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Slow winter....slow spring?

Planting season must be around the corner. On Thursday, the USDA is scheduled to release its first detailed data on farmers' planting plans. To get an idea of how farmers are preparing, here are a few thoughts from central Illinois farmer Greg Knoblauch, and Dave Mowers, consulting agronomist with AIM for the Heartland. What are you concerned about as you prepare for planting in 2014?

Knoblauch: There are a couple things I’m very worried about. One is soil moisture. Every year we dig soil pits to do research, and last fall there was a very large gap between soil moisture and subsoil moisture. I know we have gotten a little bit of rain, and, of course, all the freezing and thawing, but I’m almost positive that those two haven’t connected together. We definitely need some decent rains this spring.

My plan is to farm for drought conditions. That may change if we get 5 inches of rain in March, but at this point in time, the long-range forecast is showing average rainfall and average to slightly-below-normal temperatures.

Mowers: I’m worried about the moisture in the Corn Belt. I think we came into this winter really short of soil moisture. It froze up so fast this winter. I’m afraid there’s going to be little retention of the moisture that’s sitting on top of the ground; I think it’s going to run off immediately. We are going to have to recharge our subsoil moisture supply. It could be challenging for us. Will you be adjusting your nutrient-management plan?

Knoblauch: I’m a little more aggressive with nutrient management compared to some folks. First of all, I strip fertilize. I put my nutrients in the strip, especially for corn, and then I broadcast fertilizer for my soybeans. The reason I do the strips is because they are much more efficient in drought conditions. Even when we get rain, it’s not a big deal. When we are in drought conditions, it keeps the plant from having to work really hard to find the nutrients it needs. Because of those programs, I’ve been able to achieve equal to or ahead of my county yield averages all the time.

Mowers: Right now, the situation here in Illinois is we got considerably less fall nitrogen (N) applied than normal. I’m hearing some retailers say they only got 50% of their fall ammonia applied. That really concerns me. That’s going to be underscored by the propane shortage we’ve had. We’re going to see some additional problems. I think the price of energy is going to go up, and that’s naturally going to bring up of the price of all fertilizer products and probably chemicals as well. Inputs aren’t going to retract prices at the same speed as the market prices.

There will be a lot of sidedressing, and a lot of switching over to liquid N sources. But, it’s still going to be a problem. With the lateness of any kind of outlook for thawing out, we’re going to start late, even if it thaws before the first part of March – which doesn’t look very possible. How are you feeling about the markets?

Knoblauch: It’s a big concern. Right now, I check it two to three times a day. I still have some old crop to sell, and I haven’t sold any new crop. I’m watching very closely what’s happening in Argentina and Brazil. All of a sudden, they’re starting to cut their numbers back a bit, which is helping our pricing.

We’re all concerned about the market prices right now. If you really push numbers, we’re at break-even at best, or slightly below on the production of corn. The only way to get out of that is to produce a lot of corn and to get your average price down.

A few years back we started chasing the market and had a disaster. Usually, if you watch your marketing, you can make both crops pay off pretty decent. We’re going to stay in our normal rotation.

Mowers: I think we’re going into a sluggish year. Grain prices haven’t really reflected a lot of the problems, and I don’t know that they will. A lot of farmers have increased soybean acreage. I don’t think it’s a result of what’s happening currently, I think it’s been a long-range plan with problems growing corn after corn and input costs.

There’s a lot of grain on the farm that’s been stored, and people are hesitant to sell it. And, we’re having difficulty moving it with the road conditions, and it’ll get worse as the thaw comes.

With the upshot in old-crop beans, they’re really looking hard at marketing them. I think that some will get sold. How do you manage for weather?

Knoblauch: I use the MDA weather service because it’s pretty accurate on the three-month forecast. When we get into April and May, I study those forecasts, and that will influence planting populations, planting dates, and how we seal the soils off to protect soil moisture. What is the general mood you are sensing?

Mowers: What every retailer has told me is the farmers are just not coming in. I suppose a lot of them are still working on the farmstead and snow removal. As a consequence, nothing is getting done. That’s a fact with all of the support industry. It’s just a slow winter.

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