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Dual role offers Extension agent perspective

Preston Aust
Preston Aust, Humphreys County, Miss., sees farm issues from two different perspectives — as a farmer and an Extension agent.

Preston Aust stopped his pickup in front of a farm equipment shed just outside Belzoni, Mississippi, on a hot, muggy, May morning, lowered the driver-side window and said, “Hop in, we’ll drive around to the shade.”

Parked under the ample canopy of a large shade tree, Aust talked about late-spring crop conditions in Humphreys County and his dual roles as Humphreys County Extension agent and cotton and soybean farmer. From the comfort of the shade, we could see a field of soybeans, up to a good stand, clean of weeds, and taking advantage of the warm days to catch up from a late start.

A challenging spring started with corn planting.

“We had a tight corn-planting window,” Aust says, “wet and cold the first half of March. Corn planted in late March caught cold temperatures in early April. And every Friday and Saturday we had a chance of storms and more cold weather. We had a two-inch rain followed by 30 degree temperatures that blew out of the north.”

He says early on, farmers had just two or three days a week to work the fields.

“We turned the corner in late April and early May. We had good weather, but it still looked like we would be behind. Then the last two weeks of April and the first of May turned clear and warm and let everybody catch up. Now (in late May), we are actually ahead of where we were last year.”

He says last year also started slow. “We were still planting (in late May).”

Those early setbacks prompted concern of an extended harvest period. “But weather since planting has been good, warm but not too warm, with rains scattered out. Overall, we’re looking pretty good.”

He says cotton is up. “A few farmers in the past always wanted to plant cotton early,” he says. Planting too early, especially last year, resulted in setbacks. But cold, wet weather prevented early planted cotton this year. “They just kept the seed in the bag. No one planted early cotton” Aust says. “It was all planted in late April to early May.”

He waited for an April 25 through early May planting window. “We had better weather,” he says. “Spring was challenging, but now we’re ahead of last year.”

Favors Beans

He plants soybeans and cotton with a big advantage to soybeans. “I’m about 80 to 20 soybeans to cotton,” he says. “I had not planted cotton since 2011, but the cotton market looks better this year.” Aust says Humphreys County has seen about a 10 percent increase in cotton acres this year. “The crop is ahead of schedule,” he adds, except for some areas affected by flooding. A lot of bottom land was still wet in late May.

He concentrates irrigation on soybeans. “I’m trying to maximize soybean yields with irrigation and trying to boost production and gross revenue. I hope to keep from losing money on light acres.”

He says dryland soybeans are an iffy prospect. “If bean prices are good, dryland production is OK. But with changes in farm policy, we need to make 35 bushels per acre.” That’s not a given on dryland acreage. “Now, dryland beans are not an option.”

He says irrigated beans average in the high 60-bushel range. “Some may go into the 80s. Last year disease jumped on late-planted beans following 9 inches of rain over 10 days, and hurt yields.”

Challenging Spring

Aust says farmers faced other challenges this spring, including weeds, market volatility, and production costs.

The cool spring may have delayed weed emergence. “Pigweeds usually emerge in early April, but with the cold weather, it was later in the month. Pigweed and marestail control is always an issue, and with a cool spring and moisture, they just keep emerging.”

He says most growers planted dicamba or 2,4-D tolerant crops and likely will use the associated herbicide program. “A lot chose not to use it last year, but close to 100 percent have planted dicamba tolerant seed this year and plan to use the dicamba product. But we need to be as safe with it as possible and follow the label.”

He says a few growers surrounded by non-tolerant crops will be challenged. “It’s easier when most growers use these tools.”

Aust says red banded stink bugs caused significant problems last year, but do not appear to be an issue this season, at least early on. “Red banded stink bug numbers on ditch banks were low early,” he says. “We were not finding many.  Last year we had to make multiple insecticide applications for red banded stink bugs.”

Cost-Price Squeeze

Production costs and markets pose perennial challenges, Aust says. “A farmer can do everything right but not take advantage of a small window of market opportunity and still come up short.”

He says with volatile markets, producers must be aware of those short-lived opportunities. He mentions the erratic movement associated with the back and forth with China regarding tariffs. One positive report, he says, resulted in a significant market bump. Negative news, sends it down.

Cotton price movement has been positive, pushing past 85 cents.

Stay Flexible

Still, he says farmers are concerned about the high costs of making a crop. “We cut costs where we can. We are set to push the envelope to make yield without going overboard.” Insects, weeds, other pests and unexpected in-season costs play with the budget. “The red-banded stink bug, for instance, added to production costs last year.”

He says plant bugs and spider mites create a dilemma on when to justify a spray application.

Moisture management is often a challenge.

“We had a relatively mild summer in 2017,” he says, “so we had less irrigation cost. I hope it’s the same this year. If we get to early July and crops get some rain, we can usually make it from there.”

Farmers were still seeing “some dry pockets,” in late May. “A few farmers were trying to get herbicides out; some were getting ready to irrigate corn.”

Aust says most of the county’s corn acreage is irrigated. “Beans are probably 50/50 irrigated to dryland; cotton has slightly more irrigation.”

He says farmers are accustomed to working through pest, weed, even market and cost challenges. “But who knows what other challenges will come? In Extension, we have to be ready to figure it out and to deal with it when it occurs. Last year, it was the red-banded stink bug. We have to identify the problem and get information to producers so they can do something about it to protect the crop.”

Aust, a fifth-generation farmer, has been working with the Extension service for seven years and earned an MS degree during that time. He’s worked in several ag-related industries since college, including farm manager, but he wanted to farm on his own. “I started picking up a few acres and got up to 1,400.”

He says his father was a fish farmer, so he had limited experience in row crops, and has relied on on-job-training.

His dual roles offer him a good perspective on what farmers in his area need and what challenges they face. He understands the need to be flexible and to be prepared for unexpected changes in crop conditions, markets and costs. He’s been flexible, too. In 2011, when took on the Extension agent role, he cut back to 800 acres.

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