Keith Bowen is concerned, but not losing sleep. There isn’t much he can do to change it: row crop prices promise no big returns in 2015. He will do a few things differently and be more judicious with crop inputs, but for the most part he’ll stick to what he knows best and hope it works out when he looks back a year from now.
Bowen, 50, farms in Miller County in southwest Georgia. He spent a mid-January morning listening to farm economists at the University of Georgia Ag Forecast in Donalsonville, Ga., deliver their rendition of the 2015 song row-crop farmers know too well – "Prices Stink." The tune’s not pretty, but Bowen’s heard darker refrains in his farming career. You get ready to dance anyway or you end up against the wall.
Back on his farm on that January day, equipment was being repaired, modified or moved to get ready for his 2015 peanut and cotton season. He works about 2,000 acres with a rotation of two years to cotton to one year of peanuts.
As of January, cotton futures struggled to stay in the 60-cents-per-pound range, and peanut contracts threatened no greater than $400 per ton in 2015.
Diesel prices were much lower than they were one year prior. That’s great, and it will help with cutting costs. “But I tell you, I’d rather have a dollar (per pound) cotton than a cut in diesel prices, if I had my choice,” he said, with a chuckle.
He’s not looking to skimp too much on inputs this season. He can’t with herbicide-resistant pigweed, nematode pressure in several fields, and what can be explosive cases of Cylindrocladium black rot on his peanuts. He’ll spend what he needs to protect yields. “Because we have to have the yields to make it,” he said.
Bowen said he has one of the best consultants around, but “I did tell him I don’t have to make the highest yields in the county this year because it might not make or work out.”
Over the past few years, when peanut and cotton prices were better, Bowen didn’t spare on his fertility applications, taking his soil samples to a regional private lab where he got recommendations for optimal yields. He says he’s banked some good fertility in his fields, and this year he’ll pull from that fertility bank. He’ll still soil-sample but take UGA fertility recommendations, which typically are more conservative and economical for growers. “I’ve fertilized for two and a half bales (of cotton) and made three bales, and you can make money like that. But if you fertilize for three bales and make two and a half bales, you’re backing up and not making it.”
Last year, he put Telone II out on all his peanut acres to control nematodes. This year, he plans to apply the nematicide just on fields where he knows he has problems.
He'll stick to what he does best
At the end of the season, one way or the other, he’d like to look back and figure he spent 10 to 15 percent less than he did in 2014 on inputs. “If we can do that and maintain yields, I’ll be satisfied and I believe that will work out for us,” he said.
Though prices are suppressed, peanuts look like Bowen’s best return on investment. As of mid-January, he hadn’t signed up for farm bill programs but had been getting his information lined up for a visit to his Farm Service Agency. With the generic base allocation option, the Price Loss Coverage program might make peanuts cash flow for him.
“I think most of us know it’s not going to be a good year as far as prices, but I think we’ll get by. There is only so much you can do and we’ll stick to what we do best. The rest is up to the Good Lord,” he said.
That January day, Bowen’s employee David Shattles had just finished retrofitting the 12-row cotton planter with a sprayer system to put out Reflex behind the seed being planted this year. Hooked up to the Swath Control Pro for the GreenStar system in his tractor, three valves will cut on and off three sections on the planter: the center six rows will have a valve and the three rows on the each end will each have a valve. The spray nozzles were TK-VS2’s.
He hopes to save a tractor trip across fields with the new spray system by not using a sprayer to put out Reflex behind the planter. In his case, this will free up the sprayer to come back over the cotton with Warrant 14 to 21 days after the Reflex and not have to have the sprayer also chasing the planter as cotton planting progresses.
The system will be precise enough to eliminate what he called “dead spots,” or places in a field where a sprayer behind a planter might miss. “And those dead spots will be where your weeds will come up and cause a problem,” Bowen said.
He has a similar spray system on his peanut planter. Other growers have similar planting systems. The spray system behind the cotton planter was a small adjustment for him to make this year, and the right number of small adjustments in 2015 might mean the difference between a positive or negative bottom line.