Farming Magazine - December, 2011

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Forage on the Horizon

The 2012 field and forage outlook
By Everett D. Thomas

Photo courtesy of Petr Kovar/sxc.hu.

One of the great things about agriculture is that it's ever-changing, with new and more efficient field equipment, new crop varieties and new methods of pest control. However, the fact that it is ever-changing is also one of the challenges. In order to remain competitive farmers need to "keep up with the Joneses," assuming that the Jones family is farming.

Pest control methods and strategies change, whether we want them to or not. The latest that will affect us, at least eventually, involves the use of Bt corn hybrids genetically resistant to corn rootworms, one of the most devastating pests of corn. We have both Northern and Western corn rootworms in the Northeast, though the slightly smaller Northern corn rootworms were here first and are still most common in much of the region. This past summer, a cornfield in Iowa was the first to have corn rootworms confirmed resistant to the main Bt toxin used in rootworm control. Entomologists knew this would eventually happen since they've been able to select for and produce Bt resistance in the lab, but the Iowa discovery was sobering news. What caused this? We'll probably never be sure, but a comment from one of the Iowa State University entomologists involved in the case is telling: "Insufficient planting of refuges and nonrecessive inheritance of resistance may have contributed to resistance. These results suggest that improvements in resistance management and a more integrated approach to the use of Bt crops may be necessary."

Onward and upward

The news from Iowa is a good backdrop for our 2012 Field and Forage Outlook. Note in the quote from the entomologist that "insufficient planting of refuges" was cited as one of the possible causes of the development of corn rootworm resistance to the Bt toxin. We've known right along that insect resistance was on the horizon, in part because surveys have shown that not all farmers follow the seed company's refuge agreement they signed when they bought Bt corn seed. One of the changes you'll see from some of the major seed companies is "refuge in the bag." This is a small percentage of the seed in a unit of a Bt corn hybrid that isn't resistant to corn rootworms. Most of the seeds in the bag contain the gene conferring resistance to rootworms, but the nonresistant seeds allow the rootworms to feed on the corn plants growing from these seeds and complete its life cycle.

The theory behind this is to ensure that there will be some corn rootworm beetles in the field that are not resistant to the Bt toxin and therefore able to mate with the "one in a million" beetle that for one reason or another is resistant. All of the resulting progeny from this mating would then be susceptible to the Bt toxin. If the corn hybrid is "stacked" for both rootworm and European corn borer control, you'll still need to plant a separate insect refuge for the corn borers, but this can be in another cornfield.

The other change, one that has been here for several years now, is a reduced reliance on only one Bt toxin. Many of the newer corn hybrids have more than one Bt "event," and there's less chance that the insect pest would develop resistance to the two or three different toxins produced by several genetically distinct events. The seed industry is rapidly moving in this direction, with more and more stacked hybrids. And none too soon, as the events in Iowa serve to prove.


Photo courtesy of Patrick Hajzler/sxc.hu.

What does this mean for farmers in the Northeastern U.S.? Note that the rootworm resistance problem occurred in Iowa, where rootworms have been a more serious problem than they've been in most of this region. For this reason farmers in the Northeast haven't used rootworm-resistant hybrids as extensively as farmers in the Corn Belt, and even those who did while ignoring the required insect refuge have been inadvertently protected by their neighbors who grew non-Bt corn. So, while we're not as likely to encounter resistant rootworms or European corn borers anytime soon, the best defense is a good offense, which means strictly observing refuge requirements, varying insect control methods (insecticides are still a very effective alternative), and using the very best control method - crop rotation. It's possible that the combination of planting of stacked hybrids and also some corn without the Bt gene will prevent the occurrence of resistant rootworms in the Northeast. Let's hope so!

One final note on seed corn: Yields of seed corn were down by about 30 percent in parts of the Midwest. Seed companies can usually make up moderate shortages of domestically produced seed by producing seed this winter in South America, but this is more expensive than seed corn produced in the U.S. Expect significant price increases for 2012, partly because of this, but also because of added genetic traits. If you have a favorite hybrid, it just makes good sense to order early, taking advantage of early order (and perhaps early pay) discounts.

The "New Normal" revisited

Last January my Farming column was titled "The 'New Normal' for Dairy Forages," providing an overview of changes in crop genetics and forage analysis. Something else that's a "new normal," unfortunately, is high fertilizer prices.

A few years ago we were shocked when the price of muriate of potash skyrocketed to over $700 per ton; we expected nitrogen prices might increase because their manufacture is tied to the cost of petroleum products, particularly natural gas, but potash is a mined product. Affected with a bad case of sticker shock, farmers voted with their checkbooks and fertilizer purchases declined, soon followed by lower fertilizer prices. (That old supply-and-demand thing.) Farmers can only withhold fertilizer from their crops for a short time, though, before yields and quality suffer.

Global population and, therefore, food demand continues to increase, and world grain supplies are tight. This all is bullish for crop production, and therefore for fertilizer use. The result: Welcome back to high fertilizer prices, and this time maybe permanently. I doubt that we will ever see fertilizer prices back down where they were five years ago.

A few months ago, I commented that almost every basic fertilizer - anhydrous ammonia, DAP, MAP and muriate of potash - cost $800 per ton. Not much has changed since then, and it looks like anhydrous ammonia (a fertilizer more commonly used in the Corn Belt than in the Northeast) will be over $800 by spring. Phosphate may be a bit under $800, but not by much, while potash should be $700 or so. This doesn't account for regional differences or price competition, but I don't expect that farmers will have much bargaining room in 2012.

Ammonium nitrate has long been used as a fertilizer, but terrorists have discovered they can use it in the manufacture of explosives, as in the devastating 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Fifteen years after this tragedy, the Department of Homeland Security has decided to restrict the sale of this fertilizer by requiring prospective purchasers to register in advance. This shouldn't affect farmers much; not only can they register to purchase it, but as ammonium nitrate became harder to find and the price rose, farmers switched to other nitrogen fertilizers.

Both urea and urea-ammonium nitrate solution are good fertilizers for sidedressing corn and early spring topdressing of grasses, while ammonium sulfate is an excellent, low-volatile N source that's useful in many applications. In the Northeast, ammonium sulfate may be a "fertilizer for the times," since as atmospheric depositions of sulfur have declined greatly due to successful air pollution efforts we're finding an increasing need for sulfur-containing fertilizers.

The farm economy is in good shape

In spite of the devastating drought in Texas, spring planting problems due to wet weather in the Northern half of the U.S. and then Tropical Storm Irene, the farm economy is generally strong, with high crop and animal product prices. Farmland prices are high - a good gauge of how things are "down on the farm." In fact, the global agricultural economy is healthy due to a high demand for food. A number of developing nations have improving economic conditions, and when poor folks get more money one of the first things they do is eat better. This means more meat consumption, which has a positive impact not only on animal producers, but also on the farmers growing the grains to feed those animals. It doesn't look like milk prices will average over $20 in 2012 while input prices will be higher, so it may be a better year for crop farmers than for dairy producers. Time will tell.

Leaner and meaner

Amidst all the problems with bad weather, toxin-resistant bugs and high fertilizer prices there's some good news. Dairy farmers have come through some very tough economic times, including milk prices that didn't come close to covering the cost of production. Many farmers remaining in the dairy industry have done so by tightening their management, including eliminating unnecessary fertilizer purchases and the more judicious use of livestock manure. We know this to be true because regional soil test summaries have shown improvement in soil fertility status. Nutrient management plans (NMPs) were often costly (and often a pain in neck) to implement, but once implemented many of these NMPs are providing lasting benefits. These benefits include increased use of soil analysis and more farmers using crop consultants, including field scouting to detect problems before they become serious. Dairy rations have been fine-tuned, including reducing the amount of phosphorus fed to dairy cows. In an effort to control capital costs more farmers are using custom pesticide applicators, which in many cases is resulting in better weed and insect control at a fair price. Farmers have become "leaner and meaner," but they've also become better managers.

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.