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TWIN FALLS — Even as uncertainty over trade deals has affected commodity futures prices, farmers across southern Idaho are sticking to their regular crop rotations. That’s what the first survey of the 2018 crop season by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates.

Bill Bitzenburg, who farms south of Twin Falls, is following the advice his father gave him some 40 years ago: “Don’t follow prices. Stick with the rotation that works for you. In the end, on average, you’ll be okay.”

Malt barley, alfalfa and dry beans are the primary crops on Bitzenburg’s farm. As malt companies have gradually cut back on their contract acres over the last five years or so, Bitzenburg has added more alfalfa acres. He’s seen his contracted barley acres drop by about a third since Idaho growers planted 620,000 acres of barley in 2013.

Nationwide barley acres continue to drop. U.S. growers are expected to plant 2.286 million acres of barley, down 8 percent from last year. North Dakota is expected to plant just 400,000 acres of barley, 77 percent of last year and down from 740,000 acres in 2016. Montana is down 8 percent or 50,000 acres to 720,000 acres. Montana seeded 990,000 acres of barley in 2016.

Bitzenburg had just one field of barley left to plant this week, but weather is not cooperating with him. High winds on April 2 kept him out of the fields and the hard freeze that night kept him out of the field until afternoon on April 3. Rain toward the end of the week was preventing him from getting back into the field.

Not that he was complaining about rain.

One of the biggest surprises in this year’s prospective planting report was a nearly doubling of expected canola acres to 45,000 acres. Most of these acres will likely be planted in eastern and northern Idaho where canola can be grown as a dryland rotation crop.

Some growers experimented with canola in western Twin Falls County about a decade ago when a biodiesel plant was proposed near Buhl. Yields were not great enough to replace wheat in rotations and when the plant did not materialize, there was no local market for the crop. Mountain States Oilseeds in American Falls is the closest buyer.

But that could be changing.

Jim Davis has run the University of Idaho’s oilseed program at Moscow for nearly three decades. The Idaho Oilseed Commission has a 10-cent-per-hundredweight assessment on oilseeds grown in Idaho that is used to fund research trials to increase oilseed acres within the state.

Canola is the fourth-largest oilseed crop in the world and demand for canola oil continues to grow, Davis said. Canada plants 22 million acres of canola compared to just 2 million acres in the U.S. but Canada has nearly maxed out its production potential. That could provide an opening for Idaho growers to capture some of this growing market.

During the UI cereal schools held last winter, Davis told grain producers that they could expect yields of 2,500 to 4,000 pounds per acre with a price of 17 cents per pound. Spring canola does not yield as much, 1,500 to 2,500 pound per acre, with a price of 16 cents per pound. That works out to $600 to $700 per acre, about the same gross profit as a 120-bushel wheat crop.

Although the sharp increase in expected acres could indicate growers took Davis’ message to heart, the proof will come when the planted acreage report is released in late June. A year ago Idaho growers intended to plant 34,000 acres of canola in March but only seeded 23,000 acres. North Dakota is the largest canola producer with 1.65 million acres, up 4 percent from last year.

U.S. acres steady

Farmers across the nation seem to be following Bitzenburg’s father’s advice to stick to their rotation as well.

According to the USDA, corn planted area for all purposes in 2018 is estimated at 88 million acres, down 2 percent or 2.14 million acres from last year.

Soybean planted area for 2018 is estimated at 89 million acres, down 1 percent from last year. Farmers were surveyed in early March, well ahead of threats by China to impose a stiff tariff on U.S. soybeans. About a third of the U.S. soybean crop is exported.

All wheat planted area for 2018 is estimated at 47.3 million acres, up 3 percent from 2017. This represents the second lowest all wheat planted area on record since records began in 1919. Idaho wheat acres are up slightly from 2017, despite concerns that lower prices could shift acres to other crops.

The 2018 winter wheat planted area, at 32.7 million acres, is up slightly from both last year and the previous estimate. Of this total, about 3.64 million acres are white winter wheat, primarily grown in the Pacific Northwest.

Area planted to other spring wheat for 2018 is estimated at 12.6 million acres, up 15 percent from 2017. Acres in North Dakota, the leading spring wheat producer, are up 20 percent over last year to 6.4 million acres.

“Don’t follow prices. Stick with the rotation that works for you. In the end, on average, you’ll be okay.” Bill Bitzenburg, Twin Falls farmer, repeating 40-year-old words his father told him

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