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Articles from 1998 In April


Treating fuel as an input

Often neglected in the management of production costs, total petroleum expenditures actually match seed costs in agriculture. Here's why you should pencil them in and track those older # 2 diesel-gulping engines in the field.

Fuel may be considered the lowliest of inputs. Just dump it in and go. However, new research, new engine technology and new petroleum products put it back on the front burner.

"We find very few farmers who know what any one machine will burn," says Kent Lynch, product service engineer, Caterpillar Ag Products. He quickly calculates that at 19 gal./hr, a tractor is burning fuel at $15.20/hr. At 500 hrs. of annual use, that subtracts $7,600 from the bottom line.

"The difference between burning just two gallons per hour less fuel is about a thousand dollars a year and would be more with more hours of use," Lynch says. "I would think that would be worth something to most guys."

Caterpillar isn't the only company drawing attention to fuel and fuel usage. Kinze is also alerting farmers that fuel consumption can be reduced, often dramatically, through newer engine technology. It was an unexpected side benefit of its engine repowering efforts. "Farmers come to us because they want more horsepower. But they're amazed at how much less fuel they burn," says Jim Spaid, head of Kinze's Power Products Division.

Illinois farmers David and Mike McGee were amazed. They first repowered an older 4-wd tractor and then repowered an older 2-wd tractor. "This new engine is even better on fuel efficiency than the other repowered tractor," Mike says. But, like most farmers, the McGees didn't keep any detailed records.

"We're really pleased with that tractor, but have no specific data," Mike says. "But I can tell you that we farmed about 1,800 acres in 1996. And we farmed about 75 acres more in 1997. We used less total fuel with more acres last year."

Newer engines burn less. Driving this renewed awareness to fuel efficiency is a new generation of engine technology. And some of that technology is a result of new emissions standards. As a result, newer diesel engines pack more power in same-size or smaller displacement packages, and have improved combustion and cylinder head airflow. Computer technology is allowing for smarter engines.

Tying it all together is something called electronic unit injectors (EUIs). These diesel engine fuel injection systems can crudely be likened to what happened when automobiles went from carburetors to fuel injection systems. While all engine manufacturers put their own spin on it, EUIs are injectors that electronically spray diesel fuel into each cylinder, individually, on a cylinder-by-cylinder basis, often inside the cylinder head instead of on the outside of the engine. In many cases they are controlled electronically, by a computer chip.

The added heat of the cylinder head, electronic control and individual metering make for super-efficient, precise diesel engines. They are cleaner burning too.

Engines - all agricultural engines - are at least 50% more fuel efficient than just a few years ago, points out Mike Lockart, manager of new market development for Growmark. "It is phenomenal the small amount of fuel they burn."

Injector madness. That same fuel precision, however, can play havoc with injectors and injector pumps. Tractor companies and fuel suppliers both cite injector problems as their number one challenge.

"We do see a lot of injector problems," Lockart says.

He explains that tiny injector tip holes are smaller than the naked eye can see. A drop of water that makes it to an injector tip can instantly turn to steam, due to the high heat, and blow the side right off the tip. At that point the injector shoots a lot more fuel into the cylinder. "It is a melted piston waiting to happen," Lockart says. "I've seen it many times. It is a very expensive repair bill."

Part of the problem, claims Chuck Hamilton of Farmland Industries, is that the higher temperatures inside the head, while beneficial to reduced emissions and fuel efficiency, can potentially cause more oxidation of the fuel. "Temperatures may reach 180 to 212 degrees," he explains.

And repair costs are high. "An injector tip repair used to be in the $35 to $65 range," Hamilton points out. "One of these newer systems can be $350 to $400 to repair, and I've heard costs as high as $900."

However, Neal Ament, senior marketing consultant at Caterpillar, points a finger of blame directly at fuel suppliers. "We find the fuel isn't as clean as it should be. All tractor manufacturers have had problems with injector failures. The petroleum industry has not done a good job of policing itself."

He says that in the last two years, Cat has had to add a double filter system to its engines. It has added a 10- micron primary and 2-micron secondary filter to reduce erosion in injectors.

"One of the leading causes of injector failure is dirty fuel," Lockart admits. "And they (engine manufacturers) don't make any bones about it."

New fuel standards. To do a better job of policing, in July the National Conference of Weights and Measures (NCWM) will vote to adopt testing criteria for what determines a premium diesel fuel. Currently there is no national standard for consumer awareness.

Depending on how it plays out, the upshot of the action could result in a posting at gas-station pumps indicating that what you're putting in your tank is indeed a premium diesel. Like many of these kinds of regulations, this one is embroiled in controversy. At odds are NCWM's recommendations and the Engine Manufacturers Association (EMA) version of what constitutes a premium diesel.

In simple terms, the engine manufacturers' standards are much more extensive than the NCWM's proposal. The EMA's proposal would have refiners meet a full slate of criteria in addition to those of the NCWM.

Any labeling, however, will only appear at the commercial pump level. It does not apply to bulk delivery, which is even more of a reason to buy your diesel from a long-standing reputable supplier you know and trust.

Designer diesel fuel. Diesel fuel suppliers, especially farm cooperatives, argue that their premium-brand fuel is now at or above all standards set by the engine manufacturers and will perform trouble-free in all of today's engines. "And a very high percentage of our buyers do purchase our premium-grade diesel," Growmarks' Lockart adds. "It accounts for about 90% of on-farm sales.

"Agricultural cooperatives as a whole are head and shoulders above everyone else in marketing a premium fuel," Lockart emphasizes. "I think a lot of it goes back to a 'righteous buying attitude,' meaning farmers have pride in their equipment and are very quality conscious. All co-ops have marketed to that way of thinking."

Lockart also says the co-ops "have done a good job of marketing. We've explained the benefits of what's in a premium fuel in the way of additives and benefits to our customers."

Farmland's Hamilton and Mike Derickson, refined fuels marketing manager for Cenex, agree. "Our people will always supply a premium diesel, which already meets or exceeds guidelines set by the engine manufacturers." Farmers need to look for and invest in, according to the co-ops, their respective brand-name premium diesels.

What farmers can do. Besides buying from a high-quality supplier, there are many things farmers can do to keep fuel expenditures and repair costs to a minimum.

Lockart, however, believes the current focus on costing out engine fuel efficiency is being overplayed. For example, he says, "when figuring fuel as a percentage of total input expenses, it is hard to see much difference. And when you consider ground conditions, weather and other factors, fuel efficiency is awfully hard to measure.

"I tried to calculate it for a friend of mine who farms about 1,000 acres and it figured out to about one-half of one percent of total expenditures. Even he was surprised it was that low."

By comparison, Lockart says, fuel cost can range from 25 to 30% of total expense for truckers. "It boils down to three or four gallons per acre for an entire farming operation. You can't even measure it!" he says.

For that reason, Lockart believes, farmers should not be concerned as much with fuel efficiency as with fuel quality and usage. "With the cost to your farming operation that low, it is even more reason to buy top-shelf," he says. The package that is sold to farmers will save money over the long run in maintenance, repair and smooth operation. "The backdoor benefit to that is fuel efficiency."

Caterpillar's Ament disagrees. "All you have to do is look at the drawbar horsepower for the gallons per hour you use. How much work you do with a gallon of fuel is very hard to dispute."

An even simpler way to figure it, Ament says, is by tracking gal./acre. "It is probably the easiest way to figure fuel usage and it doesn't matter what tractor you're running." He encourages comparison so farmers start to know what they burn.

Tidy tips. No matter how much fuel farmers burn, Lockart believes that the petroleum industry needs to build awareness of how farmers store and handle fuel. And it is not just the storage tank sitting in their yards either.

"Transfer tanks, the kind like you take to the field in the back of your pickup trucks, are the absolute worst," Lockart says. "They are far worse than storage tanks." Water and dirt are the top two enemies of diesel fuel. And, a surprise to many farmers, water poses more harm than dirt, Lockart explains.

Hamilton agrees. "Even small amounts of moisture in a fuel tank can cause algae to develop in summer months," he says. "And it can cause ice crystals in the winter. Many times winter fuel problems are frozen water crystals. This is often confused as 'gelling.' Changing filters before winter can often prevent any problems," he says.

To prevent fuel headaches, Hamilton recommends changing fuel filters often. He advises twice a year, before each busy season. Drain the water from all tanks and fuel systems at least twice a year. And, always buy a premium fuel and keep it clean and dry.

"There is a lot of misunderstanding among farmers about the fuel they purchase," Hamilton continues. "If you are buying a premium diesel, you do not need to add extra additives."

In most cases pouring in over-the-counter additives to a premium product will only antagonize the already conditioned fuel. It also adds unnecessary cost to a premium-priced product. Leave your premium diesel alone, Hamilton advises.

The race to sell space-based scouting

Advances in remote sensing promise spectacular views of crops while giving agribusiness considerable new marketing opportunities. Making the data meaningful, however, remains industry's big challenge.

As one commercial satellite after another rockets into orbit, new applications prepare to serve agriculture in ways unimagined a decade ago. Beyond closer aerial views, new technologies promise crop mapping with improved color schemes, varying swaths, more frequent flybys and even three-dimensional fly-throughs. Some improvements could magnify vegetative changes that otherwise go unnoticed, aiding earlier detection of crop stresses caused by pest or disease infestations.

Current remote sensing maps, for example, provide 256 shades of gray. A new satellite set for launch in 1999, QuickBird I from EarthWatch, records 2,011 shades of gray. Although the human eye can't see such differences, computers can read the unique numeric values assigned to each shade and foretell plant problems before they erupt in fields.

"Remote sensing technologies provide amazing and unfamiliar views of places both new and familiar. But novelty alone is not enough to justify the higher costs of obtaining such views - we must put them to work," says Dr. Bill Bland, Extension agricultural climatologist, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Bland believes the greatest potential for remote sensing data is as inputs to computer simulations of agricultural processes.

Data for computer models. "Remote sensing images are just snapshots of one place in time, and the crop has a long history," Bland explains. "Computer models can mimic how crop processes are going. They make more of an attempt to integrate situations the way the crop actually does."

Bland and his colleagues at the university currently are testing three mathematical computer models using remote sensing. One model estimates water used by irrigated potato crops throughout the season. It can pay for itself by scheduling irrigation to maximize yields without wasting water or the energy needed to pump it. Another potato program measures leaf wetness, using computer models that combine weather observations made at airports, radar readings, satellite images and irrigation records. Potato growers can use this measurement in models of disease outbreaks to time fungicide sprays for optimal pest control. Another model provides early frost warnings to Wisconsin cranberry growers and could replace a National Weather Service program that was cut several years ago.

Because remote sensing data won't stand on its own, Bland cautions farmers to be wary of "smooth guys trying to sell remote sensing data the way some people sell cars. They may forget to mention that the engine costs extra."

Commercial satellites. The market for selling remote sensing data and value-added services could well reach several billion dollars within the next 10 years as commercial interests vie for their share of agriculture's revenue. Several major communications companies have plans to launch high-resolution satellite systems, made possible by the relaxation of military intelligence constraints.

Since 1990 42 satellites have been in operation around the planet. On December 24 of last year, EarthWatch, of Longmont, CO, launched EarlyBird I from the Svobodny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia. Preflight publicity hailed EarlyBird I as the highest resolution satellite commercially available. They expected 15-meter color resolution and 3-meter black-and-white mapping. At 3-meter resolutions, buildings, roads and bridges are visible.

Four days into flight, however, EarlyBird I lost communication, and a month later the company dismissed 30% of its workforce. At press time, a company representative expressed little hope of recovering the satellite. Instead, EarthWatch is focusing on its next-generation satellite, QuickBird I, headed for space in 1999. This satellite offers 0.82-meter black-and-white resolution and 3.28 multispectral resolutions. It also adds blue to its color spectrum, along with red, green and near-infrared, as well as 11-bit quantization or pixel depth. The blue channel allows true color imagery from space. The added pixel depth more clearly defines objects.

Other pending commercial launches include Ikonos by Space Imaging/Eosat, set for later this year; OrbView-3 by Orbimage, expected in the fall of 1999; and a Resource21 satellite with a projected launch of 2001. Other planned advances in remote sensing include shorter revisit periods, advanced radar sensor systems and other features allowing earlier and more thorough detection of crop problems.

Key to product performance, according to Kevin Little, Resource21 director of agricultural sales, are highly calibrated sensors, techniques that compensate for atmospheric conditions, and more frequent, broad-based, overhead coverage. Based in Englewood, CO, Resource21 is already flying planes ahead of its expected satellite launch. The company has run remote sensing tests via airplane in more than 1,000 commercial fields growing corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat and potatoes.

A quantum leap. Using the wealth of remote sensing data for agriculture, however, will require significant advances in computer processing power and basic changes in data interpretation.

"The jump to 1-meter resolution for some applications is a quantum jump in the magnitude of data that they generate," says Dr. Thomas Lillisand, director of the Environmental Remote Sensing Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Founded in 1970, this center supports one of the oldest and largest remote sensing research facilities in the country.

"At 1-meter resolution, a 40-acre field encompasses approximately 162,000 picture elements, or pixels," Lillisand says. "This data volume necessitates tens of gigabytes of computer storage capacity and tremendous processing power to acquire the data and much, much more once you start to manipulate the data."

Even with computer advances, agricultural users will be forced into making tradeoffs in spacial resolution, visual range, swath width and data delivery, Lillisand says. He notes that other problems with satellite imagery could arise from the satellite's time schedule and interference from clouds of the view from space.

"Determining the optimal mix of space, airborne and ground-based data in the context of a variety of agricultural applications in near-real time will be a great challenge," Lillisand says. "Farmers will be forced to face numerous tradeoffs...especially within the cost structure and contractual agreement for the data."

Intuitive reasoning needed. Even bigger changes are necessary in the way agriculture interprets these data, says USDA soil scientist James Schepers, Lincoln, NE. He suggests that optimizing remote sensing data requires a paradigm shift toward more intuitive reasoning.

Current variable-rate technology (VRT) is based on numeric information, Schepers says, but the information is no better than the understanding that goes into its collection and interpretation. In a project testing remote sensing as a nutrient management tool, Schepers and research partner Daniel Hagopian concluded that positive results are possible. They also noted, however, their results were highly dependent upon the data analysis techniques.

"We're used to locking ourselves into numbers. If you torture data long enough, it will confess to anything," Schepers said. "With remote sensing, there are things you'll see in the field that only you may understand. Measuring these relationships requires more intuitive and instinctive feelings than traditional quantitative analysis."

Updated information on satellite launchings and remote sensing applications are available at various Internet sites: Visit www.ersc.wisc.edu/ for the University of Wisconsin Environmental Remote Sensing Center; www.digitalglobe.com for EarthWatch; www.orbimage.com for Orbimage/Orbital Sciences Corp.; www.spaceimage.com for Space Imaging/Eosat; www.asprs.org/asprs for the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing; www.soils.wisc.edu/wimnext for Wisconsin/Minnesota Cooperative Extension Agricultural Weather and Timely Satellite Data for Agricultural Management program.

What mixture goes where? Starter fertilizer

While no-tillers are trumpeting starter fertilizer to enhance early plant growth in cool, wet conditions, with the potential for added yield later, Steve Curley of The Consulting Company warns that starter is no panacea. Improper placement, timing and formulation can ruin starter potential for many users, says the Apple Valley, MN, consultant.

He points out that one reason no-tillers seem to benefit more from starter is because a no-till corn root establishes more mass in the top 3 in. of soil, whereas on chiseled ground the root mass is distributed through the top 6 in. No-till may keep the soil cooler and wetter a few weeks longer than conventional tillage, which, he says, can result in a longer phosphorous-induced nutrient tie-up.

"No-till gives a higher degree of response to starter across the board and even higher if we get the phosphate in-furrow with the seed," Curley says. "The cooler, wetter soil conditions last longer and immobilize the nutrients longer, especially phosphate, zinc and nitrogen."

Because starter, especially phosphorous uptake which is aided by zinc, establishes the young plant's early girth, proper placement of available phosphate on the growth point of the seedling at the three- to five-leaf stage in ideal temperatures is crucial, he adds.

Curley's argument is two-fold: First, common 2-x2-in. placement of starter is off the mark; and second, growers may need to reassess starter formulations.Maximize nutrient absorption."The plant gets direct absorption (of nu trients) as soon as its seed begins to metabolize and break down and starts shooting root development. That's the optimum place to put starter because the growing point is the maximum point for absorption of water and nutrients in the emergence through five-leaf stage," Curley says. "When there is an optimum level of phosphate in the plant tissue at the three- to five-leaf stage, the genetic potential for girth and the length of the first 15 kernels on the embryonic ear are optimized. It's a function of phosphorous, with zinc facilitating the phosphorous uptake."

But Ohio State University soil fertility specialist Jay Johnson expresses reservations about in-furrow applications. "Phosphorous goes on with other nutrients, mainly with a 10-34-0 formula in the furrow, and I'm concerned about the uniformity of stand. You're more likely to get more damage to your plant population in the furrow unless you keep your rates extremely low. A 2x2 placement eliminates that as a factor in crop production. The root system in the early stage grows much faster than the top growth, by the time the plant emerges, the root is 2 in. long and is reaching over and picking up the starter fertilizer."

At that early stage of development, all focus should be on minimizing plant injury that may result through the improper use of products. Ultimately, that responsibility lies with the formulation of your starter.

Phosphorous needs to remain soluble for plant uptake, which requires only a slightly acid pH. The problem is that urea N can overwhelm the job that phosphate is trying to do early on and there's a chance that urea N can inhibit the phosphoric acid (and therefore the work of the phosphate molecules) by liberating free ammonia in the soil when applied in a band too close to the seed. Curley's point is that prolonged free ammonia, situated right on top of the seed, can suck up all the available moisture, decrease the solubility of P, and desiccate the seed.

Under cool, wet conditions, this may not necessarily be much of a problem. However, under dryer conditions, prolonged free ammonia can burn the plant's root system and incur a loss of anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 ppa. An ideal in-furrow starter would buffer against free ammonia, somewhat increase P, and provide lower K so that urea N does not overwhelm the girth-giving and early plant growth that P offers, and excess K does not inhibit the nutritional values that N offers later on.

The solution, Curley says, is to apply the correct N, P and K formulation in the right place. To facilitate uptake, phosphorous needs to be close to the growth point of the seedling at the plant's three- to five-leaf stage. "Because phosphate does not move from where it is placed in the soil, 2x2 is generally too far away," he says. "Soil will not solubilize phosphorous and allow it to be absorbed into the root until we hit about 70 degrees."

But Johnson says he's never seen such a problem with 2x2 placement. "At that stage, the plant is taking up very little of anything," Johnson says. "It's too small. It is taking up some nutrients but not in large quantities. The rapid uptake period for nutrients happens 25 to 30 days after emergence through tasseling."

Formulations. With 2x2 placement, Curley says, phosphorous is not getting into the plant in high enough amounts soon enough. And unless they've put zinc in their phosphate fertilizer, a lot of 2x2 phosphate starters create a zinc deficiency," he says.

Tests on high-phosphate soils in northern climes at the University of Guelph in Canada determined that a starter phosphorous is beneficial because the cool soil temperatures do not allow the residual fractions of phosphorous already in the soil to become soluble early in the season. In those conditions the Guelph studies compared a popular 9-18-9 formulation with common polyphosphate 10-34-0 and 8-19-3 formulas and found that the 8-19-3 worked best to get phosphate into the plant at the three- to five-leaf stage when placedin furrow.

"The 9-18-9 has way too much potash right on the seed," Curley explains. "If you overload the plant with too much soluble potassium early, what you'll do with the 9-18-9 is block N uptake later. That limits your ear size. The key on starter is to not cause seedling injury or create yield decrease due to reaction of products or your formulation. That's how 8-19-3 came about, as a specialty grade, in-furrow starter formulation that's specifically designed for seedling safety and N, P and K response."

Johnson explains that any starter formulation is based on the nutrient needs for a particular soil and climate. He says 10-34-0 is popular because of its cost. "It can be made cheaper than any other liquid formulation of phosphorous; it's easy to handle and store and blends well with a lot of liquid fertilizers."

Corn+Soybean Digest

Planter Stand Measures Seed Metering Accuracy

Worn back plates and brushes. Rust buildup. Broken belts.

Those are the problems Dan McKeon sees most often as he tests the accuracy of corn planter metering units using his new computerized planter stand.

McKeon, a crop consultant with DDM Crop Service in North Platte, NE, bought the computerized Row Unit Tester in February.

"Without the planter stand, there's no way to accurately test planter units," explains McKeon, who uses it on John Deere finger and vacuum metering units and Kinze finger units.

By having their units tested and then calibrated, McKeon hopes corn growers will get their desired plant population and even seed spacing. That should maximize yields, he says.

"If a producer wants to drop 30,000 seeds per acre, and his planter units are operating at 85% efficiency, only 25,500 seeds are planted. Then, with a 5% allowance for germination figured in, that number drops to 24,225.

"You can apply the correct amount of fertilizer and other chemicals, choose the right seed, plant at the optimum time, etc. But if your planter meters aren't calibrated correctly, it goes to waste because you don't have the stand to equal your yield potential," says McKeon.

To get started, McKeon plugs the following information from each customer into the computer: row width, desired population, planting speed and seed size. Then he attaches a metering unit from the farmer's planter to the stand and runs 100 kernels through it. A 100-cell gated belt catches the seed after it's run through the metering unit.

Ideally, each cell should catch one kernel. But if the unit isn't running at 100% accuracy, some cells contain two or three kernels or no kernels at all.

The stand's computer calculates each unit's percentage of accuracy.

"Most units run at about 85-95% drop accuracy before we work on them."

Next, McKeon and his assistant, Tim Storm, tear the units apart. They adjust tension, clean all parts and replace any that are worn. They keep a big supply of brushes, back plates and other parts on hand to speed service.

They spray the inside of finger-unit frames with liquid graphite to prevent rust and keep them running smoothly.

After taking the above steps, they test the unit a second time. If accuracy is less than 99%, they repeat the procedure.

The entire process takes 35-40 minutes per row.

McKeon, who hopes to work on 350 units this season, charges $18.95 per row for finger units and $8.95 for vacuum units. He charges more for finger pickup units because they have more moving parts.

He says each planter unit should be checked annually or after planting 500 acres.

Corn+Soybean Digest

These Drills Cut Irrigation Furrows

When you plant everything with a drill, getting surface irrigation water where you need it can be difficult.

But that's not a problem for Rodney Eaker (pronounced "acre") and his sons, Shane and Rusty.

The Eakers rotate rice and soybeans on about 3,800 acres near Harviell, MO. Virtually all of their land is put to grade to hold rice flood. When they switched from 30"-row soybeans to no-till drilled beans, uniform irrigation became more difficult.

"For awhile after we went to drilled beans, we simply turned water onto the field at the high side," says Rodney Eaker.

"That worked fairly well, although high spots didn't get irrigated and water ponded in some low places."

The Eakers disliked the idea of making an extra trip through the field to cut irrigation channels.

"What we needed was a way to form furrows and drill soybeans on the same pass," says Eaker. "But I couldn't find ready-made equipment that would let us do that."

So the Eakers decided to retrofit their 30' and 20' drills with furrow cutters. They started with Yetter square-tube toolbars designed for John Deere drills and initially designed to carry fertilizer knives. Instead of the fertilizer attachments, they clamped wavy no-till coulters and 8" irrigation shovels or sweeps every 60" along the toolbar.

"The coulters are built by Yetter, and they readily attached to the toolbar," says Eaker. "But we had to build the shanks for the sweeps."

Equipping the 20' drill was a fairly straightforward mechanical chore. They clamped on a 20' Yetter toolbar and hung the coulter-shovel units from it at 60" intervals.

The 30'-wide drill, which is actually two Deere 15' drills tied together with a Houck hydraulic hitch, took a bit more doing.

"To accommodate both the Houck Hitch and the Yetter toolbar, we had to move the dolly wheels forward on the tongue by 20"," Eaker reports.

"And to make the 60" spacing needed for the furrow cutters, we had to add a foot to the toolbar on one side."

The coulter and shovel attachment runs just ahead of the drill's planting shoes. The coulter loosens the soil, then the following shovel sweeps out an irrigation furrow 4-5" deep.

To irrigate soybeans, the Eakers unroll poly pipe across the end of the field, with the pipe's perforations aligned with 60" furrow spacings.

"It works very well with our fields put to grade," says Eaker. "After rice harvest, we pull down levees and roll the rice straw. We work the field just enough to take out tracks, then pull a land plane over the field to get it in shape to plant."

When it's time to plant beans, the Eakers simply hook on their no-till drills and head across the field - cutting irrigation furrows as they go.

Corn+Soybean Digest

Have Soil Tested For SCN, Now!

If you haven't tested for soybean cyst nematodes (SCN) and still think you don't have them, you are probably dead wrong. And you're probably poorer for it.

In fact, you may as well flush a small stack of $100 bills down the toilet, or burn them. If you have not tested for SCN, and yields have been skimpier than you think they should be, you're doing the equivalent of just that to yourself.

Silly as that may sound, according to a 1997 survey, only one out of three soybean growers has tested for SCN - and taken corrective action if he found the problem.

Scientists have found SCN in every state where soybeans are grown. They've also confirmed them in most counties in those states.

So, before you pull that corn planter out of the shed, take just a few hours - a short day at most - to take soil samples and have them analyzed for SCN. The cost in time and money: about 30 minutes per field and roughly $15 a field to get the samples tested.

If you find you have SCN, the corrective action is to rotate out of soybeans to a non-host crop like corn for more than one year and switch to SCN-resistant varieties.

Those could be the most profitable moves you make in 1998.

"One of the best things growers could do this entire season to ensure a healthy, profitable soybean crop is to get out there before they plant the crop and check for cyst nematodes," declares Iowa State University nematologist Greg Tylka. "Discovering the problem and then taking the corrective action could easily make a 10-bu and even up to a 20-bu/acre difference in their yield."

Tylka, a veteran cyst nematode fighter, is only one voice in a big flock of concerned people worrying about this critically serious problem.

Scientists, industry representatives, United Soybean Board and American Soybean Association farmer-leaders - and yes, farm media representatives - have all joined in The SCN Coalition to beat this expensive pest.

The coalition's slogan: "Take the test. Beat the pest."

"Producers are losing enormous amounts of yield and profit potential to SCN, and many don't even know it," challenges Paulette Pierson, the coalition's regional SCN education coordinator.

The coalition is a unique and ground-breaking partnership of state soybean checkoff boards and land grant universities from 10 North Central states, plus a handful of seed company and grower cooperative representatives.

Participating states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Individual research and extension personnel from Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky and Ontario also have been involved in the project.

Industry partners, other than ASA and USB, include: Cargill Hybrid Seeds, Asgrow Seed Company, Cenex/Land O'Lakes, Dekalb Genetics, Growmark/Countrymark, Mycogen Seeds, Novartis Seeds and Pioneer Hi-Bred International.

Remember, challenge these nematode fighters: Growers can't control crop prices, especially in a global market. But they can help their yields by making sure soybean cyst nematodes aren't sucking away a shameful percentage of their profit.

Corn+Soybean Digest

Electronic Trading Is 'Overnight' Success

If you use the futures market and haven't heard of Project A, listen up.

In fact, if you've missed a great hedging opportunity because it was gone before you could act, read this article to the last period.

Project A is the Chicago Board of Trade's (CBOT) relatively new electronic-trading-at-night program that just got better.

"It's 21st century technology now," enthuses Vic Lespinasse, a corn and soybean trader with A.G. Edwards.

Electronic trading, of course, with its big advantage of immediate trading, is old hat in the financial markets.

"It has had enormous success, and it continues to grow very rapidly," points out Lespinasse. "And I think the same thing will happen with the grain futures market."

Project A was born in 1996. But due to a clamoring of demand, CBOT officials extended its hours by opening at 9 p.m. instead of 10:30 p.m., says Katie Spring, CBOT's assistant manager of ag communications. And the board's Ag Advisory Committee would like to see the hours lengthened even more.

Electronic trading, Spring and Lespinasse explain, is trading by computer, without a centralized trading floor, such as CBOT. It's done overnight, so it isn't competing with normal daytime, conventional, open-cry trading.

Farmers and others can't execute trades on their own computers. But all they have to do is call a broker like A.G. Edwards. Project A work stations are available in Chicago, Memphis, New York City, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, London and, soon, Japan.

"One could be anywhere in the world and execute a trade," asserts Lespinasse. "All you need is a telephone to communicate with your broker, and you can take advantage of impact-type news that can affect the market immediately - and affect your bottom line."

It's very quick; very efficient. And you know immediately if your order got filled or not - no waiting around. If it's a market order, it is executed instantaneously.

Let's compare the before and now of this new technology.

Before, consider the case of a three-day holiday weekend, for example. Say a USDA bulletin or a yield-impacting weather announcement comes in late Friday. Either could trigger an emotional, price-affecting action in the futures market. It might be the following Tuesday before you could execute a futures trade. By then, opportunity may have evaporated.

Flash forward to now. With electronic overnight trading, there is no wait. You can do it pronto - virtually instantly!

The market waits for no one, reminds Lespinasse. Market-impact news can happen anytime. When something happens elsewhere in the world, oftentimes it might be day there but evening or even the middle of the night in the U.S.

"Electronic trading gives one the opportunity to take advantage of these situations, if they precipitate price moves that are to your advantage."

Farmers aren't the only ones who now have a new opportunity to trade overnight in the futures market. The speculator, processor and exporter all have gained more flexibility.

So has your competition. That means crop growers in Brazil, your biggest competitors in the soybean industry, and growers elsewhere, have the same opportunities.

Are they taking advantage of it?

"Absolutely," Lespinasse asserts. "There is all sorts of foreign participation in the market now, more so than ever before. It has truly become a global marketplace, and the world looks to the board of trade now for price discovery and direction. And I think we're going to see even more of that in years to come."

Have farmers jumped at this opportunity?

Yes. But at about the same level of participation in the futures market as before Project A. The use of the electronic trading option varies widely, depending on if there is any price-impacting news.

"Some nights it's relatively slow," notes the trader. "Other nights, when there is fresh news, it is relatively busy. Some nights it's only a few hundred contracts, sometimes thousands and thousands of contract transactions."

Without the government safety net that previous farm programs provided, farmers need to heed the wake-up call to check out any new mechanisms to help them manage risk, warn farm management specialists and ag economists.

"It's truly a global marketplace now, and one needs to really take advantage of these tools," Lespinasse agrees. "Otherwise, you can lose out, something a farmer really can't afford to do today."

Corn+Soybean Digest

Will Counter-Seasonal Price Patterns Continue?

"Have you ever seen a year in which soybean prices bottomed at the Fourth of July, then peaked during the first week of November? To me it all seems backwards."

That was the comment from a frustrated Iowa farmer at the end of a seminar. I confirmed that it was unusual, but not unheard of, to have prices bottom when they often top, during the July Fourth weekend.

It is also very unusual to have prices peak in early November. The normal seasonal pattern, as illustrated in the mid-March issue of Soybean Digest, is to have prices bottom in late September through early October and then peak in April or May.

The unusual price action of last year is what chartists call a counter-seasonal move. Such a move doesn't happen very often, but when it does, we get a very powerful price move.

What caused this price action? The November rally was caused by global buyers purchasing soybeans to lock up cheap U.S. soybeans.

At the same time, U.S. farmers were reluctant sellers, pressuring prices higher. By late November, the financial problems in Southeast Asia turned into a full-blown panic. The International Monetary Fund pumped in some emergency credit; however, most traders now had to plug into their scenarios a big drop in ag exports to that vital region of the world.

Suddenly, with a large crop in the U.S. and a large crop growing in South America, there were plenty of soybeans in the world. Prices then dropped lower into the February-through-March period.

This price action has been frustrating for growers on two continents. A Brazilian customer explained how many Brazilian farmers had aggressively sold soybeans ahead in 1996 and '97. As soybean futures rallied higher in those years, they were forced to deliver on contracts that were 50 cents to $2 below the cash price available at that time.

In 1998, very few soybeans were sold ahead and Brazilian farmers were again frustrated as prices plunged lower into the February-through-March 1998 period.

After the violent price action of the last several months, odds are good that a normal, seasonal pattern will develop yet in 1998. This would suggest a rally in the April-through-June period with a low in September or October.

If the rally comes early, be prepared to make old-crop sales whenever your price targets are hit. If you need to sell off the combine, use the April-through-June period to make new-crop sales.

Corn+Soybean Digest

Capture Emotional Rallies

Uncertainty heading into the 1998 growing season is at the highest level we've seen since the 1988 season.

With all that uncertainty comes volatility and what will likely be short-lived, emotionally driven selling opportunities. The trick: having the guts to sell when it doesn't look like the right thing to do.

The 1998-crop acreage mix is a huge unknown. By the time you read this, USDA will have released the Prospective Plantings Report. But don't get married to those estimates.

All winter, producers told us they were confident on what 75% of their acres will grow in 1998. The rest will be decided by the markets and weather.

Usage is another uncertainty. It looked so bullish through the first half of the marketing year, but that didn't prevent anticipation of a demand collapse, which kept dousing demand-led rallies.

For September through January, soybean crushings, as reported by the Census Bureau, were up 9.88% from year-ago figures. And the pace was intensifying - January crushings were up 10.65% from the year-earlier amount.

If bean crush continued to run at 9.88% over the year-ago pace through the end of the marketing year, yearly crush would total 1.577 billion bushels - 57 million bushels above USDA's February Supply & Demand Report estimate.

First-quarter hog numbers were at record highs, and total cattle on feed were at huge levels.

But poultry producers were pulling in their horns and actually drawing numbers down from year-earlier levels. Turkey producers were the hardest hit late in 1997 and in early 1998, with flock estimates down from 10% to 20%.

Dairy producers were also sacrificing milk production for lower protein and feed costs.

Add to that a surplus supply of alternative proteins (it doesn't matter which alternative; it's in surplus and competing with soybean meal).

The confusing factor: As bean crush blew market expectations away, soybean meal and soybean oil stocks remained steady. Most believed the bean crush pace would have ballooned stocks of both.

Bean export bookings through February were also disappointing, running 25.9 million bushels ahead of year-ago levels. USDA's estimate calls for a 78-million-bushel jump in exports for the entire marketing year. But meal and oil exports were red-hot.

Meal bookings through February were 69.3% ahead of year-ago levels, compared to USDA's forecast for only a 6.5% rise. In the last week of February, total soybean meal export bookings (total sales, shipped and unshipped) matched the entire 1996-97 export tally.

Oil export bookings were 49.4% ahead vs. USDA's forecast of a 22.2% rise.

So where's the uncertainty in those figures? Asia. Also, the question was being asked: "How long can the product export pace last?"

The answer: April. By late February, ocean-going product haulers were lined up at the port of Paranagua in Brazil. Bean prices in Brazil had dropped to the low-$5 range, and the world was anticipating plenty of cheap protein and soybean oil to be readily available by April 1. In this case, the world is right.

Now throw U.S. weather uncertainty into the mix. That will add volatility and keep the price outlook uncertain until the end of May.

Either way, the market expects at least a short-term weather-based rally.

Bottom line: Keeping up with the news of the day will be more difficult and more important than we have experienced in the last 10 years. Knowing not only the facts, but also what the market anticipated, will be key in determining if a rally attempt is a trend change - or just a doomed price pop.

Remember that without a full-fledged '98 drought, the underlying market fundamentals are price-negative. That means one of two things: 1) Prices will be driven lower from current levels. 2) Prices will have a difficult time sustaining any rally. That means we've got to be aggressive in capturing what will likely be short-term, emotionally driven rallies.

Unfortunately, that also means selling when it's most difficult to sell - at a time when it may appear a price rally is finally generating upside momentum. Discipline will be key - set your pricing objective and stick with it. If that means buying call options (either before or after the actual cash sale) to establish a minimum price, do it. There's uncertainty for the 1998-crop marketing year like we haven't seen since the 1988-crop year.