If uncertainty were a crop, southern farmers could rest easy moving into 2008.
The reality? Uncertainty runs high in the fields these days as farmers shift crops and watch prices.
In Mississippi, where until 2007 cotton reigned the proverbial king, cousins Sledge Taylor and Mike Bartlett of Como carefully weigh 2008 planting decisions.
“Corn is becoming more of a primary crop. It's coming into its own in this area and it's possible that Mississippi won't have 500,000 acres of cotton this year,” says Taylor, who was elected Mississippi Farmer of the Year in 2004.
Taylor, whose family has farmed in both the hill country and the Delta for generations, owns and operates a local gin that produced just 13,000 bales in 2007. Along with his 4,000-acre row-crop operation, Taylor also maintains about 500 head in his cow-calf operation.
Running against the planting trends in 2007, Taylor planted 2,900 cotton acres, 550 corn, 250 wheat and 650 soybean acres. He reports high corn yields during 2007, averaging 150 bu./acre dryland and 190 bu./acre on irrigated land.
HIS OUTLOOK FOR 2008, however, is shifting slightly, in spite of his cotton operation. “I'm still sticking with cotton because I'm set up for it, but I plan to plant less, probably cutting about 400 acres.” Taylor says. “My cotton acreage isn't going to drop as much as other people's.” The challenge for him is acquiring the infrastructure necessary to transition crops.
Bartlett, who farms about 1,650 acres, is worried about rising costs. “Potash has increased around 300% over the last two years,” he says.
There's no doubt that the high cost of fertilizers combined with the high price of soybeans will affect both Mississippi farmers.
“I think we'll see more soybeans because the high fertilizer prices will drop the corn and cotton acres,” speculates Taylor. “With the high price of fertilizers, I am seriously considering not using potash or phosphorus this year.”
In Arkansas, Robert Stobaugh farms with his brother Barry and nephew Bart on 5,700 acres and reports that his 2008 crop mix will remain basically the same as 2007.
“Last year, we planted 3,800 acres in soybeans — with 900 double cropped behind wheat — 800 acres of long grain rice and about 1,000 acres each of winter wheat and milo,” says Stobaugh.
For many southern farmers like Stobaugh, the 2007 Easter freeze signaled the start of what would be an extreme weather season. “We only had a 45% yield on our wheat. Then, due to the tremendous rain in June, we turned around and had the best milo crop ever at 114 bu./acre,” he says.
With over 2,000 acres of dryland soybeans, the summer drought took an enormous toll by August.
With diverse soil types, Stobaugh rotates milo and rice with soybeans. His decision to grow milo stems from several factors. “It's a less expensive crop to grow than corn and is moisture-efficient. A lot of the year we were even in price with corn.”
In early 2008, Stobaugh's main concern for the upcoming season is the availability of seed. “We're not able to keep biotech seed and we should have more soybean seed on the books than we do by now,” he says.
Taking it all in stride, at this point these growers are simply hoping for more predictable weather in 2008.