Alabama farmers are predicted to follow a national trend this spring by planting more soybeans and peanuts and fewer acres of corn and cotton.
Nick McMichen, 43, farms 2,500 acres near Centre in Cherokee County. He describes himself as primarily a cotton farmer, but admitted good prices are tempting him to plant more soybeans.
“This year, we’re planning on 1,200 acres of cotton, 1,200 acres of soybeans and about 100 acres of corn,” said McMichen, who is a Cherokee County Farmers Federation board member and serves on the Federation’s State Wheat and Feed Grains Committee. “Soybean prices look good, and those prices may steer us to up our bean acreage. Of course, a lot of things are still fluid right now; not just price, but the weather.
Colbert County farmer Ron Brumley said his crop rotation calls for planting 200 acres of corn and about 300 acres of soybeans, but those plans could change if corn prices don’t increase.
“The corn price has improved, but if it backs down, I don’t know what I’ll do,” he said. “I’d rather plant $12 soybeans than take a chance on (the price of corn) dropping out from under me.”
According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Alabama farmers are expected to plant 290,000 acres of corn, down 30,000 acres from 2013. Most of that acreage is expected to shift to soybeans, which are projected to hit 500,000 acres, up 65,000.
Corn commodity prices are hovering around $5 a bushel. If Brumley can contract his corn harvest at that price and average 100 bushels per acre, he can make a profit. Last year, however, Brumley sold most of his corn for around $4 a bushel.
“If we hadn’t made a really good crop last year, we would have been hurting,” he said.
Nationally, farmers plan to plant 91.7 million acres of corn, down 4 percent, and 81.5 million acres of soybeans, up 6 percent.
Marshall County farmer Rickey Cornutt is sticking with a rotation that splits 1,200 acres between corn and soybeans. Lower price projections, however, influenced his decision to plant less wheat.
“We had to make that decision in the fall. Prices have improved some, but another reason we don’t plant a lot of wheat is that it comes in at the same time we’re cutting hay,” Cornutt said.
Alabama farmers planted about 230,000 acres of wheat last fall, down 70,000 acres. Nationwide, farmers planted about 3 percent less wheat.
The 800 acres of wheat McMichen planted are thriving and jumped several inches in height once the cold weather broke. In stark contrast and several hundred miles farther south, Monroe County farmer Scott Saucer said he destroyed his wheat crops because bitterly cold weather reduced its production potential. Saucer is focusing his efforts on 600 acres of cotton and 400 acres of peanuts. Although this doesn’t represent a large shift in acreage, Saucer said he would plant more peanuts if he had the equipment and labor to get them harvested.
Across the state, farmers are counting on about 165,000 acres of peanuts, up 25,000 acres from last year. That’s still considerably lower than the 2012 total of 220,000 acres.
Nationally, peanut acreage is expected to rebound sharply, up 29 percent from 2013.
Low prices, however, continue to put downward pressure on cotton acreage. Alabama farmers shaved 15,000 acres from cotton last year and are planning to shift another 25,000 away from the crop this year, bringing the 2013 projection to 340,000 acres.
This will be the second year in a row Brumley’s cotton picker has sat idle.
“I love cotton, but I can’t make any money at it,” he said. The United States cotton crop is forecast to top 11.1 million acres, up 7 percent from 2013, but still below the 2012 total of 12.3 million acres.
Although NASS issued its report March 31, Shelby County farmer Terry Wyatt said weather and prices could still impact planting decisions.
“There might be more soybeans planted,” he said. “Corn has gone up some recently, so by the time everyone gets planted, it could change. But if it stays wet and farmers can’t get their corn planted, you may see them go back to soybeans.”
Even with challenges of harsh weather and fluctuating prices, McMichen said the last five years were the best in his 25 years of farming “These have been golden years for agriculture,” McMichen said. “We have sold some $8-a-bushel corn and made 200 bushels to the acre in some cases. Because of good prices, we’ve been able to build more on-farm grain storage and purchase newer, better equipment. I think the future is bright for farmers, but of course most farmers are eternal optimists.”