Farming Magazine - December, 2012


2013 Field & Forage Outlook

By Everett D. Thomas

The impact of what will long be remembered as "The Drought of 2012" will be felt in farmers' wallets as well as crop supply choices in 2013. This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, considering that three-quarters of the continental U.S. had some level of drought this past summer. With this rather gloomy backdrop, following are some developments that should have an impact on field and forage crops in 2013.

Despite soil-parching drought, green sweet corn plants in the background tower above protective organic mulch in a cornfield in Beltsville, Md. In the foreground, plant physiologist John Teasdale inspects corn planted in bare soil that won't be worth harvesting.
Photo by Keith Weller, courtesy of USDA-ARS.

Seed supplies and size

Seed corn supplies will be affected, since seed production was in the region most severely hit by drought. Much of the seed production area is irrigated, so it wasn't as affected by the lack of rain, but very hot conditions during silking and pollen shed were bad for pollination.

The good news is that most of the major seed companies have their seed production spread over several states, which reduces the risk. If necessary, seed companies can make up at least part of the shortfall by growing seed corn in South America. However, this seed will be harvested not long before early corn planting starts, so some seed companies may print their 2013 seed catalogs without knowing for sure about future seed availability.

This may be the year that you need to be more flexible than usual about seed size and shape, because when you place your seed corn order, some of the seed may still be growing in fields thousands of miles south of your farm. I remember one year when we literally had the corn planter at Miner Institute loaded with fertilizer and sitting in the barnyard waiting for a shipment of seed (from Hawaii, as I recall) that didn't arrive until after we had started corn planting. The seed was the third of three hybrids in a corn silage quality trial comprising about 20 acres, so we couldn't plant the test field without it. When it arrived, we discovered that the seed was so small that a 50-pound bag contained 120,000 kernels instead of the more normal 80,000. More than ever, this will be the year to work closely with your seed dealer to make sure you're able to get your first (or second) choice for seed corn. By the time you read this, many early seed orders will have been taken already. If you haven't already ordered your seed corn, what are you waiting for?

There may also be some shortages of spring cereal grains, particularly oats. That's because many farmers planted oats in late summer/early fall in an attempt to boost short forage inventories resulting from the drought. In some cases, cereal grains - both winter and spring varieties - wound up in short supply by early fall, with some dealers running out of seed. Some summer-harvested oats may help boost 2013 seed supplies, because we hear that some farmers harvested high yields of this crop in spite of the dry weather. Also, farmers often used the taller-growing varieties of oats for fall-harvested forage, so the shorter-stature varieties may be in somewhat better supply for spring planting.

Fertilizer ups and downs

2012 was another highly volatile year for fertilizer markets. Prices for most fertilizer nutrients have been fairly steady in recent months, and in most cases are lower than a year ago. However, it's been a roller coaster ride to get there, with soaring prices followed by sharp drops as the drought took its toll.

After a busy spring including heavy nitrogen use, farmers greatly reduced and in many cases eliminated nitrogen side-dress applications on parched cornfields, concluding (quite correctly) that dead and dying plants don't need much nitrogen.

The big news in nitrogen fertilizer markets is the start-up of the PCS facility in Geismar, La., that will produce urea-ammonium nitrate (UAN). This one plant will add about 10 percent to UAN supplies.

As with farm seeds, the 2012 drought will have an impact on the 2013 fertilizer market, particularly phosphates and potash, but the extent of impact is still unknown. Low crop yields and crop failures don't remove nutrients from the soil, and in the case of phosphorus and potassium, much of these nutrients remain in the rootzone, available for the following year's crop. What we don't yet know is how much farmers will take this into account.

Low global supplies of corn and other grains will mean another year of fencerow-to-fencerow planting, assuming favorable planting conditions, which would be bullish for fertilizer demand. This may be offset by soil carryover of nutrients, plus those cash-strapped farmers who had little crop to sell, even though grain prices were sky-high. On balance, industry analysts think there's a good chance it will be a buyer's market rather than a seller's market for fertilizer in the coming months. That's good news for farmers.

Not all fertilizers will be affected the same way; there appears to be a growing need for sulfur fertilizers, primarily because atmospheric depositions of this essential nutrient have greatly decreased as EPA efforts to clean up the air have been successful. In many areas of the Midwest and Northeast, atmospheric depositions of sulfur are considerably less than crop removal by alfalfa, so it's not surprising that recent research by Cornell University found a need for sulfur supplementation in some alfalfa fields. Similar research done a generation ago when sulfur depositions were much higher found no need for sulfur.

Times change, and farmers must change with them. However, this doesn't mean that you should start applying sulfur to all your fields. Work with your crop consultant and/or extension educator to confirm the need for sulfur before applying it. One of the main signs of sulfur deficiency is light green areas of alfalfa in your alfalfa fields. If you see these signs, take tissue samples of both the normal and abnormal areas of the field. If tissue analysis confirms a sulfur deficiency, topdress with a sulfur-containing fertilizer. Often the most economical way to do this is to apply the sulfur at the same time you're topdressing the field with potassium.

Heavy winds and light tire sidewalls are a bad combination. Even though the plastic seam between two plastic tarps was sealed with a line of whole tires, there obviously wasn't enough overlap between the tarps, allowing the wind to get underneath the plastic and slide the tires to the side.
Photo by Everett D. Thomas.

Bunker silo covers

Covering bunker silos and drive-over pile silos is one of the most hated jobs on the farm. For this reason, farmers are always looking for alternatives to the traditional plastic sheeting. Over the years I've encountered some unusual silo covers, including molasses, which leached down through the top of the silage, allowing the top foot to spoil; agricultural lime, which seemed to work OK, but application sure was a lot of work; and a spray-on black gunk that hardened to a thick, rubbery coat and protected the silage just fine, but cost five times what plastic sheeting does. The USDA continues to look at alternatives, but until they discover the "magic bullet" of silo covers, plastic sheets appear to be the only logical choice.

Soil scientist Alan Olness and chemist Jana Rinke inspect corn plants in a tillage/nitrate study.
Note, however, that not all silo plastics are equally effective. Standard silo plastic is inexpensive, but more oxygen-permeable than many farmers realize. (That's why smelly garbage often still stinks even after sealing it in a plastic garbage bag.) High-density silo plastic is more expensive, but is more effective. For this reason, it is recommended by many authorities on silo and silage management. Some of the high-density plastic is sandwiched between layers of standard plastic, while some is sold as a single thin film that clings to the silage surface and then is covered with a layer of standard plastic sheeting. Another option is two layers of standard silo plastic; I've seen this work well, including on some large California dairies. Any of these are improvements on a single layer of standard silo plastic, but none are worth much if they're not well adhered to the silage by tires or gravel bags.

Gravel bags are a good way to prevent air from getting under silo plastic. The heavy, pea gravel-filled bags don't sit on the silo surface so much as they sit into the top layer of silage.
Photo by Everett D. Thomas.

Automobile tire sidewalls are popular on some farms because they don't weigh a lot and are convenient to handle and store, but their lack of weight is also their shortcoming, especially on the top of a bunker or drive-over pile. Make sure you have plenty of overlap where one plastic sheet meets another, and enough weight on this overlapped area to prevent air infiltration. In many cases a single sidewall isn't enough; either use a full tire or a stack of two or three sidewalls. Gravel bags are my personal favorite, and if handled properly should last many years. When filled with pea gravel and placed end-to-end they provide a continuous tight seal that even 50 mph winds won't budge.

Farmers continue to look for a silo cover that's cheap, effective and easy to apply. Until one comes along (don't hold your breath), a high-density plastic film plus a ballast (tires, tire sidewalls or gravel bags) that tightly adheres the plastic cover to the silage surface is the best there is.

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 written our Forages column for over 15 years and has been an expert contributor on a number of other topics.