A quick (unscientific) survey of Minnesota corn growers reveals that the market is very much behind the decision-making process, but for some that means staying the course, while others seek means to lower their costs.
Myron ‘Mickey’ Peterson, who farms with four brothers in Sacred Heart, Minn., says they plan to stick with what has been working for them for a number of years: the same corn and soybean varieties, planted in a 50/50 rotation on about the same amount of land — roughly 3,000 acres among the five partners.
Peterson said: “Our plans for planting are the same as other years. If you plan for disaster, you are going to have one. If you cut back on any of your inputs and you cut back on the wrong ones you can be in dire trouble in the fall when the harvest comes around.”
As in past years, they will use a conventional tillage, but leaving as much residue as is workable.
“We try to leave quite a bit of trash and corn stubble on top, so that we don’t have a lot wind erosion,” Peterson said. “We just use a trash-whipper to open up a lane for the soybeans to go in. We chisel-plow into the soybeans and try to leave stubble there too. One pass in the spring and then we plant. It’s conventional, basically, but it’s not like before, when you would take the old mold-board plow and just tip the soil over. You try to keep some of last year’s foliage around to keep the soil from blowing.”
The only major change to the Peterson farming operation is an optimistic one — a nephew of Mickey’s is joining the partnership.
“You stay the course and hope for the best,” Peterson said. “There’s not much you can do about the markets. The farmer doesn’t establish the markets. You just take what is offered to you, and hope you can come up with a good crop and at least stay afloat — that’s the main thing.”
Gary Prescher, who farms in Faribault County, between Delavan and Blue Earth, is planning a change in the rotation, both to economize and to accommodate field conditions. Prescher is a council member on the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council.
“Normally I go two-thirds corn and one-third soybeans, so I can rotate out of two years of corn. That’s really helped with my soybean production. This year all the cards didn’t end up that way. Some of it was some fall tillage that didn’t quite get done the way it needed to for corn-on-corn. So we’re going to 50/50 rotation.”
Prescher makes it a practice to try some of the new varieties each year on some of his acres to see if they offer a better fit than the seeds he has been planting, but with tight markets, he’s also counting his seeds.
“I am looking into the seeding rates for corn more carefully, because of the financials,” Prescher said. “I do recalibrate according to the seed variety to either maximize yield potential or minimize cost.”
Prescher, who is the fourth generation in his family to farm this land (homesteaded in 1879), has for a long time used grassed waterways to reduce soil erosion.
“I am going to reseed some of our waterways,” Prescher said. “We did some tile drainage projects last year. After everything settles, sometimes you have to reseed things. Sometimes you have to reseed to get better filtration. I’m considering going beyond just grass, and planting different types of perennials. For instance some (herbicide resistant) alfalfa and some flowering plants for the pollinators.”
Prescher has also decided this year to make a change that brings both economic and environmental benefits. He is switching to a no-till cultivation system for his soybeans.
“I have worked with no-till in the past, and I made the decision to return to it, now that my land is well-drained,” Prescher said. “In Minnesota tile drainage is what really makes no-till work in terms of delivering a sustainable yield.”
He likes the environmental benefit of reducing erosion and improving soil health, and in a year with lean markets, the savings in fuel, machinery wear and time will be an important part of remaining profitable.
Tim Wiersma is a partner in a group of farms in the Wells, Minn., area, west of Albert Lea. They use a farm manager, which leaves Wiersma time to concentrate on helping customers of his seed dealership. They are mostly planning to stay the course this year.
“We are looking at roughly the same split, 70 to 75 percent corn and the rest in soybeans,” said Wiersma, who serves as Secretary for MCGA. “We are doing that because we can make more money in the corn. We do have some flex acres where we could easily go with more soybeans if the market gives that to us, but we are running out of time to make that decision. Within a month we will know, but for now we are still leaning toward corn in those flex acres.”
The biggest change they made to their operation, which has affected both profitability and reduced environmental impact, was to move to narrower, 20-inch rows, for both corn and soybeans.
“We believe we can get more yield with 20-inch rows,” Wiersma said. “This collects more solar energy because we get the leaf canopy up and covering the ground quicker. We believe it’s better for the environment too because the quicker the canopy forms, and keeps rain from striking the dirt and carrying away sediment, the less risk of soil erosion there is.”
As a seed dealer, Wiersma notes that many of his customers have been going with existing hybrids rather than the latest additions in order to save money. Another choice many of his customers make is to plant a corn variety designed especially for use in ethanol production. Because of the properties of the grain, it uses less energy and less water to make the same amount of ethanol, so some ethanol makers are willing to pay farmers a premium to grow it.
It does require special handling, to make sure it remains identity-preserved. The premium can be as high as 40 cents above the local market price for conventional corn, Wiersma says.
Planting report due soon
Last year, Minnesota farmers initially intended to plant 8.5 million acres, according to the USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service Prospective Plantings report, but when all was said and done, farmers planted 8.1 million acres. In the fall, they harvested crops from 7.6 million acres, averaging a yield of 188 bushels per acre, producing a total crop of more than 1.4 billion bushels, the state’s largest corn harvest ever.
The new NASS/USDA prospective plantings report is due out March 31.