Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I tend to believe that “more is better” with foods like pizza, steak, bacon, and desserts, but the reality is that most of the time the opposite is true. Even though these things are good, “more” is usually not so good.
I found this to be the case in my garden sunflowers this year. The instructions on the side of the plant fertilizer box say, “Mix one measuring cup with one gallon of water.” So if one scoop grows big sunflowers, wouldn’t two scoops grow really big sunflowers?
This year, I tried it. We had two different plantings of sunflowers. One group got two scoops and the other group got one (the recommended rate). And, as it turns out, most of the sunflowers with the smaller recommended rate ended up significantly larger. Why is that?
While far from scientific, my little study correlates with some real research being done with nitrogen (N) in corn. N is a critical nutrient in corn production and farmers, crop consultants, the Joyce Foundation, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) are teaming up to find out how much is really needed.
“We are getting good data now and we’re getting guys ratcheted into a finer N rate. As tight as the economics are in agriculture, you can’t spend money on N that you do not need,” said Joe Nester, of Nester Ag Management in Bryan. “We’re trying to get a target pretty close to what the crop is going to need for optimal yield. This isn’t something that you can say, ‘We’re going to raise 160 bushel corn and we need this much N.’ That is not the case at all. This can vary by farming operation, practice, soil condition, weather, drainage and a whole bunch of different things that come into play. But with this program, farmers are learning about what affects their N and they are making some adjustments in their application with the rate and the timing of their N.”
The soil and the plant can only handle so much N, the rest leaves the soil, often in the water. In the past, when the N cost was very low, the safe bet was to add a little extra to make sure that it was not the limiting factor in corn production. High N cost and increasing awareness of the potential water quality impacts, however, have made that safe bet of the past not so safe anymore. But determining how much N is needed to maximize corn production while minimizing costs and environmental impact is not easy.
Working with farmers and EDF, Nester coordinates the On-Farm Network in part of the Lake Erie Watershed to find out how much the N application rate can be reduced without hurting corn yields. The study includes N rate test plots in the fields, soil samples, aerial imagery, corn stalk nitrate tests and yield data. This is a tremendous logistical effort that is time consuming, but it provides a fairly complete picture of how much N is needed.
Nester is working with 90 farmers in his area and the On-Farm Network is also tied in to identical projects in several other watersheds around the country. The results have been surprising in that the most productive soils are often requiring the least amount of N.
“We’re finding that the highest yielding areas of the field top out at the lowest N rate and the lowest yielding areas of the field might need more N to reach an optimum yield -- exactly opposite of what we thought before,” he said. “The reason is recoverability. In the good areas of the field, I may have three times the root system I have in the poor areas of the field so the plant can recover more N.”
These results are allowing farmers to reduce their N rates accordingly, which improves the profitability and environmental sustainability of their farms.
“We’re finding that farmers who participate in the program are reducing N use by 10% to 20% because they see that they can do this and be more profitable,” said Karen Chapman, Great Lakes regional director for EDF. “This is not an environmental program, this is an economic program. Reducing nitrogen offers an economic value to producers and they are contributing to improving water quality at the same time.”
Like my sunflower experiment, this type of research is important because there are times when more is not better and less is more. I am not yet convinced, however, that this applies to bacon.
For more information about the On-Farm Network, visit http://www.isafarmnet.com.

Matt Reese writes for Ohio’s Country Journal and resides in Baltimore, Ohio. This column is brought to you by Ohio agriculture. Contact him at mkcreese@yahoo.com.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

It was a tough year for many wheat growers in Ohio and the United States with poor weather and disease problems. Many were questioning whether to even plant wheat this fall. But then, news of a drought in Russia began to spread. In response, the per-bushel wheat price exploded.

“Prices were skyrocketing as old crop wheat prices climbed over three dollars in less than a month,” said Doug Tenney, an economist for Leist Mercantile in Circleville. “Russia has been ravaged by a summer drought that is drastically affecting wheat yields for this year’s crop. Last year they exported 18 million tons. Traders during mid-July pulled that number back to 11 million tons. The Russian weather was a big reason for the higher prices. In early August, Russia suddenly announced wheat exports would be suspended for the rest of 2010. The market responded by skyrocketing even higher, closing up the sixty-cent limit. Then the very next day wheat prices were down the sixty-cent limit as Russia revealed they would be honoring their export commitments if supplies were available.”

Even after the prices dropped, they were still much stronger than they had been and the high prices renewed farmers’ interest in planting wheat this fall.

“While seed wheat supplies are tight and dwindling with time, it appears wheat is now back into the picture for many producers,” Tenney said.

Today, Ohio agriculture is more globally interconnected than ever before. Buying trends in China, the whims of Indian consumers or a drought in Russia can have a tremendous impact on the crop field just around the bend. We live in an increasingly small world, but why is that?

A big part of the reason, particularly in Ohio, is the modern transportation systems that allow farmers to produce grain and efficiently move it anywhere in the world. Without the ability to get their crops to the consumers (whether in Columbus or Calcutta), crops are not worth much. Ohio is blessed to be at the center of the world’s transportation hub with a Great Lake, numerous interstate highways and railroads and a mighty river running along its southern border that connects the state’s agriculture and manufacturing with the world.

At Cincinnati, the Ohio River picks up a tremendous amount of agriculture shipping from the rich farm fields of southwest Ohio and southeast Indiana.

“A lot of grain funnels down into these facilities on the Ohio River,” said Scott Thibaut, facility manager for Consolidated Grain and Barge Co. in Cincinnati.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the Cincinnati market will ship around 30 million to 32 million bushels of corn and 18 to 20 million bushels of soybeans in a year. The corn, soybeans and wheat that leave facilities on the river are hauled in 220-foot-long barges that are pulled by towboats. A truck can haul 1,000 bushels, a rail car can haul 3,500 bushels and a barge can haul 55,000 bushels of grain. As the grain moves down through the Mississippi River, as many as 45 barges can be hooked to one tow for hauling nearly 2.5 million bushels in one trip. This provides extremely efficient shipping of farm and manufacturing products from the U.S.

Unfortunately, the efficiency of U.S. river shipping has been suffering recently due to the aging system of locks and dams that were built 50 to 60 years ago, or longer. Bigger ships, older systems and increased traffic are slowing down shipping and creating a massive problem that will need to be addressed in the near future.

“We can keep putting Band-Aids on these problems, but eventually we’re going to have to fix them,” Thibaut said. “Grain transportation does not always get the attention because it is still working so well. But one day, it is going to stop working and we will have big problems in agriculture and Ohio commerce as a whole. Just think of what that means for the economy of this state. If we start seeing problems further down the Mississippi River, it will affect the economies of many states.”

The undertaking of upgrading the locks and dams will be very costly and very challenging, but vitally important. U.S. agriculture has been a crucial component of the economy, the environment and the food supply in today’s ever shrinking world. The farmers of this country can continue to produce enough to accomplish this goal, but a world supply of grain is worthless if we can’t get it to the world.