#Harvest23 is here! If all goes well, I should be harvesting my corn plot this week. The beginning of fall brings excitement and optimism to the farm. But this year, those feelings appear tempered. Farmer sentiment dropped 8 points last month (according to the Purdue Ag Economy Barometer) as producers shared a dimming view of happenings on their own farms as well as the ag economy
Their biggest concerns continue to be higher input costs (34%) and interest rates (24%). Over half of farmers feel interest rates will continue to rise into next year. And there are growing concerns over the cost of machinery. I’ve been told prices for new combines have risen 20% over the past two years. Diesel fuel prices jumped 30 cents since last month. Net farm income is projected to drop sharply in 2023, by 23%. Granted, this comes off a record high in 2022, and 2023 still figures to rank among the five most profitable years this century. Still, a drop of nearly $42 billion is a lot to endure.
Then there’s the weather, which always has an impact on a farmer’s psyche. Heat and drought are having a major impact. Rootzone moisture is greatly depleted across the key growing areas of the Corn Belt. This will impact yields: 53% of soybeans are now rated good-to-excellent, down from 58% just a week ago. Recent reports from farm tours are projecting average yields well below USDA’s projections in early August, with corn dipping to 171 bu/A and soybeans slipping below 50 bushels. Those woes aren’t specific to the heartland. In the USA’s leading cotton- and beef-producing state, Texas, 61% of cotton acres and 72% of pastureland are rated poor-to-very poor. Only 5% of pastureland in the Lone Star State is rated good-to-excellent.
Supply chain woes appear far from over on the farm. As fall harvest gets into full swing, farmers are sharing frustrations in finding parts. One farmer recently described his tractor as a “$500,000 paper weight” due to a hydraulic pump failure. There are no pumps in the manufacture’s system and the earliest release is two weeks away.
Is the world’s leading grain user doing an about-face on GMO crops? China has over 1.4 billion mouths to feed. And unlike India, Chinese diets consist of lots of meat, consuming 100 million tons of beef, pork and poultry per year (27% of the world’s total). Of course, feeding livestock requires lots of grain. To produce more of it domestically, and lessen its reliance on imports, China is rethinking its ban on growing GMO crops. While China imports GMO-produced grain and cotton, they have been slow to allow their own farmers to use the soon-to-be 30-year-old technology. Speculation has it that China worried domestic companies were not competitive enough in the biotech space and they refused to hand over the GMO market to foreign seed companies. China does own life sciences giant Syngenta, which figures to be a player in their biotech efforts. This season, the Chinese ag ministry authorized the use of GMO corn on 1% of their domestic acres and they recently approved the use of a gene-edited soybean. While GMOs are not without their detractors and shortcomings, the technology has been credited with improving USA crop yields by over 20%, due to more effective pest and weed control.
The sustainably grown crops and #regenerativeagriculture marketplace continues to expand. Last week, I attended a webinar for Farmers for Soil Health. This is a farmer-led partnership from the Soybean Checkoff, Pork Checkoff and NCGA, with support from the ag media company DTN. Driven by the goal of doubling cover crop usage – to reach 30 million acres – by 2030, the partnership is offering corn/soybean farmers up to $50/A in transition incentives for using the #soilhealth practice across three years. They also have plans to serve as a gateway to connect producers with market-based incentives from CPGs and biofuel makers.
There’s a long-running joke on the farm about the role of a grain cart operator being something like the low-man-on-the-totem pole. Our friend @AgWithEmma hilariously popularized this notion on her social media last year. Grain carts are used to facilitate the practice of “unloading-on-the-go”. Here’s how it works: a tractor pulling a grain cart maneuvers under the extended auger of a combine as the combine continues to harvest at full speed in the field, thus eliminating the need for the combine to stop and unload grain. Once the grain cart (also called an auger wagon) is filled, it in turn makes its way to a truck or wagon parked along the road and using its own auger, unloads its grain into it. Operationally, there is a fair degree of precision involved – and subsequently a level of stress associated with the task – as the grain cart operator must not only keep pace with the moving combine, but ensure the cart is positioned correctly under the combine’s auger to ensure no grain misses the cart or runs off the side. Since today’s combines can unload at a lightning-fast rate of 5 bushels per second, miscues can get expensive. Many a kid driver has been confronted with various hand gestures, Rip Wheeler-like stares and windshield-piercing screams by dads and uncles for a lack of precision. Once, while directing a TV/video shoot for a new combine from a major equipment brand, I became frustrated with the lack of precision from the engineering interns assigned to the project, so I personally assumed the role of grain cart operator to orchestrate the money shot we wanted of unloading on-the-go, taken from a camera mounted on a helicopter (drones did not exist back then). Now all of this frustration, stress and in-fighting may be coming to a welcomed end, thanks to Raven Industries (part of Case New Holland) with their automated grain cart. Raven has removed the art of grain cart positioning by automating the process and making it stress-free. By utilizing this high-tech guidance system, the combine operator assumes full control over the process, by guiding the tractor to the speed and position of the combine, thus directing the unloading process and eliminating the potential for spillage. It’s not totally autonomous, a grain cart operator is still needed to unload the grain and move to and from the combine. In today’s tightening labor market, the automated grain cart lessens the need for skilled operators. And lessens many of the, ahem, “tensions” between combine and grain cart operators.