As a bone-chilling mid-April wind whistled out of the north and melting snow covered winter wheat across south-central Wisconsin, Duane Garfoot shrugged as he waited to plant corn on about 1,000 acres in the town of Primrose.
“Spring in Wisconsin,” he said, smiling. “No need to panic.”
All signs point to a fairly normal planting season in southern Wisconsin following what most farmers agree was a fairly normal winter, despite the seemingly never-ending string of days with subzero temperatures. That is great news for grain farmers, especially those who are paying more to plant on rented land this year even though corn prices are $1.50 less per bushel than they were last year.
An exceptional harvest may not help some of those farmers break even, according to Heidi Johnson, the UW-Extension Dane County crop specialist.
“I’m afraid some of these guys are going to get pinched with some of these high land rents and low (grain) prices,” Johnson said. “I talk to a lot of landlords who increased rent and they are saying, ‘I thought crop prices were high.’ So there is a disconnect.”
The economics of renting
Landowners are accustomed to raising rent annually as grain prices fluctuate. Statewide, average rent for land used for non-irrigated crops increased 45.9 percent from 2008 to 2013, according to data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The biggest jump over that period occurred in Green Lake County, which saw a 113.9 percent increase for rented cropland to $185 an acre last year, NASS data showed.
Meanwhile, corn prices in 2008 and 2013 were virtually the same at $6 a bushel.
In south-central Wisconsin, Columbia County’s rented cropland increased 52.3 percent over that six-year period to $163 an acre in 2013. It increased 44.1 percent in Green County ($160) and 35.8 percent in Dane County ($163), according to the NASS data.
The 2012 drought didn’t even stop some landowners from raising the rent. The one-year rental hike in 2013 was 41.2 percent in Green Lake County, 31.6 percent in Crawford County as well as 7.3 percent in Dane County.
“Farmers must understand their cost of production so they don’t end up losing money, even if they have a good harvest,” Johnson added.
“Sometimes, it’s a guessing game and they want to farm that field, so they go ahead and pay it,” she said. “So I encourage people to have a lease and have conversations and keep that line of communication open between them and the landlord.”
Some farmers believe that communication is the biggest key. Garfoot and Green County farmer Scot Pfeuti are among the many farmers who give their landowners a little extra money when they have a good year. They also tell their landowners why they aren’t getting a bonus when they break even or have a bad year.
“It helps their understanding of what’s going on,” said Pfeuti, of Monticello.
But some landowners still don’t always get it. Pfeuti said he didn’t enter into a contract this year with one landlord who increased his rent. “I showed him the cash flow. I showed him I was barely making any money,” Pfeuti said. “He still raised it, so I had to let it go.”
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Garfoot was more fortunate. He plants corn on about 600 acres of rented land and none of the landowners raised the rent this year, he said. “Overall, the landlords I work with are really good,” he said.
Conditions looking good
The planting season for corn usually begins around the third week of April and runs through mid-May in south-central Wisconsin. The key is to get it planted by around May 15 or there is a risk of a poor yield due to a shortened growing season, according to Mark Mayer, UW-Extension Green County ag agent.
“If you can get it in the ground, the new seeds seem to hold on a lot better than the older seed types,” Mayer said. “If you get cold and wet weather long enough, the seed can rot in the field before it germinates. That’s always the concern.”
Farmers generally won’t start planting corn until soil temperatures reach around 55 degrees, the minimum needed for germination to take place, Mayer said. Fortunately for farmers, corn is planted in the top 2 inches of the soil, and that warms up quickly when the air temperature rises and there are consecutive sunny days, he added.
Soil temperatures dropped from the 50s in mid-April to the 30s after the snowfall and cold snap that followed but bounced back into the 50s this past week, according to data from the UW-Madison agricultural research station in Arlington.
The soil also needs adequate moisture to help with seed germination. That’s why nobody was complaining about the rain that preceded the snowfall. By the time it ended, all of the frost was out of the ground in south-central Wisconsin and it was primed for planting once it warmed up.
“Everything looks good to go,” said Stan McGraw, an agronomist for Madison-based cattle feed company, Vita Plus. “Everybody seems to be pretty happy.”
Throughout the state, topsoil and subsoil moisture was mostly adequate, according to NASS data that came out last Monday. State estimates for spring tillage are behind schedule because of the heavy snow and rainfall in northern counties, but farmers in southern counties are getting out in their fields clearing the left-overs from last year’s corn fields.
“Old-timers like us talk about the million-dollar rain. That rain absolutely was,” said McGraw, 60. “We needed to recharge the subsoil. The rain came over two and a half days, and it was just perfect.”
Although the snow may have damaged early growth on some alfalfa fields that had just come out of dormancy, agronomists said most of the alfalfa was in good shape in south-central Wisconsin. Pasture conditions statewide improved from 60 percent poor or very poor on April 14 to 48 percent last Monday, NASS data said.
Pfeuti plans to plant 2,000 acres of corn and 1,000 acres of soybeans and isn’t worried that he won’t be done by May 15. He started on May 5 last year and was done in 10 days, he added.
The Garfoots planted 75 to 100 acres of soybeans as a cash crop but plan to use that acreage for corn this year. Duane and his brother, Dave, also have 180 milking cows along with some steers and beef cows, so they want to plant more corn to feed their animals.
Also, corn is less stressful to grow these days, and that’s an important factor if you’re a Wisconsin farmer, Garfoot said. “The new-style corn takes more volatile weather. With beans you’re always at the mercy of the weather. We have enough of that already,” he added.