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INSECT PESTS

    An unexpected crop pest in 1996 for some area producers is the grasshopper. We remember grasshoppers as a major pest in the drought conditions of the late 1980’s. However, this year is far from drought conditions, with above normal rainfall occurring in much of the area. Why then, are we seeing grasshoppers in large numbers? The answer to that question involves a discussion of the grasshopper life cycle. In 1986 - 1989, Minnesota experienced a major grasshopper outbreak. Prior to that, Minnesota had not experienced a grasshopper outbreak since the 1930’s. However, nearly every year there are low populations which move from maturing small grain and grasses to row crops. This is the situation some producers are experiencing this year.

    There are nearly 100 kinds of grasshoppers found in North America. Of that number, there are five types that are significant to this area. These grasshoppers lay their eggs in August and September in capsules containing 200 to 800 eggs. The eggs hatch the following year from May to July depending on the type of grasshoppers. Newly hatched grasshoppers are susceptible to rain and cool weather which results in most newly hatched grasshoppers not surviving. However, the differential grasshopper hatched in mid June, just in time for a short period of hot dry weather. As a result, many differential grasshoppers survived and became very noticeable in some areas in July.

    Grasshoppers feed on plants for nourishment and moisture. In high temperatures their feeding increases because of increased moisture needs. In contrast, ample moisture and humid conditions resulting in mold development naturally controls grasshopper populations.

    Economic thresholds for control of grasshoppers are twenty grasshoppers per square yard in non-cropland such as ditches or CRP fields and eight grasshoppers per square yard in field crops. The economic threshold is the point where the cost of control is less than the economic crop damage.

    Grasshoppers will seek untilled, firm soils to deposit their egg capsules beginning in August. Harvested and untilled small grain fields, ditches and CRP acres are ideal egg laying sites. Tilling harvested small grain fields will make those fields unattractive for grasshopper egg laying.

Copyright © 1998 by University of Minnesota Extension Service Updated October 13, 1999 mfox@extension.umn.edu

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Production Expenses Up Slightly in 2000


   Total production expenses are forecast at $197.5 billion in 2000, a 2.9-percent increase over 1999. Total production expenses in 2000 will equal 88 percent of gross cash income and around 94 percent of gross cash income less Government payments. These levels are the highest since the 1980-84 period.

   Rising fuel prices are of major concern to the sector. Average diesel prices rose 13 percent between January and mid-March. OPEC countries are expected to increase production to bring crude oil prices down to around $24 a barrel but this won't be felt until in the summer after planting has been completed.

   Fuel expenses for 2000 are currently forecast at $9 billion, up 40 percent over 1999. The impact of higher fuel prices will also be felt in higher expenses for machine hire and custom work and further down the road in higher repair, fertilizer, and chemical expenses. The amount and timing is as yet uncertain.

   Farmers will also likely make some adjustments to their production practices to lower fuel expenses but the impact on sector expenses is also uncertain.

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Program provides low-interest loans

for expansion of on-farm grain storage

   A new federal loan program for building on-farm grain storage facilities could help farmers wait out low commodity prices and segregate different types of grain, University of Missouri Extension specialists said. The program, announced last week by the Farm Service Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, allows eligible producers to borrow for up to seven years at low interest to expand their on-farm storage, drying and handling facilities.

   "I think the government realizes that agriculture is changing with specialty crops and GMOs (genetically modified organisms)," said MU agricultural engineer Bill Casady. "If we can store some of these crops on-farm, that could take a burden off other parts of the system." The trend toward identity preservation is a motivating factor, agreed MU agricultural economist Joe Parcell. "I think it's also a response from the government to the low commodity prices we've had for the last couple of years. A lot of producers perceive there's value in waiting to sell, whether for tax purposes or to pick up a price increase."

   By waiting a few months for prices to rise from harvest-time levels, "you can often get as much as an additional 25 cents per bushel, in a typical year," Casady said. Storing grain on-farm costs less than storing it at an elevator, he said, "but you assume the risk, and there's a lot of labor involved."

   Parcell said interested farmers first need to determine the optimal mix of storage they need. "A lot of these identity-preserved crops we have out there are produced under contractual arrangements that require the farmer to store the grain on farm until the buyer calls for delivery." He pointed out that the low-interest loans can also be used to remodel existing facilities as long as storage capacity is increased. Bins that are easier to clean, for instance, make crop segregation far more practical.

   The agency will begin accepting loan applications on May 30, but the program will be retroactive to include storage expansion back to Feb. 2, 2000.

   For more information, contact your area Farm Service Agency office. Source: Bill Casady (573) 882-2731; Joe Parcell (573) 882-0870

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 State Ag Producers Need Temp Help Not  

 Policy ‘Fix’ for Plunging Income


  MANHATTAN, Kan. Kansas farm income took a pounding last year, dropping a full 70 percent when 1998 combined low prices with bad growing-season weather in some areas of the state. 

   The erosion signaled little weakness in the High Plains’ No. 1 economic base, Kansas State University economists said today. It did not point to—or result from—factors that fostered the 1980s’ ag financial crisis. It didn’t even support the belief that small- and medium-sized farms are being driven out of business. 

  Even so, to ensure agriculture’s feet remain on solid ground, Capitol Hill must help farmers stem the turned tide, the economists said. The lost financial ground was a reminder of the timeless risk of doing business with Mother Nature. But, it also was a result of the global economy’s present weakness.

    Both factors affected farmers nationwide, said Fred DeLano, lead economist with the Kansas Farm Management Association (KFMA). Now many analysts are projecting the global economy will bottom out in 1999, then gradually return to "normal" by 2002. For some farmers, that may not be fast enough, DeLano warned. 

   "Washington doesn’t need to ‘fix’ agriculture, to solve this problem," added Barry Flinchbaugh, K-State Research and Extension’s public policy economist. 

   "To maintain our abundant food supply, Washington just needs to help farmers buy time with another cash infusion like the $6 billion last year. It also needs to keep working to reform crop insurance. With a large enough pool—perhaps one that includes the European Union—farm revenue insurance could be financially sound and widely affordable."

    The KFMA’s annual analysis of member records, released April 20, indicates last year’s Kansas farm income drop varied more widely than usual. It reached down to the between-county and within-county levels. (Research shows the association is representative of farmers statewide.) 

   On average, however, Kansas farmers made $16,778 in accrued income, compared to the previous year’s $59,352. Accrued income subtracts the year’s cash costs from the total of cash receipts, plus the value of any unsold crops or livestock, DeLano said. 

                    Situation Worse Than Seems

    In part, last year’s drop seemed so severe because 1996 and 1997 brought "excellent accrued income, Flinchbaugh said. But, 1998’s returns also included one factor that suggests a bleaker landscape than the totals reveal. 

    "Average returns were in the $20,000s through most of the early 1990s. In fact, the income increase between 1995 and 1996 was almost as abrupt as the decrease between ‘97 and ‘98," DeLano said. But in 1995 when farmers earned $22,353, just $9,800 of that income came in the form of government farm program payments. The following year, government payments’ average contribution jumped to $17,496. In 1997, payments accounted for $14,980 of average Kansas farm returns. Last year they amounted to $26,504. 

   "The Freedom to Farm bill hasn’t meant less government payments," Flinchbaugh said. "And Congress passed an extra $6 billion infusion last year, when it became obvious many U.S. farmers were in trouble. "Most of the true disaster aid went to the Dakotas, Montana and Texas. Even so, government payments are the only reason last year’s Kansas farm income wasn’t $7,000 to $10,000 in the red." Management skill also made a big difference in how well farmers fared, he said. As often as not, however, weather and prices ensured farmers’ skill could do no more than limit the income drop. For example, KFMA members in the northwest earned $50,485 because last year’s growing conditions resulted in above average production, and Freedom to Farm allowed them to plant more acres to more crops. On the other hand, members in the southeast averaged $3,460 because needed rains never came and farmers there depend more on livestock, as well as crop income, DeLano said.

    Cherokee County was an exception. Average or better than average yields and less livestock allowed farmers there to net $47,509, he said. Farmers in Sedgwick County typically brought in $29,129 last year. Again, however, weather helped those in all the rest of south central Kansas average less than half that amount. Net accrued farm income in the remaining KFMA regions averaged: 

- Northeast - $12,170.

 - North central - $14,767. 

- South central - $16,156.

 - Southwest - $31,286. 

    Farm size, as measured by total capital managed, had little relationship to success, DeLano said. For example, south central farmers with operations of 400 acres or less in 1998 were managing about $350,000 in capital assets (owned and rented land, machinery, and the like). On average, they made about $12,000 in accrued income. Those with 400 to 900 acres were managing $700,000 in assets and made about $13,000. Those with more than 2,000 acres were managing $1.9 million in assets and made $22,000. "Efficiency as production and business managers always makes the biggest difference," DeLano said. 

    "If we divide our members into quartiles by income, we usually see a $115,000 spread between the top and bottom 25 percent. The weather and prices simply shift that spread up or down. And last year it was down." South central KFMA members in 1998’s top 25 percent netted $75,622, while managing $1.6 million in capital assets. Those in the bottom 25 percent lost $39,659, managing $1.2 million in assets. 

                Situation Also Better Than Seems 

    By farm type, dairy operations were about the only ones that did fairly well in 1998, netting $55,947. "They’ll be taking a hit this year," DeLano said, "because 1999 brought a $6 drop in milk prices." Other operations typically found livestock didn’t balance out crops. By the end of the year, fed hogs were selling for a dime a pound and farrow-to-finish hog farms lost an average $70,521. The average cattle stocker ranch in Kansas barely broke even, while cattle backgrounding operations lost more than $27,000. In fact, DeLano said, all farms with livestock, except dairy, and large stock ranch cowherds lost money. 

   At least for last year, however, overall average farm cash receipts were better than the accrued income totals suggest. The reason: "There were significant large grain inventories carried over from 1997 and sold in 1998," DeLano said. 

   The global economic slowdown already was having an effect in 1997. As a result, many Kansans started 1998 with stored grain, produced in 1997 and sold early last year Because it was 1997’s crop, however, the value of that grain counted as part of 1997’s income, although the cash arrived in ‘98. But now that grain’s gone. "And we’re likely to see the opposite price problems in 1999," Flinchbaugh said. "The livestock markets probably have bottomed out. But crop prices may go a little lower. "So far, though, that hasn’t become a severe threat to our economic foundation." Farm debt and costs were major factors that took agriculture to the crisis point in the 1980s. Between the mid 1970s and mid 1980s, interest rates soared. Some ag lending rates went from 6 to 22 percent, Flinchbaugh said. 

   Today’s ag loan rates are closer to 10 percent. The 1970s also brought a rapid and unrealistic rise in land values—land that could serve as loan collateral for investing, he said. But the mid 1980s brought a rapid, wrenching 50 percent "correction." And land values have remained relatively stable between 1997 and 1998, Flinchbaugh said. "The problems of the 1980s were high interest rates and inflation, or a debt and collateral problem," said Larry Langemeier, administrator of the K-MAR-105 Association, an organization that processes records for KFMA. 

   "Currently, agriculture has an income problem caused by low prices and an excess domestic supply." Reflecting those trends, KFMA’s average debt-to-equity ratio in 1980 was .45 (i.e., farmers owned just over twice as much as they owed). When that ratio hit .72 in 1985, some producers simply could not keep up with debt payments. As 1998 ended, however, their debt-to-equity measure was .50, reflecting the decade’s return to at-base farm financial strength. "All that’s wrong now is supply and demand," Flinchbaugh said. 

   "This is when government needs to step in and help our raw food producers through the rough spots—not ‘fix’ a weakness that doesn’t exist." 

  K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus in Manhattan. Kathleen W. Ward, Communications Specialist K-State Research & Extension News Flinchbaugh is at 785-532-1505.

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Growing Christmas Trees


   Growing Christmas trees is an appropriate use of land as trees are a renewable resource. They can be grown as a crop and provide many benefits. In addition to income generated, a Christmas tree plantation also provides a haven for many species of wildlife and protects the soil resource from loss due to wind or water erosion. It takes a typical Christmas tree five to eight years to reach marketable size depending on soil and moisture. 

    Growing Christmas trees requires special knowledge and skills. A prospective grower should not enter the business without being naturally inquisitive and willing to learn about such subjects as genetics, tree physiology, entomology, silviculture, marketing and business practices. Quality is the hallmark of success in growing and marketing the plantation grown Christmas tree. Where the grower is totally committed to producing top quality trees, there is little reason to fear over production. 

    When selecting a planting site, course textured soils, sandy loam in nature, are preferred over the finer silt and clay soils. Most species will grow on the sandy soils and drainage is seldom a problem. Another benefit of sandy soils is the relative ease and economy of controlling weeds. Sandy soils should be tested for their nutrient content. Plant nutrients essential for normal plant growth may be lacking if the soil is infertile. Where any essential elements are not available in minimal amounts, one or more of the following may be observed: low initial survival, stunted growth, fewer and shorter needles, and needle discoloration. Drought conditions aggravate the effects of low fertility so thin topsoil underlain by course gravel should be avoided. One of the first major decisions a Christmas tree grower faces is what variety of tree to plant. A correct decision can only be made by having a thorough knowledge of species characteristics, potential problems and site requirements. The grower must also be planning ahead to determine what the consumer will be wanting in seven or eight years when the trees will be ready for market. 

  Knowledge on other production practices should include, site preparation, shaping the trees, fertilizing, control of weeds, and protecting your plantation from fire, diseases, insects, and trespass. Production is often the easy part, marketing the trees can be the difficult task. Marketing alternatives would be either wholesale or retail on or off your growing locations. U-cut is a popular option in some locations. Copyright © 1995 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.


   Farming is perhaps civilization's longest scientific experiment. Each growing season marks a new field test during which farmers deploy the practices and tools that might succeed. Final results must wait for the harvest; until then all the farmer can do is try. "To try" is the meaning of the Latin verb experiri, the source of our word experiment. When a scientific experiment fails to meet a researcher's expectations, the failure can be beneficial if it opens an unexpected door to knowledge. But for a farmer or community of farmers or a society dependent on farmers, agricultural failure can pack a high, sometimes catastrophic cost. Avoiding this cost--and finding farming methods that can succeed despite adverse weather and other conditions--are primary reasons why farmers and scientists should often work in close partnerships.

    This month's cover story tells of a productive though informal partnership begun in 1992 in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. That's when researchers at ARS' Subtropical Agricultural Research Laboratory in Weslaco began developing and testing new conservation tillage systems. The systems' key components are tools and practices that save time, fuel, and labor by reducing tillage needs and maintaining a crop residue cover to conserve soil and water. Something else arrived in the valley about 1992: the most recent of the severe droughts common to the area's semiarid climate. The drought has taken an increasing toll on crops and livelihoods in the valley on both sides of the international border. But with it has come some important, if costly, information.

    By dramatizing the new tillage systems' relative advantages over conventional systems, the drought has persuaded more valley growers to switch to conservation tillage on cotton, sorghum, and corn. When the researchers planned their experiments, they knew conservation tillage could work only if the systems were compatible with the climate and other unique factors and grower requirements. For example, they knew the systems must enable growers to prevent their harvested sorghum and cotton plants from resuming growth through the valley's mild winters. Otherwise, these plants could harbor pests and deplete nutrients and moisture needed by summer crops.

    "At the time, the moldboard plow was the only available tool," says Weslaco agronomist Jim Smart. "We needed a substitute that would kill the plants without deeply tilling the soil and burying the residue." The researchers began investigating two commercially available tools as potential alternatives.

   The tools, stalk pullers and row stalkers, serve as tweezers for plant stalks. Arizona Drip Systems, Inc., of Coolidge, Arizona, invented the stalk puller for quickly removing cotton plants after harvest in fields watered with subsurface drip irrigation. Using a plow to kill the plants would tear up the costly drip-irrigation lines buried beneath the surface. The stalk puller grabs each plant low on the stalk and pulls out the crown and firmly attached roots.

    A similar tool, the row stalker, is manufactured by DL Industries, Inc., of Floydada, Texas. "As far as I know, ARS brought the first stalk pullers and row stalkers to the Lower Rio Grande Valley," Smart says. The tools' sales have increased, signaling not only the rise of the new tillage systems but also the kind of economic benefits that often accompany the transfer of research technology. Barbee Neuhaus Implement Co. in Weslaco has sold several hundred of these tools. Interest is rising in other areas, such as central Texas and California.

    By 1994, a couple of years of field tests showed the new tillage systems had potential. But a grower would have to learn why and how they could work--and what modifications they might need. So ARS and Texas A&M University scientists began demonstrating the systems at field days. At Weslaco last March 26, about 300 Texan and Mexican growers attended the largest field day ever held at the ARS lab. "It used to be, if you got a couple dozen growers at a field day on any topic, it was a success," says Smart.

    Education hasn't been a one-way flow. "Because of the marginal economic returns of many farmers, it's best for us to test cropping-system ideas first on research plots," says ARS soil scientist Joe Bradford. "Later on, through on-farm trials, growers can implement systems, improve them, and transfer the technology among themselves. If growers get together in a group and talk, everyone doesn't have to make the same mistakes. "Identifying specific problems often has to come from the farmers themselves," Bradford adds. "As much as we can, we work with them to see how they can overcome serious problems. Since other growers are likely to have similar problems, this helps us develop better systems." It's too soon to be certain, but the improved systems appear to be helping growers design more sustainable agricultural experiments for their valley.

    Jim De Quattro, ARS Information Staff, phone (301) 344-2756, e-mail jdequatt@asrr.arsusda.gov.

["Forum" article from Agricultural Research, January 1997, page 2]

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U of M soil scientist suggests practices to conserve soil moisture Conserving soil moisture may be a goal of crop producers this year if drought conditions develop. George Rehm, soil scientist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, summarizes some management practices that can help conserve soil moisture:

--Keep tillage to a minimum. "Each tillage pass across a field results in some soil moisture loss," says Rehm. "While loss estimates vary, loss of a quarter inch of available moisture for each tillage operation is a number frequently used. If below-normal precipitation persists, it will be important to minimize the number of tillage trips across a field."

--Consider no-till, ridge-till, or strip-till planting. These systems conserve soil moisture because they leave residue on the soil surface. "Conservation of soil moisture has always been one of the major benefits of these systems," says Rehm.

--Where there was major tillage such as plowing last fall, keep secondary tillage this spring to a minimum. A light pass with a field cultivator may be all that is necessary to prepare a good seedbed.

--Be careful with seed-placed fertilizer. Applying fertilizer, especially fluids, with the seed has become popular in Minnesota. "In typical years with high soil moisture, this is a good practice when rates are reasonable," says Rehm. "However, the potential for damage increases as the soil around the seed dries out. If the seedbed is dry, reduce rates to no more than 4-5 gallons per acre. Plan to broadcast phosphate and potash if the reduced rate will not provide enough of these nutrients.

--Take a close look at your yield goal. Crop yields were very good in 1998 and 1999. Prospects for dry weather may dim optimism this year. "A realistic look at yield potential is important," says Rehm. "If you haven't finished applying fertilizer, you can reduce the amount if you project lower yields."

--Keep cultivation to a minimum. Cultivation can result in some soil moisture loss. Therefore, avoid cultivating or rotary hoeing if dry weather persists. Rehm says there are several herbicides that can provide adequate weed control and make it possible to avoid cultivation.

Source: George Rehm, (612) 625-6210 Editor: Joseph Kurtz, (612) 625-3168, jk@umn.edu

The University of Minnesota Extension Service is an equal opportunity educator and employer.

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