Grower says don't give your heart to only one crop

A crops conference is an unusual place to hear a dissertation on the meaning of love, but that's just what growers heard at the recent Alabama Corn and Wheat Conference in Huntsville.

Paul Clark, who farms in north Alabama's Tennessee Valley, told those in attendance, “I'm a cotton grower, I've been a cotton consultant, and I love cotton. But at some point in time, I figured out that you love only your family, but you like to make money,” he said, adding, “Don't be in love with one crop. You're not a corn farmer, cotton farmer or wheat farmer — you're a money farmer. We're all in this business to make money, and we won't be in it for very long if we don't make money.”

His point, of course, is that considering today's fluctuating commodity markets, it doesn't make sense to be married to one crop. With corn, wheat and soybean prices all on the upswing, there's no better time than the present to be looking at options.

Clark explains that declining cotton yields initially forced him into considering a rotational crop. “Our cotton yields were beginning to trail off, so what prompted us to made changes was the reniform nematode. We went in and intensively soil-sampled all of our acres for reniform nematodes. That's when we started considering our options, and the only one that looked good for us was rotation — nothing else was economical in our soils. We already were planting no-till, so corn looked like our best choice,” he says.

It wasn't just the farmer in him but also the accountant in him, says Clark, who saw a need to look at how to make money from corn. “You'll remember that corn was about $2.50 per bushel rather than $4 per bushel. And genetics have changed our average yields — we found that out the past couple of years. There was a time when, with the weather conditions we had in 2007, we wouldn't have made anything, but some of us made 60, 80 or 90 bushels per acre,” he says.

At the time he began rotating, corn prices were much lower than they are today, and cotton prices weren't very good either, says Clark, but rotation still made economic sense because it increased cotton yields.

“When we first started rotating, we were getting 150 to 200 more pounds of cotton per acre. If I don't rotate, I don't make those extra pounds. So I add that 150 to 200 pounds of yield back against my corn crop. That's a benefit of corn, and those dollars go to corn. My government payments are the same no matter what because I had cotton bases. My bottom line was just as good with corn — even at the lower prices — as it was with cotton,” he says.

Seeing the obvious benefits, Clark quickly went to a 50/50 rotation of cotton and corn. “I had been planting rye for a cover crop, so I eliminated that $7 per acre. I better utilized my labor and my equipment because the timing is different with the two crops. Rotation worked out very well for us, and we continue to do it,” he says.

In a year like 2007, rotation needs to be between crops that complement one another well, such as cotton and corn, says Clark.

“You don't want soybeans and cotton as a rotation. With our price structure like it is, you might want to look at something like corn behind soybeans to give you a nitrogen benefit. The best yield you'll get is cotton behind corn. You might have a third of your total crop in each of these. If the price of those commodities will allow you to make the same money with each one, then rotation becomes that additional money that goes into your pocket. Look at these crops based on your return possibilities,” he says.

The bottom line, says Clark, is to take a hard look at your bottom line. “See what one crop does for another and how it fits into your production system. The accountant in you will tell you what you need to do.”

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