With the radical shift in corn and soybean markets — limit up or down at almost any time — growers who know their marketing are often taking a different or at least more patient approach to making sales for 2008 and beyond.
Among them are four past winners in the Corn & Soybean Digest MarketMaxx game. In the game, players trade simulated corn and soybeans to learn more about how the markets function and to compete for prizes. Experiences are often used to help navigate real-time marketing.
The past winners are among thousands of growers who see marketing as an even more important part of their farming enterprises this year. They know that corn has jumped from $3.60/bu. to $8 and sharply back again in two years. And soybeans topping $8/bu., once considered a boom price, were too low last summer when they blew to $16, before sliding back to a now-depressing $8-9 level.
ONLY IN JUNE did corn price increase by over 80% from the previous year. Soybean prices, although not as wild-eyed as corn, were also up substantially.
Prices for corn and soybeans retreated a lot as fall arrived and the nation's financial crunch hit all markets. They followed the cratered crude oil prices and the stock market meltdown. But volatility was still expected, and higher prices again would not surprise anyone that much.
Chris Schnell, Sully, IA, whose $8.01 soybean price earned him first place in that MarketMaxx category in 2006, has eased back in his marketing during the current high-risk environment.
“I'm even more cautious,” he says. “It's a lot more money, but there's a lot more going out for inputs, too.”
Adds Ron Falk, Monticello, IL, who won the 2007 soybean contest with an $11.92 sale price, “It's scared me from doing a whole lot of anything. I find that I'm dragging my feet more. So far, I haven't gotten burned.”
Kevin Johnson, Tyler, MN, followed some of his normal patterns of marketing corn and beans early. But he left enough grain unpriced in the wake of continued price volatility.
“On average, winter and spring are going to be the tops of the market, but not this year,” says the second-place winner for 2007, with an average soybean price of $11.40. “When it looks like the market may be topping, I'll do some more marketing.”
Chip Shriver, Ursa, IL, and second place in the 2007 MarketMaxx corn contest with a combined sale of $4.28, used to use more options strategies in his actual corn and bean sales. Not any more. Option premiums cost more, and margin requirements are up.
“I used to buy cheap puts for insurance and sell calls against it to generate a bin payment or pay the interest,” he says. “But this is different now. Luckily, my co-op elevator lets me forward-contract past this year and into 2009 (a practice halted by many grain handlers earlier this year). I can still market ahead and not have to back it up with margin calls. We consider ourselves very fortunate.”
SCHNELL SAYS THAT in the past, he often tried to have more corn and soybeans sold early. “I'm not sure if that strategy has changed dramatically,” he says. “But I delayed selling more than I did before. I usually had sold more (by early summer) through forward contracts with the elevator or another corn processor.”
While some types of options don't work for him, call options on old-crop 2007 corn worked. He recognized the chance for a bigger rally after harvest last fall and bought call options to capture more from it when futures prices increased and upped the value of the calls.
“I use more options than I did in the past,” he says, even though they can be more expensive. “You can set a good floor with puts, or extend your ability to make more profit with the calls.”
Falk used to have 50-75% of his corn and beans sold before harvest. In mid-June, he was “way behind on that.” But he wasn't complaining about being far short of those numbers. He was ready to get more sold, especially when the futures rallied to the mid-$7 level. “There are some good profits to be made there,” he says.
Still, Falk is anxious about the entire corn and bean marketing picture. “I'm just not too excited about pulling the trigger early,” he says.
Johnson hasn't been one to make many multi-year sales. But when corn futures were around $7, strategies could easily change. “I normally don't go too far ahead,” says Johnson. “But I will probably sell some 2009 and 2010 corn and possibly beans.”
The early sales could help offset even higher input costs expected for next year and beyond. However, he doesn't usually overlap buying inputs with pricing corn and beans. “I just do both when I think the time is right,” he says.
THE HIGH INPUTS were among the reasons he was slow in getting new-crop corn and beans sold early and will likely be cautious in getting early 2009 sales made. “We want to know what it's going to cost to grow them before we sell,” he says.
“Patience in marketing is among the lessons I've learned the past few years,” Shriver says. “Knowing when to price or buy inputs involves more discipline.
“You don't just look out your back window to see what's happening. You have to look at it globally. And you don't play on your emotions,” Shriver says.
Schnell points out that there aren't too many constants in today's marketing world. “That's for sure,” he contends. “Everything you think you know, you don't really.”
Falk, who admits he markets a lot based on gut instinct, likes using futures options more and has learned how they can benefit marketing, even when costs of options can be higher. “Before, I thought they didn't help,” says Falk, “But they've sure worked out pretty good for me the past couple of years.”
Johnson tries to limit marketing based on emotions. “You have to keep them out of it,” he says. “Sometimes you can let the margin calls make your decisions for you. But you have to decide how you're going to go and stick with it.”