Lessons learned from the 2012 drought

(This week’s guest columnist is Kent Theisse, Farm Management Analyst and Vice President, MinnStar Bank, Lake Crystal)

The 2012 crop year and the major drought that affected much of the United States is now behind us; however, many areas of the Western Corn Belt, including much of Southern and Western Minnesota continue to face drought concerns for the coming 2013 crop year. Anytime we have a major disaster, such as the 2012 drought, it is always good to review what happened or didn’t happen, and to use those findings to strategize for the future. Following are some key observations relative to the 2012 drought that can help farm operators and the agriculture industry plan for the coming years:

1. Genetic advancements in seed technology.

Based on most analogies, the 2012 drought in the major corn and soybean producing areas of the U.S. was more severe than the drought of 1988. USDA recently estimated the 2012 national average corn yield at 123.4 bushels per acre, which is the lowest national average yield since 1995. Interestingly, the average U.S. corn yield in 1988 was only 84 bushels per acre. This shows not only the ongoing yield improvement that has been made for the past few decades in the corn hybrids that are available today, but also the genetic improvement that has been made to help corn be more tolerant of drought and other stresses during the growing season. Seed companies and land-grant universities are working on genetics to make corn hybrids and other seed varieties even more drought tolerant in the future.

2. The impact of modern farming practices.

If the drought conditions in 2012 were the most severe since the 1930’s, why did we not see the “dust bowl” like conditions that existed in that era? The main reasons are the efforts in the U.S. to protect our natural resources, and the fact that the farming practices of today are far superior to previous generations in preventing soil erosion. Federal programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), wetlands restoration programs, and grassland protection programs have helped keep some of the most fragile land out of production. Crop farming practices utilized by today’s producers have also greatly enhanced the protection of our soil, which along with water, are the most important natural resource for top-quality crop production. There are many more farmers utilizing no-till or minimum tillage methods to produce their crops today, compared to a few decades ago, and farm operators have installed more conservation practices, such as filter strips and waterways to control erosion.

3. Difficult decisions in grain marketing.

Grain prices rose to record high prices this past summer, reaching harvest prices near $8.00 per bushel for corn and over $17.00 per bushel for soybeans in Southern Minnesota. As of mid-January, current local cash grain prices have moderated to around $7.25 per bushel for corn and $14.30 per bushel for soybeans, which are still very good price levels. Harvest grain prices for the fall of 2013 are near $5.40 per bushel for corn and $12.20 per bushel for soybeans in South Central Minnesota.

Many farm operators did not market a lot of their corn and soybeans at the top price levels, as they started marketing their grain last spring and early summer, before the major drought occurred, as a risk management approach. A lot of corn in the region was forward priced at $4.75-$5.50 per bushel in May and June, and the soybeans at $12.00-$13.00 per bushel, which seemed like good prices at the time. Once the drought set in, producers needed to be cautious how much more grain they forward contracted, in case they did not get the bushels, so they ended up missing the top of the market. However, for most corn and soybean producers in Minnesota the strong grain prices resulted in a very profitable year for crop production in 2012. It appears that the 2013 crop year will be another year of high grain price volatility, which will again create some very difficult grain marketing decisions.

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