High drying costs, poor grain quality and bushels of uncertainty were fresh in the minds of several northern Iowa growers as they look to the next growing season.

Fresh on the heels of budget cuts on a university Extension research farm that they've worked collaboratively to nurture and guide, there was plenty to talk about. Topics ranged from hybrid selection to risk management. Here's their take on this year.

AGRONOMIC CONCERNS

“I'll use earlier-maturing hybrids this year to save drying costs,” says Mark Mueller. (See page 46 for panelists.) “I did that several years ago and wish I'd done it again last year. I was able to get in the fields so early last spring that I did not anticipate harvest being a problem. I even had neighbors dry soybeans for the first time ever. This year I'll plant a range of shorter maturities: 99-110 days instead of 105-113.”

In 2008 he changed his 75% corn, 25% soybean rotation back to 60-40 corn/beans, after at least 10 years of favoring corn. This was to save input and energy expenses after having a farm energy audit.

Restoring soil fertility will be a priority for Ron Litterer. “We're making up for last year when we did not apply a lot of dry fertilizer,” he says. “Most of our inputs will be lower this year except seed.”

UNCERTAINTY AND RISK MANAGEMENT

Last fall was a metaphor for uncertainty in farming, says Pam Johnson. “So much was out of our control: We've never had to handle 30% moisture corn, running out of propane, events in Dubai affecting us half way around the world. We truly live in such a different world. Anyone I've talked to was so glad to see 2009 end. We will try to make great decisions by anticipating the chokepoints ahead of time,” she says.

“When have we ever seen a seasonal rally in fall corn prices?” asks Litterer, characterizing last year's oddities. “Supply fundamentals would have you think that prices would have fallen as harvest progressed.”

Erwin Johnson says, “I'll focus on what I can control. I've been reflecting on the concept of a ‘black swan’ (unanticipated event having huge unforeseen impacts).” He suffered a black swan event in summer 2008: “I knew something big would happen in corn prices; I was very bullish. I sold high but I didn't get paid for it because I sold to an ethanol plant that declared bankruptcy. It makes you humble.”

Rick Juchems will be sure he has crop insurance this year, after seeing some of the worst hail in his life wipe out distant neighbors.

Half the group indicated it had signed up for the new ACRE management government risk management program this year.

Farmers' traditional nemesis, the weather, is a huge part of annual risk. “Climatological data indicates that we're entering a 20-year cycle of earlier snows, cooler summers and wetter conditions,” says Mueller. “Last year, Bremer County, IA, had a 500-year flood, so maybe we are heading into a period of cooler weather. I'm going to proceed on that assumption, and if I lose a few bushels per acre using earlier hybrids, I'll live with that. Is anyone installing a larger LP gas tank?”

COST CONTROL

Max Schmidt revamped his dryer setup in 2008 after a REAP energy audit. The more energy-efficient corn dryer required 15% less fuel than what the old system would have required (26,000 gal. of LP to dry the 2008 corn crop).

A new dryer is part of a larger focus on cost containment, Schmidt says. “We also try to save money by matching hybrids to each soil type. With a different soil type every half mile, it gets to be a real challenge.”

Juchems is planning an energy audit on his farm. And he's saved money for six years by sharing a drill with a neighbor, he adds.

Focusing on return per acre instead of on gross yield continues to be a priority for Pam Johnson.

GRAIN QUALITY CONCERNS

Accelerated grain marketing is the plan for Mueller. “By late spring, three-quarters of my corn will be out of my bins, with grain quality being such a concern,” he says.

“I think I should just forget about the problems of 2009 because it was an aberration,” concludes Erwin Johnson. “In 35 years of farming, I've never seen conditions like 2009, so I won't change my methods. I will rely instead on my experience over the years.”

THE GROUP

Erwin Johnson, Floyd County, IA: grows corn, soybeans, commercial hay and identity-preserved edible soybeans for the Japanese market. Longstanding member of Ag Ventures Alliance, a value-retained business for agricultural products (see http://tinyurl.com/HedgingValueCSD). His daughter plans to join the operation in 2010.

Pam Johnson, Floyd, IA: grows corn and soybeans with her husband and two sons; NCGA board member and served in several capacities for the Iowa Grower Association. Former NCGA chair, Research and Development.

Rick Juchems, Plainfield, IA: grows corn and soybeans, raises hogs and cattle. Chair, Butler County Soil and Water Conservation District and past president, Iowa Soil & Water District Commissioners.

Ron Litterer, Greene, IA: raises corn, soybeans and hogs. Past president, NCGA and an organizer of ProNet, a farmer-owned feeder pig co-op.

Mark Mueller, Waverly, IA: grows corn and soybeans with his semi-retired father; raises specialty beans for the Japanese food market, some seed beans; executive committee member and current president of Northeast Iowa Ag Experimental Association.

Max Schmidt, Elma, IA: crop/livestock farmer and past president of the Iowa Pork Producers; served on a number of national committees related to pork production.

LONGER-TERM CONCERNS

Beyond changes planned for the 2010-2011 growing season, several growers voiced longer-term concerns: funding research and soil conservation.

Public research is a long-term concern for Max Schmidt, Elma, IA, in this era of budget cuts. He and the other farmers at this roundtable expressed concern about recent funding cuts to the Northeast Iowa Ag Experimental Association (NEIAEA) at the Borlaug research farm, Nashua, IA. It researches crop issues recommended by the farmer executive board. Schmidt wonders aloud whether the group should ante up to continue its research.

“Research results from the research farm can't stay on the farm,” he says. “In Brazil, farmers pay directly for research; maybe we should think along those lines. We came up with the Asian soybean rust research program, but what about white mold? It was devastating to me and this is the first year I've seen it. And SDS took out 40% on two of my farms. If we wait for the government to act, some other part of the world will have solved the problem by then.”

These problems that extend beyond the farm gate are why growers should support their grower organizations, says Pam Johnson. “This is so big you can't just farm your own farm anymore. Issues like sequencing the corn genome, risk management, trade and government regulations can't be fought on your own. It's not just your membership dollars, it's your voice when it's needed on a policy issue.”

Another long-term issue was raised by Rick Juchems: soil conservation. “We have less than 6 in. topsoil left to feed the world for generations to come, and it takes 1,000 years to produce just 1 in. of topsoil. It could all disappear in a big rainstorm. We can't continue to farm as we have and expect the productivity to be there,” he says.