King corn, the top crop of American agriculture, may have a tough time ever becoming the predominant grain grown in Marion County.
But, corn is a crop that can be used to illustrate modern choices faced by modern farmers in this area. What can these producers decide to do for next year in an era when crashing farm prices are following crashing Wall Street stock prices while all the costs of inputs, fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, seed, etc., stay high?
Last spring, Marion County producers could have been swept up in a renewed enthusiasm for growing corn. In July, the Kansas Agricultural Statistical Service had reported a modern record corn planting for the state of 4.1 million acres, a five percent increase over 2007, and the highest corn acreage in Kansas since 1936.
The Kansas Corn Growers Association was crediting this increase not only to good corn prices driven by demands for livestock feed and ethanol production, but also to newer corn hybrids. These hybrids come with genetic biotechnology enhancements for drought resistance, herbicide resistance and insect resistance. KCGA said these factors encourage corn growth on more acres. State corn acreage also has been increased forward by irrigation in Western Kansas and other areas.
Back in 2000, agricultural economists at Kansas State University were discussing possibilities that corn might supplant wheat as the top crop in Kansas crowding off both wheat and grain sorghum acreages.
By mid-October some of the early predictions of a surging corn crop had begun to dim, even though the crop still was very good, with KASS lowering its estimates to 3.8 million acres of corn to be harvested with a total yield of 493.2 million acres. Kansas was still tenth among the states in corn production.
KASS estimates for the sorghum grain harvest was at 209 million bushels, for soybeans at 115.2 million bushels, and for sunflowers at 310.8 million bushels. The wheat crop came in at 356 million bushels.
Even back in 1878, the very first year the Kansas State Board of Agriculture came out with a biennial report, the agency was analyzing whether an increase in wheat acreage could lead to a decrease in corn acreage. But corn acreage in 1878 still topped all other crops grown at 2.4 million acres.
Locally, the biggest advantage the renewed focus on better varieties of corn gives Marion County producers, is flexibility in their farm programs, said County Agricultural Extension Agent Rickey Roberts.
Roberts calls corn here, “a high risk, high potential reward kind of a crop.”
He said Marion County farmers were sharing in the general enthusiasm for planting more corn last spring because “economically we were at a historically high price for corn. It looked like a good opportunity for profit. But in the last 30 to 45 days with the declines in prices, a great deal of that enthusiasm has tanked.”
Roberts explained that all producers are aware they face a challenge with corn because of its high demand for inputs. It requires high fertilizer input and adequate rainfall. It leads to a quick make/break margin. “The decision for planting corn has to be tied very closely to its price.”
Facing this hard margin decision, Roberts said Marion County farmers also have to deal with the realization that they are on the very western margin of good corn growing country. Rainfall must be adequate, but a drier climate with more droughts can limit corn production here quickly.
An even more over-riding decision for producers here to face, he said, may be the quality of the land. Marion County is a countryside with only a few deeper-soiled creek valleys really suitable for growing corn while the big majority of the cropland is in thinner-soiled uplands, he said. This compares to soils further east in the corn belt where there are very deep soil profiles.
“So really,” Roberts said, “our soils are of a type where corn should generally only be grown in the bottoms. So much of our upland is not suitable for corn production that it becomes a very high risk crop. It’s also a pretty expensive crop to plant. Beans and milo are so much more likely to be reliable crops on these types of soils that it takes us back to needing really high prices to take the risk.
“The new genetics do help tremendously in making corn a more attractive crop. There’s no question of that. But they don’t change the factor that we are dealing with thinner soils.
“The improved genetics also come at a cost. The new hybrid corn seed is not the cheapest thing around.”
Roberts said that when farmers are looking at planting increased acreages of a crop previously not grown in as high a quantity here, beans usually are chosen ahead of corn. He said soybeans can be more drought resistant, and they have a “locked-in herbicide advantage” because they have been genetically engineered for Roundup resistance. Roundup can be sprayed on soybeans to kill weeds without hurting the beans leaving “very clean fields.”
Soybeans are also a legume, utilizing bacteria to take nitrogen from the air to create nitrates for plant uptake, therefore cutting fertilizer out of the cost equation, he said.
Corn can be used to add flexibility and diversity to a farm program, Roberts said, particularly if a producer also raises cattle. He explained, “If it is too hot and dry for the corn to pollinate to make grain, it can generally be cut for silage to feed livestock.
“It can have high feed value. So, sometimes the decision on whether to plant corn has to directly be related to whether a farmer also raises livestock.
“I repeat, it’s a high risk, high reward type of a crop. And, we aren’t ever going to be able to change the kinds of soils we have here.
Copyright 2008, Hillsboro Free Press