For the first time in history, Alabama’s principal crops represent a billion-dollar industry.

In fact, the combined value of the state’s principal crops — wheat, corn, cotton, soybeans and peanuts — has increased almost 23 percent between 2011 and 2012.

At Auburn University, Max Runge, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System economist, cites a number of reasons for the improved fortunes.

He attributes part of the spike to extremely good 2012 yields among virtually all the major crops. Part of it stems from the fact that only the best land is now devoted to raising crops, with most of the marginal land having been removed within the last few decades, he says.

But he stresses that other factors have contributed too, including slow but steady advances in farming technologies, some old, others comparatively new.

“We’re benefitting from better crop genetics and better technology, such as precision agriculture — and with all of these improvements we’re also seeing increasing attention to detail.”

As a prime example of this enhanced attention to detail, Runge cites the near-pinpoint accuracy of fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide applications secured through advances in precision farming technology, which, in addition to contributing to increased yields, has also secured producers substantial savings in operating costs.

Ample rainfall certainly helped too, Runge says, adding that the steady adoption of irrigation also is aiding yields.

“We’re seeing more irrigation adoption in the state, which is enhancing crop yields,” Runge says. “The timely application of moisture certainly makes a difference, especially with corn, which suffered terrible yield losses during the prolonged 2011 drought.”

But Runge says steady improvements in older, less conspicuous facets of production technology, such as no-till farming, crop scouting and soil testing, have helped too.

He says these improvements also underscore the enduring value of land-grant universities, particularly their research and Extension functions, in advancing the fortunes of production agriculture.

“It really is a reflection of what’s been done over many years, not only in terms of research, but also in how the practical value of this research has been extended so that producers can make use out of it,” he says.

Alabama Extension Director Gary Lemme, an agronomist by training, cites ramped up corn production as an example of how land-grant university research and Extension efforts have worked in tandem to drive these technological advances.

Corn yields a good example

Corn yields remained relatively flat at approximately 30 bushels an acre between 1860 and 1940, Lemme says.  The advent of hybrid corn, developed by land-grant university researchers, changed that.

“With the advent of this new corn, which was introduced to farmers through Extension programs and 4-H clubs, yields have increased by almost 2 bushels an acre each year,” he says.

Like Runge, though, Lemme stresses that the greatly enhanced fortunes of row-crop agriculture reflect advances over a broad front.

“Advances in soil nutrition, pest management, soil tillage, seed genetics and precise variable application rate equipment not only have changed how crops are grown, but have also reduced the input costs associated with crop production even as yields have increased.”

Cotton-insect control is an especially conspicuous example how technological advances undertaken more than a generation ago work together to improve yields.

“If you look back to those 6 or 7 years before boll weevil eradication got under way in Alabama, producers were spending about the same amount of money per acre to control insects as they are today,” says Tim Reed, an Alabama Extension entomologist.

“But the big difference today is that yield losses associated with pest damage are significantly less — only about 2 percent an acre.”

Reed attributes much of this gain to the adoption of transgenic varieties, which were first introduced into Alabama in 1996.

Cultural practices and a few chemical control methods developed over the last few decades also have reduced damage to wheat caused from the Hessian fly.

“Across the crops spectrum, yield losses are the least they’ve ever been because we’re able to manage our insect problems through a combination of cultural practices, transgenic cropping systems and crop protection chemicals,” Reed says, adding that this holds especially true for cotton.

Similar progress has been made with disease control in another principal crop: peanuts, says Austin Hagan, an Alabama Extension plant pathologist and Auburn University professor of plant pathology.

“Much of it stems from the superior varieties we’ve developed within the last generation,” Hagan says. 

“Tomato-spotted wilt has disappeared as a factor in peanut production, even though it was considered a real issue 10 years ago.  Also, the varieties we have in the market now are more resistant to some diseases — tomato-spotted wilt and white mold — and, in the case of another major peanut disease, leaf spot disease, at least less susceptible to yield loss.”

As with any other facet of farming, challenges remain. Hagan points to the persistent cotton yield losses associated with root-knot and reniform nematodes as a case in point.

“We haven’t solved all the problems yet,” he says. “We can’t deal with that problem effectively with the technologies we currently have in hand.”

Three of Alabama’s principal row crops — peanuts, soybeans and corn — posted significant increases in value in 2012.  Peanuts underwent the biggest increase from almost $144 million in 2011 to about $295 million in 2012.

Cotton incurred the biggest loss, dropping from $303 million in 2011 to about $242 million in 2012. The value of wheat also declined from $98 million in 2011 to about $75 million in 2012.

Global economic factors also have contributed to this uptick in production, Lemme says.

“The spike in global demand for grain crops both for food and industrial production certainly played a role, as did the drought, which sparked worldwide shortages [of grain commodities] last year,” he says.

He says Alabama farmers deserve credit too for seizing on these opportunities and planting significantly larger acreages of wheat, soybeans and corn.

 

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