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Articles from 2004 In June

Area crop report still favorable on the High Plains

LUBBOCK, Texas – For a region that averages an abandonment rate of 18 to 20 percent, growers and crop observers alike are hesitant to talk much when things are generally headed in the right direction.

That's the position many producers on the High Plains find themselves in as the area collectively keeps its fingers crossed and hopes for the best. So far the 2004 crop is rated as good to excellent in most areas and off to a start that is being guardedly compared to some of the best in recent memory.

Adding to the undercurrent of excitement is the fact that a significant number of dryland acres have been established and are growing off well.

With irrigated and non-irrigated acreage set to take advantage of a favorable sub-soil moisture situation capable of carrying the crop well into the summer, prospects are bright.

That's not to say, however, that everything is wine and roses on the Plains in 2004. As of this writing growers in northern portions of Floyd County, and in the adjacent counties of Swisher and Briscoe, are picking up the pieces from the season's largest single hail event. The storm, which ravaged the area June 21, is estimated to have logged an estimated 60,000 more acres into the loss column.

The worst part of the story, though, is that this same area has now lost three promising crops in a row to hail.

Despite the devastation of the June 21 storm, the overall outlook for the High Plains region remains positive. Of the estimated 3.6 million acres planted to cotton this year it is hard to account for more than 300,000-400,000 acres that could ultimately be abandoned at this time.

The primary causes of loss to date have been a lack of moisture to establish a stand on dryland acres, which accounts for around 250,000 acres, and a combination of hail, wind or flooding that have tallied another 100,000-150,000 acres to date.

With about 3.2 million acres standing at the end of June the 2004-crop still has tremendous potential. Maturity-wise the crop has everything from very early to very late and some of it will need plenty of open weather this fall to reach its true potential. With luck the season will continue to provide the necessary ingredients to make the crop a success.

Weather forecasts showing an increased chance for scattered thunderstorms through the end of the month mean producers still have a stressful time ahead. Despite looking forward to the possibilities, they know that this time of year any storm can deliver good in the form of rain and bad in the form of hail and high wind that threatens old and young cotton alike.

Growers who receive damage and need to assess the situation have several good resources available to them through the Texas A&M Research and Extension Center at Lubbock.

The Center's website has publications that provide detailed information on evaluating damaged stands that can assist growers deciding if they should keep or fail a severely damaged cotton crop.

The Lubbock Center website is: Shawn Wade writes for Plain Cotton Growers Inc.


Growers planting more cotton, rice, corn and beans

WASHINGTON — U.S. farmers planted more corn, soybeans, rice and cotton and fewer acres to wheat this spring than they did in 2003, according to USDA’s June 30 planted acreage report.

Corn planted acreage is up 3 percent from last year; soybeans, 2 percent; cotton 3 percent; rice, 10 percent; and all wheat is down 3 percent, according to report.

Cotton plantings for 2004 are expected to total 13.9 million acres. That’s up from last year, but down from March intentions of 14.4 million acres.

In 11 of the 17 cotton-producing states, upland growers decreased planted acres from their spring intentions and seeded alternative crops. The largest declines in cotton acreage occurred in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, each down 100,000 acres from March.

According to C. William Otto, vice president, A.G. Edwards and Sons, the newest cotton estimate “is slightly higher than the average trade guess of around 13.7 million acres.”

USDA estimated rice acreage at 3.35 million acres, up 10 percent over 2003. Acreage increased in all rice-producing states except Mississippi, where acreage remained unchanged from last year at 235,000 acres. Arkansas acreage was estimated at 1.54 million acres; California, 618,000 acres; Louisiana, 550,000 acres; Missouri, 190,000 acres; and Texas, 212,000 acres.

Corn-planted area was estimated at 81 million acres, up 1.96 million acres from March intentions and a little higher than average trade estimates. According to USDA, planting conditions during April and May across much of the Corn Belt were near ideal. Similar conditions were experienced in the northern and central Great Plains.

However, planting progress slowed after mid-May as heavy rains fell in many areas of the Corn Belt. Growers in Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin experienced rainfall which prevented them from planting some of their acres originally intended for corn.

Farmers reported that 98 percent of the corn acreage had been planted at the time of the survey interview, which is 1 percentage point above the average for the past 10 years.

Soybean area was estimated at 74.8 million acres, up 2 percent from last year and down 602,000 acres from March. If realized, that will be the largest planted area on record and a rebound from the three-year decline in acreage. Area for harvest, at 73.7 million acres, is also up 2 percent from 2003.

Area planted increased or was unchanged from last year in all states except Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Growers in Illinois and Iowa showed the largest decreases in soybeans planted from 2003, but showed comparable increases in acres planted to corn.

Farmers reported that 87 percent of the intended soybean acreage had been planted at the time of the survey interview, compared to an average of 78 percent for the past 10 years.

All wheat-planted area was estimated at 59.9 million acres, with harvested acres expected to total 50.7 million acres, down 4 percent from last year.

Winter wheat planted area, at 43.5 million acres, is 3 percent below last year, but up fractionally from the previous estimate.


Frequent rains affecting Delta cotton crop

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Over the last several months, it seems Louisiana has been under a perpetual rain cloud.

“We keep getting rained on, poured on,” says Sandy Stewart, Louisiana Extension cotton specialist. “It just won’t let up, and we continue to be under saturated, semi-flooded conditions. From here on out, I believe the story will be the condition of our cotton crop’s root system.”

Right now, Stewart is field-side looking at cotton with water standing in it. “This water has been here for four or five days now. It’s the same story all over the state.”

In better-drained areas, the tap roots and root system in general still look okay, says Stewart. However, move into bottoms and areas that have held water over the last few weeks and root systems are “suspect at best. We just have roots systems that are too shallow.”

This is problematic because the crop is moving into bloom, a time when cotton’s demand for water will be high. Ironically, says Stewart, if the rain suddenly shuts off, as it often does, “we’re going to have to depend on timely rainfall or intense irrigation to make the crop.” The crop’s root system just isn’t extensive enough to search out water if it turns dry.

At the beginning of June, the state had a brief respite from intense May rains, and producers were able to get into fields and clean up weeds. But that ended two weeks ago. Since then, “we’ve seen rainfall after rainfall, and it’s beginning to take a toll on the crop’s health.”

Even with his concerns, Stewart says the crop “isn’t lost by any means. I don’t want to sound too negative — we still have the chance for a nice crop. Our square retention is extremely high, and I remain optimistic. However, we can’t handle much more rain and, unfortunately, the forecast is calling for a 40 percent chance of rain through early July.”

So far, the bulk of Mississippi’s cotton looks “good to very good,” says Charles Ed Snipes, Mississippi Extension northwest district cotton specialist. “Our growing conditions have been decent, and the crop is beginning to grow off well. We do have some hot spots with plant bugs beginning to break out. That does concern me, although not in a major way.”

Usually, June is hot and dry. This June has been cool and wet, though, with regular rains since Memorial Day.

“We have had a pattern of rain showers hitting the Delta lately,” says Snipes. “I’m sitting through one now — I need to be doing some field work. These showers have caused us some scheduling trouble in getting final weed control accomplished.

“Ultimately, I’m not sure what toll the weather we’re experiencing will take. These cloudy days are taking away heat units, and we’re seeing some square shed. But, overall, there isn’t anything causing me great worry.”

Arkansas has another concern, says Bill Robertson: many drift complaints. “Newpath, Roundup, you name it,” says the state’s cotton specialist. “A lot of it seems to be self-inflicted. Around Poinsett County we’ve got fields that had Newpath get onto them. That cotton, about 500 acres, was really banged up.”

In Arkansas, rainfall has been either too much or too little.

“We’ve got some thin spots showing up where fields have gotten too much water,” says Robertson. But there are other areas — like in south Arkansas — where there hasn’t been enough rainfall. There are areas around Crittenden County and the northeastern part of the state that keep missing the rains.”

The week of June 21, Robertson looked at some early April-planted cotton. “It’s taken off and looks really good now. For the longest time, it just sat and struggled. But now it looks great.”

Much of Arkansas’ older cotton was treated for thrips. In the central part of the state and a few places north of I-40, there are some treatments for aphids going on. There have been some treatments for flea-hoppers, too, says Robertson.

With the exception of some weedy fields, Tennessee has some “outstanding cotton — even our late-planted crop looks good,” says Chism Craig, Tennessee Extension cotton specialist. “Our cotton planted earlier (late April through early May) is between 20 and 30 inches tall. We have a lot of uniform, pretty cotton. Producers are just now getting cranked up with Pix applications.”

As in other Delta states, Tennessee is experiencing work-delaying rains.

“We’ll get a day in the field to work, then get a half-inch rain. That knocks us out of the field for a couple of days and the weeds get a jump on us.

“Many producers were planning two hooded sprayer applications. Now, though, they’re trying to get by with just one spraying since the cotton is getting big. I’ve been getting calls from folks saying their cotton is dragging the tool-bar on the hood.”

All in all, says Craig, “I’m very happy with what we’re looking at. I’d like to get a week of warm weather to do some field work and then let these showers start up again. Hopefully, that’s what will happen, and we’ll be able to give a great report at the (Milan No-Till) field day on July 22.”


Column: Have land prices peaked?

A thoughtful letter from a reader got me thinking about land prices. Given the number of issues that face agriculture, have farmland prices peaked? While it is impossible to answer that question with any degree of certainty, one can identify a number of factors that have the potential to put downward pressure on land prices.

At or near the top of the list is the recent U.S. General Accounting Office report, “Farm Program Payments: USDA Needs to Strengthen Regulations and Oversight to Better Ensure Recipients Do Not Circumvent Payment Limitations.” In a summary, the report says, “Individuals may circumvent the farm payment limitations because of weaknesses in FSA’s [Farm Service Agency] regulations.”

The report went on to say, “We found examples of farming operations where recipients may circumvent the payment limits by organizing farming operations to maximize program payments and then channeling the payments to affiliated nonfarming operations….”

As a result of this report and pressure from legislative leaders, it now seems certain that congress will adopt more restrictive payment limitations. If the advocates of these measures are correct, revised payment limitations, especially if the levels are lowered, will reduce the amount of money larger operators have available to bid up cash rents and the price of farmland.

Next on the list of factors that have the potential to put downward pressure on farmland prices is the recent WTO ruling in the Brazil-U.S. cotton case. The ruling went against the United States, declaring that U.S. subsidy levels were not in compliance with international agreements.

While the ruling was limited to cotton, the principles involved in the decision could extend its impact to other crops as well. If, to settle the dispute, the United States were to drastically reduce farm payments, U.S. net farm income could plummet. Farmland prices would head south and fast.

Coupled with the above two factors is the current U.S. federal budget deficit that seems to increase with every bit of news out of Iraq. Even in the absence of the payment limitations controversy and the WTO legal action, the deficit alone has the potential to put pressure on current farm program payment levels.

While the Defense Department and Social Security may be spared any cutbacks, the USDA certainly would be affected by any action aimed at reducing the deficit by making across-the-board cuts in all remaining program areas. Again, lower farm payments could put pressure on both cash rents and land prices.

The recent surge in oil and natural gas prices will drive up input costs for most farmers, reducing profit levels and the attractiveness of higher priced land. Likewise, as interest rates rise, the profitably of purchasing additional farmland will decline. Also, the financial obligation of those with variable rate loans will increase. These factors could be mitigated if current crop and cattle prices become the norm. But that, of course, is unlikely.

In each case, the price of land and cash rents are where economic readjustments will take place. Cash renters will benefit from lower cash rents, but lower and more variable crop prices are likely to wash away that benefit.

Currently, the cushion of government payments and the expectation of continued support have a stabilizing and, yes, a bolstering impact on land prices. Current market prices have combined with these to put additional upward pressure on farmland prices.

With the policy uncertainties and the inevitable decline in crop prices from current levels, this year or next could mark a short- to medium-term peak in farmland prices.

I am not suggesting that we are facing a catastrophe like we saw in the mid-1980s. But, what I do see are a number of factors that could come together to contribute to a downward trend in farmland prices in the foreseeable future. The exact impact will depend upon public policy measures that are put in place in response to these factors.

Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the director of UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). e-mail:

Arkansas wheat harvest has its ups and downs

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Harvest of a 720,000-acre Arkansas wheat crop is nearly complete.

Yields vary from as little as 40 bushels an acre in some northeast Arkansas fields to as much as 80-plus bushels in the Grand Prairie region, according to Jason Kelley, wheat specialist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

“Farmers have essentially completed the harvest in the eastern part of the state,” Kelley said. “In the southwest and Arkansas River Valley areas, there is still some wheat to be harvested. Harvest for some farmers has been delayed by persistent rains. Grain needs a couple of days to dry out, and some farmers can’t get a break.

“Statewide, the harvest is still ahead of schedule. Some of the wheat remaining to be harvested has been ready for three weeks or more. If we had good weather, the harvest would have been over quickly.”

Farmers in western Arkansas aren’t the only farmers affected by rains. Arkansas farmers in Jackson, Woodruff, Independence and White counties lost an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 acres of wheat from flooding early in the spring. Many farmers in the northeast region were looking forward to a really good crop but continued rain from flowering through grain fill took a toll on the crop, Kelley said.

“Wheat harvested early had good quality. Average test weights were 59 to 61 pounds per bushel. The standard everyone shoots for is 60. But wheat harvested late because of rain suffered quality problems. Test weights plummeted.”

Farmers in the northeast were expecting 60 to 70 bushels an acre, but they harvested only 40 to 50 bushels an acre in many instances. Kelley said farmers probably would break even, at best, with a 40- to 50-bushel yield.

He estimated this year’s statewide average yield will be 50, just average. The 10-year average is 50, and the record, set in 1999, is 56. The lowest yield ever recorded in Arkansas was 4 bushels in 1878.

“If lower-than-expected yields experienced by northeast Arkansas farmers weren’t dragging yields averages down, we might be close to a state record.”

Generally, yields and test weights in southern Arkansas were excellent, Kelley noted.

On the disease front, Arkansas wheat farmers generally dodged the bullet in the spring when it came to diseases.

“Leaf rust and stripe rust were common in many areas. Leaf rust appeared earlier than normal. Weather conditions prevented both diseases from becoming an epidemic.

Prices farmers receive for their wheat have come down in recent weeks, but they have been a little better than last year’s prices, according to Kelley.

Meanwhile, Kelley expects wheat fields in the university’s Wheat Research and Verification Program to yield 10 to 15 bushels more per acre than the statewide average. A dozen farmers across Arkansas participated in the program this year.

Lamar James is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.

New material protects peanuts from aflatoxin

Peanut farmers now have a biological pesticide for protecting their crops from fungi that produce aflatoxin. A biological pesticide developed by Agricultural Research Service scientists recently received U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Section 3 registration.

Circle One Global, Inc. (COGI), of Cuthbert, Ga., the sole licensee of the ARS treatment, will immediately begin producing the biopesticide, called Afla-Guard, for use in 2004. The ideal time to inoculate peanut fields is late June or early July.

ARS scientist Joe W. Dorner and colleagues at the agency's National Peanut Research Laboratory in Dawson, Ga., made the biological treatment from spores of a non-toxigenic strain of Aspergillus flavus that is applied to barley kernels. The kernels are then applied to the soil beneath the plant canopy, where the fungus colonizes the barley and establishes itself to compete against toxigenic strains of A. flavus that are naturally present. Other strains of A. flavus, as well as A. parasiticus, are the primary producers of aflatoxin.

Afla-Guard, in field trials, reduced aflatoxin typically 70 to 90 percent after the first application. Repeated applications in subsequent years reduced aflatoxin by as much as 98 percent.

COGI has agreements with peanut shelling companies to provide Afla-Guard to growers in Alabama and Georgia for treatment of 7,000 to 8,000 acres this year. More will be available in future years. Until now, there were no chemical or biological applications that farmers could put on their peanut crops to protect them from aflatoxin.

Aflatoxin outbreaks occur when certain crops, like peanuts and corn, are stressed by drought conditions.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.

Defining sustainable agriculture full of potholes

The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program of the USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service defines sustainable agriculture as an agricultural production and distribution system that:

1. Achieves the integration of natural biological cycles and controls.

2. Protects and renews soil fertility and the natural resource base.

3. Optimizes the management and use of on-farm resources.

4. Reduces the use of nonrenewable resources and purchased production inputs.

5. Provides an adequate and dependable farm income.

6. Promotes opportunity in family farming and farm communities.

7. Minimizes adverse impacts on health, safety, wildlife, water quality and the environment.

The objectives of sustainable agriculture programs are admirable and each of the points listed above expresses a very worthy objective. Being against sustainable agricultural as expressed in these objectives is akin to being against motherhood and apple pie. However, we have to be careful that in our enthusiasm for the objectives of sustainable agriculture that we don’t encourage a backlash against agriculture in general, that is harmful to the food distribution system and nutrition of people of the country (and many parts of the rest of the world).

Artificial boundaries

Some enthusiastic supporters of sustainable agriculture are creating an image of agriculture as it is currently conducted in the United States as a "nonsustainable agriculture". The creation of artificial boundaries between us (i.e. strong adherents of sustainable agriculture objectives) and them (i.e. other people who do agriculture) is not conducive to progress in meeting the goals of sustainable agriculture.

The fact that we defined some desirable objectives and loosely encompassed them under the term "sustainable" agriculture should not suggest that our current agricultural system in the U.S. is unacceptable, antiquated, or evil. American agriculture, while far from perfect, is productive, evolving ecologically, and remains an important breadbasket to the world.

Agriculture within the confines of the United States, and even more so in many western European countries where population growth is negative, becomes more sustainable every year.

We do not want to get into playing the game of who is more sustainable than whom. While a sustainable agriculture is essential for maintaining long-term human existence, problems with its establishment lie in the details. Putting full effort into meeting one of the objectives of sustainable agriculture may infringe negatively on one of the other objectives.

For example, the development of the tomato harvester maximized the use of on-farm resources (such as capital) and improved farm income for some tomato-growing farm families while at the same time reduced employment opportunities for other people living in neighboring farm communities that depended on hand-picking for their livelihood. Which uses less non-renewable energy - a single tomato picking machine, or 60 people driving to the farm to harvest tomatoes by hand?

Who decides what is an adequate and dependable farm income?

Not straightforward

The objectives of sustainable agriculture are not as straightforward as they appear and conducting a more sustainable agriculture is just as much of a balancing act among environmental, economic and social issues as is any other human enterprise.

Many of the success stories described for programs supporting sustainable agriculture describe small family farm enterprises. Typically these families have found a niche that is vertically integrated in that they both produce food or fiber and take a more active role in marketing it. Often they receive a price premium for their produce because it was grown organically with natural pesticides and fertilizers or, at least, with reduced levels of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

While these enterprises are admirable, there is no way that everyone who desires to make a living from agriculture can survive economically doing this. If too many people get in the niche, it either is no longer a niche, or it is an overly crowded niche and somebody is no longer going to have an adequate or dependable farm income.

The Jeffersonian ideal that the United States could or should exist as an agrarian economy for perpetuity ceased to exist not long after President Jefferson himself, ceased to exist.

Large corporate farms are often accused of being contrary to the objectives of most if not all of the goals of sustainable agriculture. In fact, some of the most innovative and environmentally friendly farming practices are being conducted by large farming operations in the San Joaquin Valley of California. These practices include integrated pest management, water protection and storage, the creation of good paying jobs with reduced drudgery and with reduced potential for repetitive work injuries, and the use of more energy efficient machinery that comes with taking advantage of scale.

Danger in advances

There is a potential danger of having an agriculture that gets too far out ahead of the rest of American society and the world in sustainability. For example, the world’s current use of oil is not sustainable. The forecast increase in world population is not sustainable. Oil reserves are down and world stockpiles of agricultural commodities are the lowest that they have been for years. World agriculture, sustainable or not, must sustain the world’s population growth, sustainable or not.

Somehow American agriculture will have to help support the huge population growth forecast for many of the world’s developing countries. To feed the burgeoning population of the world over the next 50 years or so, we probably need the ability to harness the productivity of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and groundwater supplies, even if the use is nonsustainable.

Sustainability, and the health of the world environment, may have to be compromised to some extent in the short-term, if people are to be fed in the next few decades. Agriculture is just a piece, albeit an important piece, of society. For sustainability to occur in agriculture, society, as a whole, must use its resources of air, water, land, energy and all else in a more sustainable way.

To insist that farmers in the U.S. become fully sustainable immediately when farmers in the rest of the world are not, puts American farmers at an immediate and distinct economic disadvantage. The sustainable agricultural objectives should be guidelines for all of agriculture. To try to make these guidelines into a separate farming system or a philosophy of life is to unduly complicate the already fragile balance that feeds the world and keeps food affordable in the United States.

Sustainable agricultural programs have rediscovered and increased the knowledge base of practices that farmers used to maintain their productivity before the advent of the 20th century. Sustainable practices such as crop diversity and rotation, use of cover crops and green manures and many other sustainable practices should be further incorporated into modern agriculture.

The safest, most secure and prudent changes that agriculture accomplishes toward greater sustainability occur from within the agriculture system, one agricultural producer at a time, and not from attempts to force premature and possibly catastrophic changes en masse from the outside.

Craig Kallsen is UCCE farm advisor, citrus, subtropical horticulture, pistachios in Kern County, Calif.

Weather damaging wheat, cotton, other Texas crops

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Winter wheat is bringing a good price, but yields are suffering, Texas Cooperative Extension reports. Most producers weren't able to benefit from the outstanding wheat crop of a month ago, said Brent Bean of Amarillo, Extension agronomist.

"Grain fields looked very promising during April and May, but by the time wheat flowered, the weather was hot and dry," Bean said. "Flowering is a critical time for wheat, and if that critical time falls during damaging weather, yields are going to fall."

Travis Miller of College Station, Extension agronomist, said this year's wheat acreage and number of bushels produced is average, but had potential for more.

"The projected harvest for Texas winter wheat is around 110 million bushels," he said.

The Texas Agricultural Statistics Service reported this year's winter wheat crop is 23 percent higher than last year's and 52 percent higher than in 2002.

"It's a successful crop; yields are just down compared to what we had hoped for," Bean said.

The Panhandle's harvest is 85 percent finished, Bean reported. Weeks of rainy weather have delayed completion.

"Producers haven't been able to get out in the field," Bean said. "Harvest started the first week of June, but then was postponed because of bad weather."

A harvest delay with prolonged rainfall reduces wheat quality, Miller said.

"If the seed is dry and a field is at harvest maturity, a lot of rain on a wheat crop tends to make it lie down or cause sprouting in the spike," he said.

The weather may have caused a decline in yield and quality, but it didn't water-log prices, Miller said.

"Wheat prices have been above average," he said. "I've seen many remain in the upper $3 range (per bushel)."

Todd Baughman of Vernon, Extension agronomist, said wheat harvest has picked up in the Rolling Plains where fields have dried enough.

Jet Major of Lubbock, district Extension administrator, reported storms with hail and high winds destroyed an estimated 2,000 to 20,000 acres of cotton in the South Plains. About 5,000 acres of corn were lost as well. Producers will decide over the following weeks on whether or not to replant.

Dale Fritz of Bryan, district Extension administrator, reported excess amounts of rain across the Southeast district has caused field activity to stop. Fruits and melons are having problems with brown rot and plants dying because of all the rain, he said.