The days when a grain farmer “can't get no respect” may be coming to an end. That's the optimistic view held by Chris Ausborn of Monroe County, Miss. For more than a quarter of a century, Ausborn has grown corn and soybeans on the heavy clay soils of the Mississippi Prairie.
Year after year, he finds ways to trim costs, increase yields and keep his operation going, but always on his mind are the “what ifs” of the market. What if the prices bottom out? What if he can't sell his crop?
Now, in a rather sudden and surprising turn of events, Ausborn finds himself in a hotbed of endeavors that could eliminate his market worries.
Within a 30-mile-radius of his 1,700-acre row crop operation are the beginnings of two projects that could mean a convenient, profitable and guaranteed market for his corn and soybeans.
One is a proposed ethanol plant in Amory, Miss. The other is a biodiesel venture in Nettleton, Miss. According to information released from several sources, both projects appear close to reality.
The reality is reassuring, but Ausborn isn't banking on big changes yet. He's chosen to follow his proven path of sound and basic production practices that have sustained him through the years. He's hopeful the alternative energy plants will bring positive results, but he plans to keep farming with or without them.
“I hope these plants work out,” he says. “It would be a boost to have a local market for the crops I am used to growing. I'm not too old to change, but I sure don't want to.”
Charlie Stokes, area row crop agent with the MSU Extension Service, works closely with Ausborn on various on-farm production and variety trials. Stokes likes the way Ausborn farms.
“He uses basic practices that are sound and that work,” says Stokes. “He likes to see new things in practice first. He takes in all the knowledge he can before making decisions.”
“I'm not an innovator; that's for sure,” says Ausborn. “I like to see it work first.”
That's one reason Ausborn's farm is one of Mississippi State University's official on-farm corn variety trial sites. Ausborn believes the knowledge he gains concerning variety performance and selection far outweigh any extra time or work it might take to conduct the trials.
He also steps forward for test plots with new technology and production practices. This year Ausborn is one of only a few growers in the state to test treated corn seed that could eliminate the need for a soil-applied insecticide.
With assistance from Stokes and MSU Extension entomologist Don Parker, Ausborn planted corn pretreated with the insecticide Cruiser alongside his conventional corn. He used a soil-applied insecticide on the conventional corn, but is relying on the seed treatment to protect his test plots. The seed, which arrived bagged and treated, isn't commercially available yet, but should it prove effective and economical, Stokes says, the ability to eliminate a soil-applied insecticide would save significantly on labor and be a safer and easier way to farm.
“If this technology works and becomes commercially available, it will be good news for corn growers,” says Stokes. “The pretreated seed would eliminate the need to actually handle another chemical; it would be more convenient and timely; and with any soil-applied chemical you always run the risk of equipment troubles such as tubes stopping up.”
Safety and convenience are also the reasons Ausborn shifted much of his row crop acreage to transgenic varieties this year.
Ausborn wasn't the first farmer in his area to embrace the futuristic technology, but he's seen enough positive results over the past few years to now be comfortable with the technology. This year his entire soybean acreage, some 650 acres, is planted to Roundup Ready varieties, and half (the maximum allowable acreage) of his corn is planted to Bt varieties.
“The Roundup Ready is just easier,” he says. “If I use conventional herbicides, the timing gets tricky. I use custom applicators, and they can't always get to a field right when I need them. With the over-the-top application, I have more time. I also believe the technology is now available in much better varieties than when the technology was first introduced.”
One change he made to accommodate the switch to Roundup Ready soybeans is his planting method. In the past, he drilled beans at a 15-inch spacing, but is now on 30-inch planted rows.
“With the 15-inch spacing, we were trying to canopy the crop quicker for better weed control, but with the Roundup Ready and the ability to spray over the top, it made sense to go to 30-inch rows and save on our seed costs. With the drill we were using about 70 pounds of seed an acre. Now, we can get by on about 50 pounds per acre.”
He plants Group 5 soybeans and hesitates to go to earlier-maturing varieties because of timing.
“We have so many acres of corn, and we have to get it harvested first. The Group 4 soybeans tend to get ready too close to the corn.”
Ausborn's conversion to Bt corn is due to escalating populations of the southwestern corn borer, which caused him some trouble in 2002.
“We didn't have severe losses from it, but we had some hot spots where yields were affected,” he says. “Last year, however, I also had about 100 acres of Dekalb 6970, which is a Bt variety. It was my best-yielding field. We figured its resistance to the corn borer had something to do with that.”
This year he expanded his corn selection to include Pioneer 31B 13 and Terral 2160, both Bt varieties.
Ausborn plants about 1,000 acres of corn in a rotational program with his soybeans. His fields are all dryland and are made up of the fertile Houston clay soil so prevalent in the Mississippi Prairie.
The heavy clay holds moisture well, which is the main reason he can grow corn and beans without irrigation.
His program is mostly conventional tillage, although he eliminates trips whenever he can. He subsoils with a V ripper about every three years to help with moisture retention and plants into stale seedbeds whenever feasible.
He farms with one full-time farm manager and some part-time help at planting and harvest.
“We survive because we keep our debt load low,” says Ausborn. “I haven't bought a new tractor in 14 years. We hire custom applicators for our chemical work, but we do our own harvesting.”
Farm manager Marty Orr would like to see Ausborn include cotton in the farm program, but hasn't yet been able to talk him into it.
“I tried cotton in 1995, which was the year the tobacco budworms ate up the crop,” says Ausborn. “We ended up picking about a bale an acre, which was better than a lot of people, but we had a lot of money in that crop, too. That was my cotton experience. I haven't been eager to try it again.”
Ausborn did, however, agree to rent Orr about 100 acres, so he could try some skip-row cotton and see how it yields.
“Cotton is just so much more trouble. I'm set up for beans and corn. If we can get the prices up for corn and beans, I would rather grow them, but I'm keeping an eye on the possibility of growing cotton. It will be interesting to see how Marty does with it this year.”
However, while he's watching the trial cotton grow, he won't neglect the two crops that have kept him in business year in and year out. With application of research-proven production techniques, better varieties and transgenic traits, Ausborn's average yields are well above the state average. His dryland soybeans the past few years have averaged between 30 and 40 bushels to the acre. His corn yields run about 130 bushels to the acre, but he cuts some fields with 160 to 170 bushel yields.
If grain buyers from the ethanol or biodiesel plant come knocking on his door, he'll be ready to sell.
Eva Ann Dorris is a freelance journalist and syndicated columnist from Pontotoc, Miss. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.