Chuck Farr tilts his ball cap back and points to a small Ziploc bag of soybean seed on his desk. A quick glance is all it takes to see the pale seed, a major company variety, won’t win any beauty contests.
“That’s what we’re trying to plant and get a crop off,” says the well-respected crop consultant based in Crawfordsville, Ark. “It’s trash. That’s about the worst looking soybean seed I’ve seen in my life. No uniformity, shriveled up and it’s straight out of the bag. They really expect us to make a crop with that?”
At 80-plus percent, the bag’s label says the germ is decent.
“But I’ve got this sample and five more in my truck that are waiting to be sent off to be checked because (a farming client) missed a stand. I suspect the AA (accelerated aging — which, basically, measures the seed vigor) must be terrible.”
(Editor’s note: for more on soybean seed testing and a new University of Arkansas study, see http://deltafarmpress.com/mag/farming_arkansas_soy_seed/index.html)
In late June, east Arkansas crops were increasingly desperate for rain. And freshly planted soybean fields were especially needy. But that’s only part of a complex situation that has left many soybean growers struggling to get stands, much less a healthy, canopied crop.
“The normal rainfall average around here is about 54 inches. In 2006, we finished the year roughly 17 inches of rain below normal. In 2007, we finished 18 inches below normal.”
Then, last November, the rains arrived and stayed through April. “We’re in the middle of a drought now … and we’re still 7 inches of rainfall above normal. But it all seemed to come in March and April.”
Farr recently spoke with Delta Farm Press about the current dilemma facing soybean growers, the money pinch in agriculture and how he’s already preparing for 2009. Among his comments:
On expectations with seed …
“There are some things we accept. Germ will go down through the course of a year and so will the accelerated aging. But there must be some standards — or at least allow the grower to understand what to expect with seed quality.
“We ran into this about four years ago. By sheer accident there was a grower who’d planted a particular variety on one side of his field before running out of seed. He got another variety he’d planted on his farm and finished the planting.
“One side came up to a beautiful stand. The other side didn’t.
“We were wondering what was going on, so we started checking other fields that had that same (poorly performing) variety. And he missed stands where that variety was.
“Then, he started checking further, looking at lot numbers and pulling samples and sending them (to the lab). The tag said the variety was 80 percent germ. But the accelerated aging was 8, 12, 14, and 6 percent. Guys in the industry will tell you the AA should be 65 percent.
“The Arkansas Soybean Association and other groups have gotten involved in the issue of seed quality. We need some guidelines — or something — put on the bag other than ‘80 percent germ.’ Yes, 80 percent will germ, but what is the likelihood the seed will emerge? What is the vigor rating? We need something that tells us seed is the best quality that can be put in the bag.”
On a shortage of quality seed in 2008 …
“In the fall of 2007, we knew we’d be short of seed. The seed production areas of the Mid-South went through a drought and then were hit with a wet spell. That took quality down to nothing.
“I saw this coming. Most of the growers I work for ordered seed very early. For the most part we got what we wanted.
“This year, the early spring conditions were extremely wet. Once we did get in the field, the daytime and soil temperatures were nearly perfect. Everything was right.
“So, we probably could have taken some soybean seed with lower AA (ratings) and gotten a stand. But we were also very conscientious about the seed — looking at lots and having lab tests run. The whole time we were looking towards the wheat-beans saying, ‘please, no hot, dry stress.’ And that’s exactly what we’ve got, right now.
“There is acre after acre after acre of poor emergence, no emergence, replants and spot plants. When these seed are analyzed, we’ll find some poor AA seed.”
You’re doing this testing separate from the Arkansas Plant Board’s?
“Most of the time the Plant Board only does a germ test. The seed companies do run some AA tests. But you have to go to the Plant Board to see (the numbers) on a particular lot.
“I’ve found it’s better for us to send seed off for testing. When we do that, I send seed to the Plant Board and an independent lab. The results have been real consistent.”
“Some seed we’ve had tested this year has been 95 percent germ with an 80 percent AA. Other seed has been 82 percent germ and 12 percent AA.
“Just because seed sprouts doesn’t mean it’ll come up. I’ve heard from many growers, ‘Those seed sprouted but just didn’t come up.’
“I think in another two or three weeks, it will be evident most of the (wheat-bean) seed is from the bottom of the barrel. There was a short seed supply to begin with. So what’s being planted now is pretty much the leftovers.”
On double-crop lateness …
“Crittenden County had the second-largest wheat acreage in Arkansas. I can’t drive down a road in this county and see a second-crop bean stand yet. There may be one out there, but I haven’t seen it.
“This crop is a full two weeks late. The emergence issues are prolonging the crop. It will be tough. And Asian soybean rust is sitting on our doorstep waiting.”
On issues surrounding replanting …
“I work some farms where there has been very little replanting and spot planting. Those farms were able to take advantage of early planting with 82-degree days and 62-degree nights. (And it was only) early for this year since we had no April plantings. Early planting this year was early May. Our late soybeans won’t show much difference between the wheat-beans.
“On dryland soybeans, we suggest 60,000 to 70,000 plants (per acre) on gumbo. If the stand is pretty consistent, we’re more inclined to keep it. In a silt loam field, I like to have 80,000 plants minimum but prefer 120,000 to 130,000 plants per acre.
“I have very few later-planted fields with more than 100,000 plants per acre. That isn’t because of seed counts — we’ve planted 175,000 to 180,000 seeds per acre. That was in response to poor seed quality and, to be honest, I wished we’d planted even more.
“Any other year, that’s way too much seed. This year, it wasn’t enough.”
On seed companies response …
“They’re all aware of the situation. I don’t think any seed company can control every bag of seed it produces. There will be a bad apple no matter the growing conditions or whatever. Of the millions of bags of seed sold, there will be a few bad ones. They can’t stop them all.
“Actually, we should have planted the lesser quality seed first and saved the good seed for later when there would be stress. It worked backwards.
“There are companies that have worked diligently and have exceptional quality control with both germ and AA.
“However, there are still some companies that say, ‘Growers need our beans and will plant them no matter.’ I don’t think they’re intentionally selling bad quality seed. But it’s a supply-and-demand thing and they’re trying to make a living. … Do you want to make a living by not having a bean crop? Or do you want to give it a go with a lesser-quality bean?”
On tightening finances …
“Every grower is in a money pinch. They’re trying to save money but not cut corners. They’re being conservative. If a dollar needs to be spent (on an input), they aren’t bashful about spending it. But at the same time, if they spend a dollar they expect to get a dollar’s worth out of the product.
“Growers are paying around $40 for a bag of soybean seed that won’t plant an acre. That tag on the bag says the seed is 80 percent germ. Well, out of that 50 pounds, take off 20 percent of waste. The grower expects to make a crop on what’s left.
“Well, if the AA isn’t worth a flip and the germ test doesn’t really match up to the 80 percent, that grower is in trouble. Say he plants that bag over an acre and gets only a half-acre up. Where’d his money go? He just spent $40 for a half acre instead of a full acre.
“And growers won’t get all their money back on replants. The seed companies do help. (Major seed companies) will help if (growers use) their branded products. But growers won’t get the tech fees back if they’re using generics.”
On excellent cotton/corn seed …
“I know this is a sticky situation with the seed companies. But we have excellent cottonseed — excellent vigor and germ. The companies know how to do quality control on it. Corn seed is the same way.
“Why can’t we have soybean seed the same?
“I promise you, there are some companies that do everything they can to provide soybean seed quality. But for others, that isn’t the primary concern.”
Expectations for next year’s seed crop?
“Honestly, I’m scared about what’s in seed production. Just look at what’s going on. The Midwest is flooded and we’re going through a drought. It’s true that south Arkansas and parts of Louisiana seem in better shape. But most of the Group 4 production is coming out of the Bootheel and western Kentucky.
“Maybe we’ll be okay. But it’s hard not to be skeptical.”
More on input costs …
“Let me read you a text message I just got. I help growers with budgets. The urea price in the January budgets was $425 per ton. Some growers had fun with me because of that price. I heard, ‘We won’t have to pay that!’
“Here, on June 26 (reads message), ‘urea is being quoted at $735 per ton. Need to lock down some for wheat season. How many units for wheat?’
“I replied: ‘we’ll average 120 units.’
“His response: ‘120 units equals $105 per acre in fertilizer costs not including the mixed goods. Damn.’”
On the early hope for cotton …
“One of my growers was very involved with (a cotton organization). I was watching commodities on TV back in February because cotton was making a 90-cent run. I thought, ‘Yeah! That’s going to buy some acres back. Cotton is going to be hot.’
“I picked up the phone and called (this gentleman). ‘You watching the markets? It’ll put some cotton acres back in, won’t it?’
“He said, ‘Chuck, it won’t. Actually, I’m cutting some more cotton acres out.’
“I told him I didn’t understand.
“He said, ‘Chuck, (cotton merchants) are sitting with warehouses full of cotton bought at 60 cents that they can’t sell on the world market. Why would (they) buy 90-cent cotton from me? If (they) can’t sell 60-cent cotton, they won’t buy it for 90 cents.’
“And he was exactly right. But everyone sees that 90 cents per pound and thinks farmers are making a killing.
“Today, the cash price for soybeans is $15. Who has $15 soybeans out there? The price went up and growers booked beans at $7, $8, maybe a few at $9.
“But guess what, diesel isn’t $2.10 per gallon any more. It’s $4.35 now and pumps are going like crazy to irrigate the crops. Now, phosphorus isn’t $600 a ton but $1,400. Roundup was $30 per gallon instead of $90. The basis was zero and (now it’s) $2.30.”
On Crittenden County’s wheat crop …
“This county knocked a home run with wheat this year.
“A few days ago, a grower told me he harvested the best wheat he’s ever had. Even so, he said, ‘I never got into the black on the wheat until the last trailer went to the mill. The (2007 Easter) freeze meant I had to roll the contract over with $4.10 wheat. The mill got $2.10 for the basis. By the end, I didn’t have anything left.’”