The image of ducks and geese on final approach into your decoy spread in a corn field is a part of Americana. The relationship between hunters and farmers is timeless. But this year perhaps we should take a moment to reflect upon the plight of corn and cattle farmers dealing with the drought.
At this point Mother Nature just does not want to give up any rain across the Midwest (Isaac is moving north as this story is submitted). Iowa, Missouri and Illinois are huge corn producing states in the Mississippi Flyway and even though pockets of corn prosperity exist due to rain or irrigation, most corn crops suffered. And if not for the drought, even those fortunate enough to have rain or irrigation suffered from the extreme temperatures. Missouri experienced a 6.0-degree above-normal increase in temperature in July and the sixth hottest July on record. Statewide, Missouri experienced an average precipitation of 1.67 inches and placed July firmly in the record books as the ninth driest year.
So how did the drought impact farmers? First, let’s understand corn used for planting has a huge range in cost. This can be anywhere from $100 to over $300 a bag, with genetic modification being the major reason for the price increase. A bag will plant about 2.25 acres. Next farmers need to fertilize, so consider liquid anhydrous and a dry fertilizer at over $150 per acre. They will also need to add in add another $35 to even $50 per acre to spray for weeds. This was an especially difficult year, as drought-stressed weeds are harder to kill and many sprays require water to activate the herbicide, which did not appear. When one finally adds in fuel, machinery expenses, labor and financing, the cost to grow an acre of corn reaches $400 rather quickly.
The weather might not let go of a farmer’s pocket book until late in 2013. I say that because we know many drought-stressed crops are being cut for silage. When a farmer removes the stalks, leaves and some corn from the field they are also removing the potassium, nitrogen, calcium and potash their next crop will need to grow. In addition, they have to get it out of the field and store it correctly and perhaps supplement the silage before feeding. So add in that cost to the $400/acre to plant next year. It does not end there, as some silage may not be as good a feed as corn so the gains in cattle weight can be slower. In the end, the value of the silage will be about $20 a ton (six bushels to the ton). From the waterfowl hunter’s perspective, this field will be very hard to hide in as it will be barren of cover.
For those farmers shelling or picking corn instead of cutting silage, yields could be very low. A normal harvest of 125 bushels per acre might be as low as 10 bushels an acre in some fields for 2012. Many suggest the break-even point for farmers is about 75 bushels an acre. Iowa, the nation’s largest corn producer, dropped from an average yield in 2011 of 172 bushels per acre to an estimated 2012 yield of 132 bushels. Corn was at an $8.43 per bushel high, but December futures have it to just over $8.00. So at $8 a bushel on those 100 acres we had a $40,000 input cost and in Iowa at $8 per bushel we should see a $105,600 in revenue. Overall, about $65,600 of profit on 100 acres is suggested, right? Well, not really. Land and equipment ownership will add another $200/acre in costs. So studies provide that the real cost to plant a bushel of corn is closer to $600 per acre. It that were factored in, then profit might be reduced to $45,600 and remember we are assuming 132 bushels per acre. For hunters, shelled fields do provide good cover.
If we had a yield of only the average of 75 bushels an acre, then those 100 acres are only providing about $60,000 in revenue. Since the cost to plant is $60,000 at best, the farmer breaks even for a long hard year of farming and one can easily see how quickly a bad year starts to take a toll on corn farmers. Currently, Illinois is predicting drought-stressed corn to average 80 bushels to 116 bushels across the state.
As you visit with farmers this fall to organize your hunting, realize the variable they must operate under and be sympathetic to their issues associated with the drought. Some may introduce costs to you for hunting rights where before none existed to try and recuperate some losses. Others will likely appreciate your understanding of their profession.
Images courtesy David Vaught