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July 2013 Archive for Noble News and Views

RSS By: The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Beef Today

The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation is an independent, nonprofit institute headquartered in Ardmore, Okla. Founded in 1945, the Noble Foundation conducts direct operations, including assisting farmers and ranchers, and conducting plant science research and agricultural programs, to enhance agricultural productivity regionally, nationally and internationally.

Wise management practices improve soil quality

Jul 09, 2013

by Jagadeesh Mosali 

Surface soil produces our food and is vital for life. This precious resource is often called "skin of the Earth" and, just like skin, it is important to protect and maintain its quality. Soil quality is the inherent capacity of a particular soil to support human health and habitation; maintain or enhance air and water quality; and, most importantly, sustain plant and animal productivity. From an agricultural standpoint, soil quality is vital for improving long-term agricultural productivity and maximizing profits through sustainable productivity.

It is important for soil to both function optimally for current needs and remain healthy for future use. Soil organic matter, tillage, soil compaction, soil structure, depth of soil, water-holding capacity, electrical conductivity, pH, ground cover, microbial biodiversity, carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (C:N ratio) and nutrient management are some of the important parameters of soil quality.

Improving and maintaining soil organic matter content is the most important quality parameter. Increasing organic matter improves soil structure as well as water- and nutrient-holding capacity, supports soil microbes, and protects soil from erosion and compaction. Organic matter can be improved by using no-till or minimum till methods, growing cover crops, leaving crop residues, and using rotations with crops that balance optimal water and nutrient management practices.

Using reduced tillage practices will protect the soil surface, which decreases soil erosion and soil compaction, and decreases the loss of organic matter. Reduction in tillage also decreases the potential for destroying soil structure. Soil compaction can be caused by using heavy equipment on the surface when the soil is wet. Compaction will reduce the amount of air, water and pore space for growth of both soil microbes and plant roots. Soil compaction can be reduced by minimizing equipment use when the ground is wet and combining multiple farm tasks, such as applying both herbicides and fertilizer in one trip.

Growing cover crops and leaving residue from previous crops is the best way to reduce soil erosion by wind and water. Ground cover can be increased by growing perennial crops like grasses in a pasture situation. Ground cover will improve water availability, but care should be taken to manage it properly to prevent disease outbreak.

Soil quality also relies on microbial organisms. Diversity in soil microbes may be helpful in controlling pest populations, diseases and weeds. Biodiversity can be achieved by increasing long-term crop rotations, since each plant in rotation contributes to unique soil structure and plant residue.

Understanding how to improve soil quality is aided by knowledge of the carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratio for managing cover crops and nutrient cycling. The C:N ratio is the amount of carbon to the amount of nitrogen in a residue or other organic material applied to soil. If material with a higher C:N ratio residue is applied, it takes longer to decompose and may immobilize inorganic fertilizers that are applied. This problem can be reduced by growing a low C:N ratio crop (e.g., vetch or other legumes) in rotation with a high C:N ratio crop (e.g., wheat straw).

Finally, efficient nutrient management is important in maintaining soil quality. Test your soils regularly and make sure that you store all your records. Examining records over time will tell whether the management practices that were followed increased or depleted soil nutrients. Too much fertilizer or manure may cause groundwater contamination or may run off and enter water bodies and degrade water quality. Application of nutrients based on a soil test will alleviate this problem.

What works on one farm may not work on another. Adjust your management plan by observing changes in soil quality on your farm. Wise management decisions will improve the overall quality of the soil. Being proactive, rather than reactive, will make you a better steward of this limited resource.

Cattle profits rest on corn price

Jul 01, 2013

—by Dan Childs

In a free market economy, price is ultimately determined by the supply and demand for a product or commodity. Short-term price gyrations often occur and can be influenced by market reactions to news concerning such things as weather, government reports and/or policy.

Profitability in the cattle industry is heavily influenced by the price of corn. Corn, fed whole or further processed, is used as an energy supplement in growing rations and as a main ingredient in the diet of cattle being finished for slaughter. In addition, the byproducts produced from corn processed for food and fuel, such as corn germ, hominy feed, corn gluten feed and distillers grain, are used extensively in cattle rations. Having an understanding of corn market dynamics can be useful in helping cattle owners manage the price of feed, one of the major costs of production.

The price of corn is largely determined by supply and demand. On the supply side, there are basically three sources of U.S. corn. The first source comes from leftover stocks from the previous year. This usually provides between 1 and 2 billion bushels, although the 2013 number will likely be roughly 750 million bushels due to the reduced 2012 crop.

The second and largest contributor to supply is current domestic production. In the last 10 years, the nation’s corn crop has varied from 10 to 14 billion bushels. Weather plays an important role in crop production. This is especially true in regard to planting and harvest dates, both of which impact the total size of the crop. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes several crop reports each year: a late March report on acres expected to be planted; weekly crop progress reports from April through November; and estimated ending stock reports in January, March, June and September. These reports often cause wide price swings as the market interprets the numbers.

The third source comes from international imports – typically only a few million bushels. However, imports will be higher than average in 2013 because of high U.S. corn prices. Current estimates for 2013 are near 150 million bushels. All these sources added together have provided the U.S. corn market with an average of 13 to 14 billion bushels during the last 10 years.

There are also three major sources of demand for corn. The first category is feed and residual. On average during the last 10 years, roughly 4.5 billion to 5 billion bushels, or 35% of the corn, is used for feed. There has been a significant decline in the amount of corn used for feed during the last five years.

The second source of demand is exports. The U.S. is a major supplier of corn to many countries, including Japan. Over the last decade, the U.S. has, on average, exported just short of 2 billion bushels each year. This accounts for less than 15% of the total supply.

The final category, at roughly 40% of the supply, is food and industrial use. The largest component in this category is ethanol production. Year-end stocks can also be considered part of demand since the market prefers to have some cushion going into the next crop.

Supply and demand interact to determine price. The market does react to short-term events, but knowing the sources of supply and demand, and when estimates of these are released, will provide the opportunity to purchase corn and cattle feed at lower prices.

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