About Me

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As an Agriculture Extension Agent for Texas AgriLife Extension Service I have had an opportunity to be involved in just about every aspect of agriculture. From the 5,000 cow dairy to the types of trees to use in a home landscape I have had a chance to learn how the different parts of an agriculture systems work together. Seedless watermelons, drip irrigation, pecan orchard management, fruit crop development, dairy nutrient management, environmental issues confronting agriculture, producer tours, field days, research projects and more have been a part of my life for over 30 years as I lived and breathed agriculture. Since 2004 I have been actively involved in consulting internationally working in Honduras, Guatemala, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, India, and China. I have worked with missionaries and other groups dedicated to alleviating poverty among third world farmers. I lived in the Middle East in 2007-2008 working on a project for the Borlaug Institute of International Agriculture at Texas A&M University. In this project I was the Chief of Party and Team Leader for a $5.7 Million dollar effort to train Iraqi Extension agents and specialists in all aspects of agriculture.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Economics of Farming??

The Blackland Crops Clinic was held this past Thursday, October 30 and we had some really interesting speakers. I think everyone was surprised by how much can be packed into just a few hours but the information was really flowing! One of our speakers was Dr. Mark Welch, Extension Economist for Grain Marketing. Mark is really a down to earth economist basically because he was a farmer first, farming in the High Plains of Texas before becoming an economist. Mark gave us a situation analysis and discussed the outlook for grains in the coming months and there were some real interesting parts to his talk that I thought the general public should know about.
First his outlook for grain demand and even price is pretty good. We have seen corn prices drop continuously since the middle of summer but according to Mark we are probably at the bottom basically because we don’t have much corn in storage. Economist use the term “days of use on hand,” to look at the amount of corn available in the world and currently we have on 49 days of corn left, the lowest since 1974. This means we are in short supply and a short supply means higher prices are around the corner. Also he said that ethanol accounts for 34% of all US corn use and this is up from 23% in 2007. This trend will continue which only helps to push prices higher; I hope he is right because we can’t farm corn at $4.00 a bushel!
On another note Mark discussed the costs associated with farming corn. Currently corn accounts for the largest share of nitrogen use of all crops and fertilizer is the largest expense of the variable costs for producing corn. Fertilizer is 43%, seed 21%, fuel lube and electricity 14%, chemicals 11%, repairs 6% and custom work 5%. In 2008 farmers saw a 65% increase in fertilizer prices paid over 2007, a 43% increase in fuel, 30% increase in seed costs, 7% for machinery, 6% in wages and 4% in chemicals. 2008 was a frustrating year for farmers as farmers paid high prices to plant the crop hoping the grain price was going to stay at the record prices recorded at planting time. Unfortunately grain prices began their slow descent in August and only now are they slowing down. Farmers lost thousands of dollars over the course of just a few weeks or even a few days.
Lastly Mark had a few interesting facts for farmers to consider. One is that the bushels of corn produced per pound of nitrogen fertilizer have steadily gone up. We have improved our corn varieties and our technology such that in 1965 it took one pound of nitrogen to produce 0.9 bushels of corn. Today it takes one pound of nitrogen to produce nearly 1.2 bushels of corn. This is phenomenal efficiency gains but there is another fact that startled all the producers in attendance. In 1960 it took 141 bushels of corn to buy 1 ton of anhydrous ammonia, a nitrogen fertilizer source. Today it takes 161 bushels of corn to buy 1 ton of anhydrous ammonia. So even when we think we have it worse off today a quick study of history shows us we have seen these times before.

Crop Variety Testing

I get asked all the time what do you think the average yield was for Williamson county for corn or grain sorghum. Of course averages are hard to get because I don’t know what everybody made but I can make some educated guesses. I compiled the results of all the county grain tests I could find as well as looking at tests from just outside the county staying only with blackland farms. In looking at 198 corn varieties we averaged 76.3 bushels per acre with a high of 113 and a low of 40. In 77 sorghum test varieties we averaged 5202 lbs per acre with a high of 6770 and a low of 2982.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Pond Weeds

I usually get a number of calls about all this “junk” on or in our tanks and ponds with the question, “what can I do about it?” Unfortunately there isn’t much we can do about it this time of year but maybe an explanation about the categories of pond weeds and some control measures might be helpful.
The first group of weeds are the algae including plankton which makes the green color in water, filamentous algae or pond scum and branched algae which includes chara or muskgrass that looks like underwater hay. Pond scum is probably the number one problem in tanks and causes the most aggravation. Pond scum usually begins growing near the bottom or edges of a pond and later floats to the surface where it then looks like a mass of wet, green wool. This type algae is best controlled by pond fertilization back in February. Since it starts at the bottom if we can encourage the growth of plankton, which is a good algae, these will shade out the pond scum and keep it from growing. There is nothing worse than a clear pond because the plankton are part of the food chain which eventually feeds fish. Chemically we control algae easily with copper or copper complex chemicals.
A second group of weeds are the floating plants. Duckweed is one that we have in abundance in our area and it is a small, floating plant, green in color and about ½ inch across with usually 3 leaves and below the leaves you can see a root. Diquat is a good, relatively inexpensive chemical control or you can rake this plant off the surface.
The third group we see a lot here are submersed plants. These plants are rooted to the bottom but generally don’t have plant parts above the water surface. The most common submersed weed is bushy pondweed which resembles coastal hay growing underwater. Another similar weed is coontail and it too can fill up a pond in short order. Diquat, endothall and floridone are all chemical controls or you may want to check into the triploid grass carp which do an excellent job of long term control of these problem weeds.
The last category includes our emersed weeds which includes all shoreline, marginal and shallow water plants with plant parts that extending above the water line. These include many species but most commonly we are dealing with cattails, willow, rushes, buttonbush, water primrose and frogbit. Most of the emersed weeds are easily controlled with glyphosate products which we commonly call Roundup although Roundup itself is not labeled for aquatic weed control. There are several name brand products that do contain glyphosate and are labeled for aquatics. Another excellent product for emersed weeds is 2,4-D.
Now that last question I usually get when talking about weed control in ponds is, “will it hurt my fish?” The chemicals themselves are harmless to fish but the dead vegetation they leave behind may not be. A lot of decaying vegetation will suck a lot of oxygen from the water and could leave your fish starving for a breath. It is best to control pond weeds a little at a time so that you don’t set yourself up for a problem one morning watching all your fish floating on the surface.

Friday, October 10, 2008

New Shade Tolerant Bermudagrass

It is not available to homeowners yet but the University of Georgia is set to release a new bermudagrass variety that is able to grow in up to 60% continuous shade. This is fantastic and really gives us something to look forward to in the future. It would be fantastic to have the drought tolerance of a Bermuda combined with nearly the shade tolerance of a St Augustine. As more information is available you will know about it.

Fertilizing Your Lawn

I have received a number of calls about fall fertilizing lawns. As we have cooled off most homeowners are outside and they want to make sure they take care of their lawns. It has been a tough year for all landscape plants but turf has suffered more than its share. We have a lawn maintenance schedule on our website but basically you can fertilize your lawn now with a 2-0-1 ratio fertilizer at the rate of 1.0 lbs of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. I recommend that at least half of the nitrogen be in a slow release form so that we don’t get excessive growth too fast.
Now how much is 1 lb of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. Well it all depends on the fertilizer you buy. If you buy a 20-0-10 (2-0-1 ratio) then you would use 5 pounds of fertilizer per 1,000 sq. ft. (5 X 20% N = 1.0 lbs of actual N). Most lawns are in the range of 5,000 sq. ft. so you only need 25 lbs of fertilizer to treat your lawn, so don’t overdo it!
I also am asked about weed and feed fertilizers. I don’t recommend them at all, especially this time of year. Weed and feed fertilizers contain a broadleaf weed killer with the fertilizer. This sounds really easy since you do two things at once. Unfortunately you don’t need to kill weeds now and weed control products can really do harm to trees and shrubs if you are not very careful. The weeds we have in lawns now are predominately asters and they are all flowering. This means that they are very mature and hard to kill. They should be treated earlier in the year, basically when you barely notice them. The weeds you have now will die with cold weather so just remember that next May you want to spray your yard to control the summer weeds you see now and forget the weed and feed in the fall.

Time to Use That Fire Ant Bait

It may be dry and it may seem like you don’t have any fire ants this year but let me tell you now is the time to load the spreader and put out your fall fire ant bait. Fire ant baits are wonderful tools for controlling fire ants. They are low in toxicity to users, kids, pets, and even most other non-target ants. They are one of the most economical methods to control fire ants, and one of the most effective, consistently providing 90% or more control. So what's not to like about baits? One of the few disadvantages of baits is that they are not equally effective throughout the year. Throughout the temperate areas of the southern U.S., fire ants stop searching for food (foraging) when soil temperatures drop below about 60 degrees F. If the ants stop foraging, they will not pick up baits. For this reason, baits should not be part of your winter fire ant program unless you work in the far parts of south Texas. Currently, the soil temperatures are around 65-70 degrees in the early morning. This means that the daytime soil temperatures are well within the range for treatment. We want the fire ants out actively foraging during the day so that they bring the bait back into the mound for consumption. Fire ant baits are best used when fresh, so any containers that have been opened within the past few months should be used soon. Fire ant baits have a relatively short shelf life once opened. Even unopened bait should be used within two years of manufacture. Because of this, buying large quantities of bait (perhaps because it's at a good price) is not a wise idea unless you are certain you can use the bait up during the season of purchase.
Are you asking, “What is a fire ant bait?” Fire Ant Baits are chemically treated granules, normally corn that the fire ants consume as a food source. Fire ants will be out foraging for food and these baits are very tasty since they are corn grit that has soybean oil on the outside. This is why they don’t last long once opened because the oils will turn rancid. The chemicals used on the fire ant baits are designed to control growth in the fire ants, either as larva or in egg lay. These products can be labeled as organic or nonorganic but all are insect growth regulators that are same for human contact.
As temperatures drop over the next month or two, it will be best to limit all fire ant control to treating individual mounds with labeled contact or residual insecticides. Be generous when treating fire ant mounds with liquid insecticide mixtures. Research shows that best control with liquids is obtained when 1-2 gallons of liquid is used per mound. I recommend that homeowners with pets and children avoid the use of granular or dust treatments of mounds on school grounds, since these products may remain visible on the soil surface for several days or weeks after application. For more information about when and how to use fire ant baits, check out the fire ant website at http://fireant.tamu.edu/broadcastbait/

Friday, October 3, 2008

Yes, You Can Afford to Fertilize Your Pasture

There are a few conversations that I have a lot here lately with cow/calf producers. Number 1 is how low the cow and calf prices are and number 2 is how high fertilizer is, was and probably will be next year and lastly what do I need to do to my pastures for next year.
Let me start by saying there are 3 things I tell people to do to take care of bermudagrass pastures. Number 1 is to control grazing! Most producers have way too many cows and they have grazed the bermudagrass to the dirt. This causes compaction and opens up the canopy to allow weeds to grow. Number 2 is to control weeds next March or April. Many studies have proved that for every pound of weeds controlled you get one pound of grass with it going as high as 3-4 pounds of grass. Number 3 is to fertilize your pasture even if fertilizer is high because it pays $2 to $1!
As we end this dry year let me elaborate on the fertility part because fertilizer is so high it may not seem to be a bargain but if we want to raise plenty of beef cows then we need to grow lots of grass and the only way to do that is fertilize. Even though nitrogen fertilizer is high it is still a bargain when you consider the return in grass growth. Nitrogen fertilizers are terrific for increasing the efficiency of bermudagrass especially as it relates to water use. Numerous tests conducted throughout the south confirm that with fertilization it takes 16 to 20 inches of water to produce one ton of low quality forage. With adequate fertilization one ton of good forage can be produced on only 4 to 6 inches of water. This chart gives some sample results:
Tons of Forage per Year
Rainfall Inches Without Fertilizer With Fertilizer
30 1 - 1.5 5 - 7
35 1.5 - 2 7 - 8
40 2.0 8 - 10
45 2.5 10

Another chart shows how much hay can be produced by different rates of nitrogen fertilization. Again all of these tests were conducted over several years in several different locations so the results certainly apply here. Not only does bermudagrass use the water more efficiently but it also translates into higher quality.
Lbs./32%N fertilizer/Acre Yield in Tons % Protein
0 2.67 7.9
300 4.38 9.1
600 5.93 10.5
1200 8.59 11.7
1800 10.65 12.4

If we use liquid nitrogen at 32% N and a price of $570 per ton then 300#’s of fertilizer per acre is worth about $85 per acre, 600#’s is $170 and so on. Using this chart with 300#’s of fertilizer you get 1.7 more tons from an $85 of investment. If hay is $100 a ton then the 1.7 extra tons is worth $170, double the investment.
Let me leave you with a thought about where to spend your money next year, don’t waste fertilizer on poor land. What I would suggest is that you use your best land for growing and fertilizing bermudagrass so that when you do make this investment in fertilizer you will realize even more return than this chart shows. Control your grazing and use weed control on the poor land and spend most of your dollars on the good land.