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By Staff | Jan 3, 2014

“Happy New Year” rings in the 2014 season. By the time you read this there will only be 80 days until spring arrives.

Hopefully that will encompass many sunny days with 20-plus-degree or better temps, lots of sunshine and little ice.

An occasional few inches of snow can fall as long as the winds stay calm. This would be welcomed by outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy ice fishing, outdoor hockey, snowmobiling, sledding, doing livestock chores, building snowmen with any willing participants, or for any age kids the chance to have a few good snowball fights.

Any outdoor building projects could still continue and road traffic would not grind to a halt. Cross your fingers and it could happen.

Hopefully everyone was able to get the family members together at least once for the holidays. It is always enjoyable to assemble to see how everyone and their kids are doing.

Going to church a time or two, being thankful for what we have been blessed with or have been involved in, and helping other people seems to go along with the season. At our place we got in a two-hour volleyball session, ATV riding, a sing-along, target shooting, game playing, a few assorted activities and ended up Sunday night taking the dog to the vets to get a 3-inch, to-the-bone gash stitched up.

It did seem at times like we were operating a short order restaurant.

The new season

What will the New Year offer to all the people who produce crops or livestock, operate an ag-based business, provide cropping advice to people or are involved in a sideline business within the broad field of agriculture?

The answers to that question can have many different slants depending on different factors. After a nice five-year run for the crop producers the fortunes seem to have changed due to grain prices coming down to earth.

Many producers will have a tough time producing grain for the market prices in place today. Something will have to give and farmers are examining their projected costs to see what areas they could trim without threatening their productivity.

A major cost component that everyone is carefully examining is land cost and the extent that rents escalated during the last seasons. The $64,000 question is how long it will take for landlords to recognize that the field has tilted once more and the equations are different.

How many renters offered a fair bonus a few years ago when rents did not reflect the larger gross dollars? Which landlords invested in tiling when they were asked to improve drainage in their fields?

Did both parties do their best to improve and preserve the soil and fertility levels? Farming is a long-term activity and both parties need to do their parts.

Livestock farmers, or at least the independent ones, who have barely hung on are finally seeing where their major cost will get lowered. During this time they had exactly zero government support for their work to provide a good meat supply to the rest of the world.

If anyone deserves to make money now it is the livestock people who typically start their day worrying more about when their animals get fed and cleaned before they think of themselves.

I milked cows by hand and worked with hogs and cattle for years so recognize the work that goes into those chores. What is known is that chicken supplies are elastic with feed prices, while pork is less so.

It will take years for beef herds to be rebuilt after the drought and weather problems seen in the west and southwest production areas the last few seasons.

In perspective

Anyone who made it through the 1980s recognized that producing crops is not all roses. We typically hope that within each five-year period we have only one bad and one so-so year.

Things have a way of balancing out over a wide geographic area, but it seems the west central and south central parts of this state have seen poorer crop seasons the last three years. That’s enough for a while.

The 1980 problems related more to overproduction of grain and lack of grain consumption that created the swamp that overwhelmed many producers.

If one looked at the macro-economic level pullers during the early and mid-1980s their actions showed they believed that by deflating specific sectors of the economy at sequential times they could avoid a recession, and that was the course they took.

Deciding to raise interest rates within farming to where they did was a conscious decision made by banking policy directors, central bankers and some scared local bankers.

If exports return to near former levels we may see a partial rebound. There will still be as many if not more mouths to feed than there were six months ago.

More of them will still be entering the middle class that demands more meat in their diets.

Two pieces of news that have not gotten into Iowa newspapers are:

  • More of the acres in the western Corn Belt are being affected by low water levels in the Ogallala aquifer, with some corn growers pulling their supply out of the deeper, brackish Dakota aquifer underneath it. That risks long-term soil damage to affected fields.
  • Water supplies are also being cut off to major tracts of veggie ground in California this winter.

We will see the effects in veggie and melon supplies later this winter and in future years.

NCGA yield contest

This past week the winners of the 2013 National Corn Growers Association’s yield contest were announced. The overall winner was a fellow that farms out in Virginia, David Hula. He and his brother have done quite well in recent years in the irrigated division.

They farm lighter, sandy soil that needs frequent watering if rainfall becomes scarce during the later summer period. His measured yield for the one acre no-till/strip till patch for the contest area was 454 bushels per acre.

Hula did not have to report what his whole field or his whole farm yield was, which is what a grower has to face when seeing the banker.

In past years he has spent most of his time talking about the use of fungicides to keep diseases at bay.

In a major surprise he answered reporter’s questions about his high yield by saying he was taking as good of care of his soil as humanly possible.

And that if he takes care of his soil’s organic matter and microbial life it will do a great job of feeding his plants.

No more bragging about how high yield producers over-applied that field with an astronomically high amount of nitrogen. This may be due to the Chesapeake Bay area producers being under intense scrutiny for any overuse of fertilizer.

The water quality in that estuary area has been affected both by the heavy poultry, crop and livestock production plus large metropolitan populations for eons.

As always one has to wonder what input products he is using to coax such yields from his pet fields.

The top Iowa NCGA yield was about 120 bpa less, which is still great. In looking at the results it is surprising how good yields were in the eastern Corn Belt while further west we suffered from lack of rain plus root and stalk rots.

Educational meetings

Shortly after the New Year begins there will also be the beginning of the Extension training sessions called the Crop Update Meetings. In the past the people with specializations in the different areas will cover hot topics in those meetings scheduled across the state.

Those meetings have usually played to full houses as they are typically full of good information. Check the schedule to see when they hit your area.

Plant health

When I visit with growers the main point that I stress when they ask how to increase yields is to do what it takes to keep their corn crop green and healthy longer so it adds to grain fill.

Saying that and doing so is a task that takes a change in thought and practice. There are now more politics involved than ever before, which seems strange.

But just as Dave Hula stated, “take care of the soil and its biology so they nourish the plants.”

Enjoy this first week and may your resolutions come true and favorite teams win.

Bob Streit is an independent crop consultant and columnist for Farm News. He can be reached at (515) 709-0143.

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