Southeast Alabama farmer Wayne Woodham knows he's bucking the trend by planting less rather than more corn this year, but he's convinced it's the right thing to do for his operation. “Even my wife wants to know why I'm not planting more corn this year. I'm going against the grain,” says the Dale County, Ala., grower.
“But we decided to plant more cotton than corn because we're all dryland, and our corn burned up last year in the drought. We've been pretty fortunate in that we've made good corn crops in four of the last five years, but we didn't combine the first row of corn this past year — it was that bad,” says Woodham.
Despite the dry conditions of 2006, Woodham's cotton crop did well. “We didn't have too many acres of cotton last year. It was planted late, and it received some late-season showers, resulting in yields of about 800 pounds per acre. That's a good yield considering the weather conditions,” he says.
Last year's peanut crop also was disastrous, he adds.
“It was an extremely bad year in this and adjoining counties,” says Woodham. “So our plan this year is not to plant as much corn, increase our cotton acreage, and decrease our peanuts. That'll mean about 100 acres of corn, 100 acres of peanuts, a little more than 300 acres of cotton, and about 200 acres of small grains that we'll harvest. Some of it might be double-cropped to further increase our cotton acres.”
His peanut acreage has gradually declined over the years. “We went from planting 800 acres to 400, from 400 to 200, and down to 100 acres this year. We just can't make money on peanuts at $355 per ton,” he says.
Cotton, says Woodham, is more tolerant of dry weather. “It requires less water than corn, and it's more forgiving of dry weather. If we get into an extremely dry spell, but we do eventually receive some showers, cotton will come back and respond, and we'll still have a chance of making a decent crop. Corn just isn't as forgiving,” says Woodham.
Up until about two years ago, Woodham had the ability to water at least a portion of his cropland. “We no longer own any irrigation equipment. We did have some hard hoses, but they worked us to death. When fuel prices began to rise, we considered that it already was labor intensive, so we decided to sell our equipment. If we had center pivots, we'd probably plant more corn because we know we can grow it with plenty of water.”
Another factor behind his decision to plant less corn this year is the increased price of ammonium nitrate. Cotton requires about half the amount of nitrogen fertilizer than corn requires, he says.
“Cotton prices are bringing up the rear compared with other commodities,” says Woodham. “Corn is rebounding with ethanol demand, and soybeans are up tremendously from where they've been, with biodiesel driving that market. All of that looks very promising, but this fertilizer and fuel situation is still hurting us.”
Even though Woodham also has seven chicken houses and makes good use of the litter, he still has to purchase commercial fertilizer for his row crops.
If corn acreage increases as some are predicting, Woodham predicts problems ahead as far as storing and transporting. “Farmers in this area will plant a tremendous amount of corn this year. If they haven't already made plans, there could be some bottlenecks. If they transport with trucks to the poultry places, there will be long lines. We've sold to them before, and you can sit there all day with a load of corn,” he says, adding that poultry integrators are his primary market for selling corn.
An extremely dry spring has delayed corn planting on Woodham's farm and throughout parts of the lower Southeast.
“We had exactly 1 inch of rain in March — it has been terribly dry here. In the past, we wanted to be finished planting corn by March 15, but we no longer plant that early. We like to start on about March 15 and be finished by April 10, but it's too dry now to be planting corn,” he said in late March.
Woodham uses conservation-tillage, planting in 36-inch rows. “We try to plant most of it in some type of winter cover. We also raise beef cattle, and we try to graze what we can, even though we can't graze it all. Then, we try to pull off the cattle, get a little growth, and come back and plant in the stubble as much as possible. It has worked very well for us. We have planted some in harrowed land, but it doesn't work as well, and it doesn't do as good a job of conserving moisture.”
Although rye can be difficult to manage at times, he prefers it as a winter cover. “Rye has better root mass. We plant rye, wheat and oats in different crops. But if we plant very early, it can be hard to work with rye.”
Woodham uses chicken litter as much as possible to fertilize corn, but he doesn't have enough to go around.
“We go by the soil tests on all of our land, and we have to use some commercial fertilizer on our corn. We apply all of our fertilizer preplant other than the nitrogen. We come back and sidedress with nitrogen.”
He refers to the Auburn University variety trials for his area when deciding on which corn hybrids to plant, favoring those from DeKalb and DynaGrow. He plants mid to late-season varieties, maturing in about 118 days. For weed control, he applies atrazine preplant and sprays Roundup one time on his 100-percent Roundup Ready crop.
“When harvesting corn, we like to let it get down to about 15-percent moisture — then we can harvest it and put it in the bins if we're going to store and dry it down. If we're cutting it right out of the field for chicken houses, they usually buy it at 15-percent moisture.
“You can get into a lot of expense whenever you have to store and dry it down. Every time you handle corn, it costs you about 25 to 30 cents per bushel — every time you move it, from the combine to the trailer to the bin, it'll cost you at least 25 to 30 cents per bushel. If you can go ahead and put it on the truck, you can save yourself that much.”
He stores about 200 tons of corn on his farm, feeding much of it to his beef cattle. With row crops, beef cattle and poultry, Woodham's diversification can at times be challenging.
“Sometimes, I think we might be too diversified. It can stretch us thin at times. We have to put up a lot of hay in the summer. We're just hedging our bets. You never know from one year to the next if you're doing the right thing. You just have to make your best educated guess and hope it works.”