earlier and planted soybeans,” he says. “This rain was timely, and will be good for uniform emergence of the beans. Cotton looks good, although a few low spots have issues. I think the open weather helped cotton put down good roots. Corn and milo don’t have much of a root system established — they didn’t have to work at all to get moisture.”
Persistent spring rains were tough on milo, resulting in non-uniform stands he expects to be hard to manage through harvest. The uneven crops would mature at different times, he says, increasing the period in which fields would be vulnerable to insect injury, and creating headaches with harvest timing. “My entomologist says controlling midge could be interesting.”
On the other hand, rainfall seemed to help provide early control of the sugarcane aphid. “Last night’s rain could be a blessing,” he says. “We’ve seen very few sugarcane aphids, nothing to be concerned about thus far.”
He’ll apply Transform and Sivanto when the insect numbers build to threshold levels. Typically, he starts with Transform, then applies Sivanto, and comes back with another Transform treatment. With the late appearance of the aphids, he hopes to omit one Transform application.
Sugarcane aphids caused little damage last year. “We got on top of it,” Wilder says. “Having an entomologist is an advantage.”
Altered hay quality
However, the pests did affect palatability of the hay he bales from milo residue. “The aphids apparently changed the quality of the hay — cattle didn’t perform as well on it. They preferred the older hay to the newer; the new hay just wasn’t appealing.”
Honeydew problems were minimal. “We don’t use Roundup as a harvest aid because we want to keep the leaves for hay,” he says.
Wilder was fortunate to get everything planted this spring. “Not everyone did.” It was a struggle. The area received more than the annual average rainfall total by early June. By mid-June, Wilder had measured 40 inches on his farm, contrasted to average rainfall of 36 to 37 inches. “We got most of that the last two months,” he says. “The rain started in March.”
Timing was not good for his wheat crop. “We averaged around 30 bushels per acre,” he says. “We usually make 55 to 60 bushels.” Quality was also off, with some sprouting and lower than normal test weight. “We know we need water to make test weight, but too much moisture hurts it.”
Watermelons also suffered. Wilder plants about 200 acres of the crop, working with a nearby family operation that specializes in melons. “We lost some vines on the low end of fields, where the soil didn’t drain,” he says. “Water is hard on watermelons — they like warm, dry weather after they’re established. We’d rather have no rain and provide water through drip irrigation. I’ve never seen a spring this wet. My dad has farmed here since 1964, and he can’t remember a spring like this either.”
But soil moisture should be adequate for the rest of the season, he says. “We recently had to install a new electrical line to a center pivot and dug down four feet, finding moisture all the way down. That should carry milo to harvest, at least 80 percent of it.”
Wilder only plants soybeans under irrigation, and has the capability to irrigate all his cotton. “But I’m not sure I’ll need to,” he says.
Soybeans have been a good rotation option for him, and work well behind wheat. Although the price has dropped to about $9 a bushel, with $1 off that in basis, he says, “Beans can be a relatively cheap crop to grow.”
Late season insect pests can be troublesome. When area corn and milo have dried down, soybeans are the only green plants left, and “insect pressure can be rough, so we have to be ready to spray.”
In a typical year, a good double-crop irrigated soybean yield is about 40 bushels per acre, and he looks for 3 bales to 3.5 bales of cotton, 6,500 pounds of milo, and 50 bushels to 60 bushels of wheat.
Cattle have been a bright spot for several years. “I wish I had more right now,” Wilder says. More than 95 percent of the herd is commercial crosses with a Limousin base. “We have some registered Limousin heifers to show.”
He’s sold to Laura’s Lean Beef 13 of the past 15 years. “We’ve done well with that,” he says. “They promote lean, drug-free beef, with no antibiotics or growth hormones. But we still use reasonable preventive management. Most years, this arrangement pays a bonus for the product. We have set up our operation to meet their criteria.”
He believes in, and relies on, technology. Genetically engineered crops, he says, “have allowed us to use much less herbicides and insecticides since 1996. Boll weevil eradication also has helped a lot. We have to embrace technology.”
New products expected to be available next year, Xtend Flex and Enlist — which are tolerant to dicamba and 2, 4-D — will offer new opportunities, but also new challenges, Wilder says. “We will still need to rotate chemistries. Farmers can’t afford to repeat the mistakes they made with Roundup Ready, or when they quit using yellow herbicides. The last few years, we’ve gone back to the yellows.”
He is seeing some herbicide-resistant weeds, mostly waterhemp. “I don’t see a lot, but some is coming through in poorly-drained areas, and we’ll have hoe hands working on it. Fortunately we don’t have a lot of the weed, and we can chop it out. But we have to be sure to get the root ball, or it will come back.”
One area near the river causes concern: “It’s a big drain, and when it floods out and into the fields, we have to watch for weeds.”
Several challenges made planting the 2015 crop more difficult than usual, Wilder says, and three months of above normal rainfall set back crop progress considerably. He anticipated some uneven stands, delayed maturity, and some late-season pest pressure and harvest timing issues. Some grain was blown a tad sideways by high winds, and soils were soggy. But the crops were in by mid-June.
Even so, he was looking forward to spending less on irrigation this year than he has in the previous four seasons. He was happy with the cattle market, and figured all he could do about weather and grain and cotton markets was to keep an eye out and respond as necessary.
And stay upbeat.