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Soaring profit potential has cotton farmers eyeing corn

Agriculture.com Staff 01/19/2007 @ 3:40pm

High corn prices may be luring more acres this spring, even if it's at the expense of other major crops in parts of the country where corn is a smaller part of farmers' portfolios.

In the southeastern part of the U.S. where cotton has traditionally been king, the recent demand-driven market upswing in corn futures has more growers in states like Alabama looking more seriously at corn as a primary crop.

For some Alabama cotton producers, growing corn is not new, according to Auburn University Extension agronomist Charles Burmester. In his area near Belle Mina, Alabama, in the north-central part of the state, Burmester says corn has been utilized as a rotation crop with cotton now for several years. The reason: Reniform nematode numbers and severity in the area's cotton have increased in recent years, and since corn does not share cotton's susceptibility to the pest, it's ideal for biennial rotation with cotton.

"If you do have the reniform [nematode] problem, it's a no-brainer," Burmester says. "Corn's not a host, so it's an excellent rotational crop."

To date, no cotton variety has been found to possess resistance to the reniform nematode.

But market conditions, especially after the January 12 USDA crop report that proved to be largely bullish for corn, are different this year than in the past. This is changing many farmers' approach to corn. "Prices have never been this attractive, so the people who have been growing corn are increasing their acres and there are a few people who are jumping in for the first time," Burmester says of the growers in his area.

As a result, he estimates those growers who currently use corn as a rotational crop at 20% to 30% acreage levels may bump to around 50% of their acres. The change may not be as abrupt and significant as the recent upward trend in corn futures, but under current conditions, Burmester says it makes good sense for some.

"It's really an attractive situation, but it depends on a lot," he says. "It gives them an alternative here, at least."

High corn prices may be luring more acres this spring, even if it's at the expense of other major crops in parts of the country where corn is a smaller part of farmers' portfolios.

Several environmental factors unique to the southeastern U.S. can make growing corn there a challenge. First of all, typically weeks ahead of average planting dates in the Corn Belt, southeastern corn growers in most years face a small window in which they can plant, according to Burmester.

Acquiring the necessary skills and keeping up with changes in corn inputs is something that, because some growers are either new to growing corn or haven't done so in a while, can be just as challenging as Mother Nature. This year, according to Burmester, the recent bullish corn futures swing has caught cooperatives and growers off-guard, making it difficult for them to procure the seed corn with the traits they need.

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