National and international events have the habit of affecting our farms and agribusinesses. Escalating fuel prices because of political upheavals many thousands of miles from our shores have increased farmers' interest in limited tillage and other fuel-saving measures. Sky-high feed grain prices are great for farmers growing these crops, but not so much for those buying grains to feed their livestock. Although a very wet spring hampered planting, we may still see more acres of corn in the Northeastern U.S. harvested as grain, including some planted by farmers who have never harvested an acre of corn for grain. We can only hope that there are enough custom operators in these areas capable of harvesting these additional acres in a timely manner, and that the farmers can either successfully store and/or profitably market the crop.
Agribusinesses have had a hard time figuring out what farmers' reactions will be to high fertilizer prices. They need to fill their fertilizer storages early in the season and hope that their estimated farmer usage rates are close. They got burned a couple of years ago when many farmers decided that the price of muriate of potash (0-0-60) was too high and decided to reduce rates or to skip a year of potassium fertilization entirely. However, these same farmers will probably not be overly sympathetic if they call their fertilizer dealer to order potash for topdressing alfalfa and are told that the dealer's bins are empty and it will take weeks to bring in new supplies.
Higher wholesale prices for most fertilizers have worked their way into retail markets and have been causing "sticker shock." Urea prices dropped quite a bit late this past winter due to oversupply on international markets, but are still high compared to previous years. Diammonium phosphate (DAP) is expensive - as are all phosphates - and retail prices may reach $800 this summer. Muriate of potash, by far the most common source of potassium, is also expensive at $800 per ton. Both DAP and potash are about $300 per ton higher than they were about this time last year.
Field and forage crop genetics
The insect population is constantly evolving, not by Mother Nature creating new bugs (and hopefully not "super-bugs" that could result from the careless use of insect-resistant crop varieties), but due to changes in farmers' pest management practices. The latest example of this is the decrease in European corn borers in some areas where farmers have been planting a lot of Bt corn for several years now. (Bt hybrids are genetically resistant to this insect pest.) Soon after Bt corn became legal for farmers to use, the Miner Institute did a two-year field test comparing a Bt corn hybrid and its non-Bt isoline. (An isoline hybrid has the same genetics as the Bt hybrid except for the Bt gene.) The non-Bt plants had a high population of corn borers: In the first and second year of the trial, 25 percent and 46 percent of corn plants, respectively, that we examined had corn borer damage, while the Bt gene was 100 percent effective in preventing corn borer damage. We cut open and examined hundreds of cornstalks and didn't find a single corn borer or signs of borer damage in the Bt plants.
As the use of Bt hybrids has increased (in 2010 a whopping 86 percent of the U.S. corn crop was planted to genetically modified hybrids), what's happened in parts of the U.S. Corn Belt is that the population of corn borers has decreased regionwide, not just on the farms planting Bt corn hybrids. This stands to reason: Corn borer moths fly from field to field, and if there aren't as many moths to lay their eggs on corn plants, there will be less resulting corn borer damage. We don't have any statistics for the northeastern U.S., but in the Midwest it's estimated that between 1996 (the first year that Bt corn was legal to plant) and 2009, corn borer populations in adjacent non-Bt cornfields declined by 28 to 73 percent. Where Bt hybrids have been used the longest, some entomologists are now questioning if corn borers should even be considered an economic pest. How times have changed!
Will something similar happen with the other serious insect pest of corn in the Northeast, corn rootworms? Perhaps, but not to the extent as the Midwest is experiencing with corn borers. That's because although a wide variety of control measures (including the Bt gene) are used to fight corn rootworms, none of them are quite as effective as Bt is in controlling corn borers. However, every corn rootworm killed by these control measures is one less rootworm beetle to lay eggs, so there will certainly be some positive effects.
Roundup Ready alfalfa back on the table
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has, for the second time, legalized the sale and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed. This will be a big deal indeed in the western U.S., where almost all alfalfa is clear-seeded - planted without a grass companion crop. There's still vocal opposition to the EPA's decision, but (at least as this issue is being sent to press) Roundup Ready alfalfa is now legal throughout the U.S. Because such a high percentage of alfalfa planted in the northeastern U.S. is mixed with a cool-season grass, such as timothy, orchard grass or tall fescue, the Roundup Ready trait won't have the impact here that it does west of the Mississippi. For some farmers, seed cost will be an issue, since in the eastern U.S. the technology fee is $125 per 50-pound unit of Roundup Ready alfalfa - $150 per unit in the western U.S. That's for the genetic trait, not the seed itself. Some farmers in this region, especially those with soils best adapted to alfalfa, will find that the combination of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed plus a timely application of glyphosate will result in excellent weed control, and over the life of the stand will be worth the extra initial cost.
New pest control alternatives
Genetic traits aren't the only way to control farm pests. There are several new herbicides on the market for weed control in corn and soybeans. You've probably seen the full-page ads for some of these in farm magazines. These aren't just new formulations of old herbicides, but new herbicide chemistry entirely. I won't go into detail about individual products, since pesticide regulations differ among states, but if you're still using the same herbicides you used five or 10 years ago, you should at least look into some of these new products. Most are applied at very low rates per acre, and the new products may be more environmentally friendly - less likely to leach into groundwater. In many cases, the rotation restrictions - how long before you can plant a different crop - are more flexible than with the older herbicides. Even if you're happy with the performance of your current herbicide, it might be wise to consider a product with a different mode of action. Herbicide companies are making this a lot easier since they've started to list the herbicide class on the label. This will greatly decrease the chances of developing herbicide-resistant weeds, something that, unfortunately, has already happened with the triazines and glyphosate. One more reason to carefully read the herbicide label.
A focus on quality
At this early date, there's no way to know how high corn prices will go in the coming year. We already topped $7.50 per bushel, supplies are extremely tight, and anything that threatens yields in the Corn Belt - delayed planting, drought, early fall frost, rain hampering harvest - will cause prices to escalate even further. A few months ago, a prominent agricultural economist said that it wouldn't take much bad news to spike corn prices to $10 per bushel, although over the next few years prices will probably slide to the $4.50 to $5 range. It appears that ethanol will use at least 35 percent of the U.S. corn crop this year, though the exact figure will depend on the price of both corn and gasoline. Corn farmers in the Northeast are growing grain corn, even if they harvest all their corn for silage. That's because there's 5 or 6 bushels of grain in a ton of corn silage. If you harvest corn as silage, pay particular attention to maturity. This is always important, but high grain prices make it even more so. If you're in control of harvest date - in other words, you have your own harvest equipment - wait until the corn plant is at least 32 percent DM, 34 to 35 percent DM if your chopper has a silage processor. (You'll be reading and hearing more about the importance of proper corn maturity as we get closer to harvest.) It might not look like it, but at the dough and early dent stages, corn is adding a considerable amount of starch (energy) every day. High-energy corn silage may be more valuable now than it's ever been before. Corn isn't the only crop that will be high priced in the coming year; protein supplements are also very costly, including "(soy)beans in the teens." This makes proper nitrogen fertilization of grasses and timely harvest of hay crops especially important. It's too late to apply nitrogen to grasses, but certainly not too late to pay particular attention to getting grasses and legumes harvested at the ideal stage of maturity.
Ev Thomas has worked as an agronomist in New York for 45 years, first with Cornell University Cooperative Extension, then with the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy, N.Y., including managing its 680-acre crop operation. He continues to work part-time for Miner Institute and is now an agronomist at Oak Point Agronomics. He has a written our Forage column for over 13 years and has been an expert contributor on a number of other topics.