Fairfield Ledger

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Neighbors Growing Together | Jul 16, 2018

Residents learn about ag trends

By Andy Hallman, Ledger news editor | Aug 03, 2017
Photo by: ANDY HALLMAN/Ledger photo Iowa State University Extension and Outreach swine field specialist Tom Miller speaks about livestock numbers in the county during the Ag Lunch and Learn July 21 at Heartland Co-op.

Agriculture’s role in Jefferson County was the topic of discussion at the Fairfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s Ag Lunch and Learn July 21 at Heartland Co-op.

Co-hosted by Jefferson County Farm Bureau and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the event was an opportunity for locals to learn about trends in agriculture and livestock production, and to eat a lunch courtesy of the Jefferson County Cattlemen. ISU Extension and Outreach supplied guest speakers who educated the guests about a different aspect of the ag economy.



The overriding concern on every farmer’s mind has been the lack of rainfall in the past two months. Charles Brown, ISU Extension and Outreach field specialist for farm management, said southern Iowa is particularly dry, and that southeast Iowa might have it worst of all.

“I think Wapello County is the driest or close to it,” he said.

Brown predicted that yields will be spotty this year because select patches of ground got the timely rainfall they needed, while much of the crops have gone thirsty.

“An area toward Packwood had 3 inches of rain ... Mt. Pleasant had 3 inches, and land south of Fairfield got an inch of rain recently,” he said. “The spots that got a shower will be OK.”

ISU Extension and Outreach field agronomist Rebecca Vittetoe has been visiting farms throughout the region, and she’s worried about the corn yield.

“We won’t have any record-breaking yields this year,” she said. “Corn is taking a hit because of the drought. We will definitely see smaller kernels.”

Perhaps the only silver lining from the drought is that waterborne diseases have stayed away. Vittetoe said she has not seen the fungi, bacteria or viruses that often plague crops in wet years.


Commodity prices down recently

Brown showed the crowd PowerPoint slides depicting corn and bean prices during the last 40 years. The price of both crops went through the roof from 2008 to 2013 in what Brown referred to as the “golden age of farming.” Though costs continued to rise — particularly fertilizer — the sale price of corn and beans was so high farmers profited to an unprecedented degree.

Unfortunately for farmers, the high prices did not last. In 2013, corn sold for almost $7 per bushel. Today, it’s selling for $3.22. Beans, which were selling as high as $14-15, are back down to under $9.

Brown said the high prices caused farmers to squeeze out as many bushels as they could. But the demand couldn’t keep up, and the resulting oversupply has forced prices to come back to earth.

“In the run up to those high prices, we had a lot of demand, because several ethanol plants were being built in 2008,” Brown said. “Then we had a drought in 2012, which cut the supply, boosting prices even further. Since then, we’ve just produced more bushels than we can use.”

A sign of overproduction is the amount of corn and beans left in stock at the end of the year.

Corn stocks have doubled within the last few years. Soybeans have piled up even more. The amount of soybeans in stock at the end of last year was five times what it was at the end of 2013.


Break-even farming

Brown said many people thought the high prices from 2008-13 would be the new norm in agriculture, but they were wrong. The prices are back to what Brown termed “break-even” farming, where the costs of production are about the same as revenue. He said that was the economic condition of farmers for about three decades until the spike in prices began about 10 years ago.

“If we’re going to make money in this environment, we have to watch our costs and we have to be good marketers,” he said. “We need to learn how to operate in this new norm.”



Swine field specialist for ISU Extension and Outreach Tom Miller spoke about how livestock numbers are way down in Jefferson County from what they were 30 or 40 years ago.

Farmers had a tough time in the 1980s when they suffered through several years of losses. The combination of low prices but high costs forced many out of the business. Quite a few of them who had cattle sold their animals, and the ground previously used to grow hay for them was turned into crops or ground for the Conservation Reserve Program, an initiative to stop soil erosion introduced in the 1985 Farm Bill.

The federal program paid farmers to take cropland out of production and replace it with trees or grasslands.

The result of that attrition and new uses for hay ground have caused cattle numbers in the county to fall from 42,000 in 1980 to 16,900 today.

Hog numbers have declined even more so than cattle. In 1980, the county had 125,000 pigs. At the time of the ag census in 2012, the number had dropped to 39,000.

Miller said there aren’t necessarily fewer hogs being raised in Iowa, but they are being raised in concentrated areas.

For instance, Washington County has so many pigs that their manure supplies more than 80 percent of the county’s fertilizer needs. Farmers in Jefferson County, by contrast, receive less than 10 percent of their fertilizer from pigs. The rest must be purchased from a store.



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