Mid-South growers endured a late-planted, soggy 2009 cropping season that presented all manner of problems. As a result, many gins saw less cotton than expected come through the doors.

Thank goodness for grain, say several ginners whose facilities have expanded to accommodate the region’s cropping shift.

Looking back on 2009, following a devastating ice storm in January “we had a cold, wet spring and were very late getting cotton planted,” says Robbie Winston, manager at Peach Orchard Gin in southeast Missouri and president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association. “Some growers planted two or three times and, sometimes, that wasn’t enough. We lost acres on top of that.”

In early May, “we started getting antsy about getting the seed planted. Actually, some of the ground stayed wet so long it had a sour smell to it.”

Soon after, Winston sensed “the dominoes were set to tumble. Normally, we have windows open before then to get the crop planted. Not this year. It seemed every two or three days we’d get a soaking rain up here and the windows stayed closed. You know, we’d get an inch of rain one day and three days later have a half-inch. And it stayed cool throughout.”

Over the last few years, Winston has overseen an expansion of the gin into grain concerns. How did soybeans do?

“Some soybeans yielded well. Those planted in late June/early July didn’t do as well. We’ve seen a lot of damaged kernels and moldy grain. That’s because the weather has been so tough — it rained all fall and when the beans were ready for harvest, it was too wet for the farmers to get to them.”

One thing that was a bit different is, even with so much moisture, “the beans here didn’t have splitting/sprouting issues. There was a small amount of that but they stayed on the stalk pretty well” compared to other Mid-South areas. “We plant a bit later maturing variety of bean than they do farther south.”

Mayberry-Stokes

A short drive away in Malden, Mo., David Mayberry says area farmers bucked a trend: 2009 was actually a good cropping year.

“It wasn’t our best corn crop but we had bumper yields,” says the owner/operator of the Stokes-Mayberry Gin. “The soybeans were probably close to a record. To go through a growing season like we had and come up with good yields in everything was amazing. It’s a true testament to today’s genetics.”

Fields didn’t escape unscathed, however. “We did mess up fields getting the crops out. Ruts are everywhere and it will be a challenging spring. Only a little bit of fall tillage was done. We need a nice spring, for sure.”

The Stokes-Mayberry facilities consist of a cotton gin, a commercial fertilizer operation and a grain elevator for wheat, corn, milo and soybeans.

While rice is grown around Monett, “we don’t buy it. It isn’t something we’re planning to get into. You have to have the right set-up, dryers and whatnot. It isn’t our niche.”

There was already an elevator in place when the Mayberry family took over the business in 1995. “Actually, many of the bins were built in the mid-1980s when there was a tremendous stockpiling of grain. Most of the bins had grain put in them once where it stayed for two or three years. Then, they were emptied.

“So, basically, they were only used once when we bought them. They were essentially new.”

Mayberry-Stokes now has a little over 700,000 bushels of storage and Mayberry, a graduate of Southeast Missouri State University, does the marketing himself.

“I’d taken a few classes that helped with marketing. But, basically — just like working on equipment — I learned on the job. The way you learn lessons is through mistakes. Most of the lessons learned are costly in one way or another — either through money or time.”

How did Stokes-Mayberry handle the situation several years ago when the Mid-South went big into grain?

Keep in mind that in the Bootheel, crops were already diversified, says Mayberry. “We’ve always planted a mix of corn, cotton and soybeans. So, we didn’t have a wholesale shift away from cotton to grain like in other parts of the Mid-South. And some producers already had their own grain storage systems in place.

“It’s true that (2007 and 2008) were big grain years. Although we have a lot of storage capacity, as soon as it arrived we tried to ship it out to the river before those facilities became backlogged.”

Stokes-Mayberry is fortunate that within an 80-mile radius there is a soybean crusher, a chicken feeder, two rice mills, eight river terminals and an ethanol plant.

“So, we’ve been able to get rid of a lot of grain before a massive glut hits. And when it did hit, we had storage left and filled it up.”

Monticello Gin and Elevator

A different storage approach is taken at northeast Louisiana’s Monticello Gin and Elevator. A 20-minute drive south of Lake Providence, a set of Raley Brothers business concerns sit just off Highway 17. Behind the offices and equipment yard, a tarp covers a massive pile of grain.

“At this location we can hold about 4 million bushels,” says 28-year-old Jeremy Raley, assistant manager. “Companywide, we’ve got about 7.5 million bushels of capacity.”

The pod was built in 2007, several years after Raley began work at the location. At the time “it was wall-to-wall corn. You never saw any pods like that down here until that year. Now, if you ride around this area, there are probably 10 of those that elevators have put in.”

The pods are cheap, temporary storage. However, as a crew works the pod behind him, Raley warns they require more work than putting grain into a tank.

“Each year, we’d like to have the pod emptied by Dec. 31. As you can see, we’re nowhere near that. It’ll probably be February before it’s emptied. In the past, we’ve stored corn out there until early March.”

Raley is cognizant that his family’s agriculture-related businesses were built upon ginning. But as cotton acres dipped, new opportunities surfaced.

“In 2005, we ginned around 40,000 bales. In 2006, we ginned around 57,000 bales — a big year for us since, generally, we had ginned around 35,000 bales. But from 57,000 bales we dropped to 18,000 bales. Last year, we ginned 8,000 bales. This year: 6,000 bales.

“I can’t tell you how many gins have shut down in the last three years. We’re hanging on, though, for a couple of reasons. One big reason is cottonseed prices — and we run a seed-house — have soared along with other commodities the last couple of years. That’s helped to offset the decrease in bales ginned but we’re still feeling the pinch.”

What is the main reason bales ginned have dropped?

“I’d estimate it’s around 70 percent due to a drop in acres and 30 to 40 percent due to bad growing conditions. The last two seasons have been horrendous for cotton. In 2008, we had two hurricanes during harvest. The first one came through the Southeast in early August and it rained for four or five days. Then, about a week later, another hurricane hit.”

The area received over 15 inches of rain in about three days — just as beans and cotton were ready to harvest.

“That’s hard to overcome and cotton yields were cut in half. Growers that would have picked 900- to 1,000-pound cotton picked 500 pounds per acre.”

The biggest reason for the drop in acres, though, isn’t that cotton is so bad. Instead, it’s the bottom line.

“When you can make $10-per-bushel soybeans, then that’s what is going to be planted,” says Raley. “Weather permitting, growers here can harvest 50- to 80-bushel beans with minimal costs per acre compared to cotton.”

During harvest, farmers “tore fields to pieces” getting the crops out.

With “a fair amount” of no-till acreage, the needed field prep work is already having an effect, says Raley. While prices have been “really good” for booking corn next year, growers are “very hesitant to lock up acres because they have none ready. If they tie up acres booking grain, they’re gambling they’ll be able to get out and get X amount of corn planted on time. And they may not be able to do that around here in this black land. They’ll have a much better chance to get things ready for soybeans or rice. Corn is shakier.”

Raley is optimistic the 2010 crop mix will be more favorable for the gin.

“Of course, we’ve said that for two years, now. But there’s chatter from folks saying they’ll plant more cotton. Then again, others say cotton will have to get to 85 or 90 cents before they’ll plant it. It’s hard to turn away from soybeans at current prices.”

The future

Back in Missouri, Mayberry plans to add nearly 300,000 bushels of additional storage and increase the elevator’s dumping capacity to almost 20,000 bushels per hour.

“The same scenario has hit us that hit every grain elevator in the country,” says Mayberry. “The trucks have grown so large that they’re about maxed out — everything tends to come in by trailer-truck, now. Back when we bought the place, grain would come in on bob-trucks and 10-wheelers.”

Meanwhile, the capacity of combines has continued to increase.

“Now, a farmer may have a 20,000-bushel-per-day combine but he can only dump 10,000 bushels daily because the elevator can’t keep up. That’s a complaint no matter where you’re at.

“So, I want to increase our capacity. But the main reason we’ll do that is to increase our dumping speed. As a niche market at an inland elevator, most of the time price isn’t our advantage. The advantage is getting a truck dumped quickly, turned around and back to the field.”

Some farmers will give up a little bit of price for the convenience of getting their truck dumped and back to the field.

“Well, we’ve begun to lose that advantage. I want to regain it. There’s little a farmers hates worse than sitting on a combine waiting for a truck to get back.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com