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Area farmers are increasingly turning to corn as  demand for the grain for making ethanol has boosted prices.  Many farmers will start planting corn this week.
Daily file photos by Gary Lloyd
Area farmers are increasingly turning to corn as demand for the grain for making ethanol has boosted prices. Many farmers will start planting corn this week.

Growers look at corn, see tall cotton
Area farmers hope to reap rewards of rising prices with crop switch

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com · 340-2443

In a region known for its cotton production, many North Alabama farmers are switching to corn.

Cotton acreage could be down 40 percent, making room for corn, a hot commodity this year as prices soar to $4.30 per bushel, according to agents with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

That’s the best price since the $3.58 farmers received in 1996. A year ago, March corn was selling for $2.26 per bushel.

“Around Christmas, I thought cotton would be down about 20 percent. Later, as prices rose, I bumped that estimate up to 25 percent,” said Charlie Burmester, a field agent based in Bella Mina. “But now everyone’s telling me I should be thinking 40 percent.”

The demand for corn has risen as companies and individuals turn to alternative fuels. Corn ethanol accounts for almost all fuel ethanol production in the United States.

Farmer Steve Ford of Blythe Cotton Co. in Town Creek said U.S. demand for corn ethanol is a driving factor in his decision to plant corn on soybean fields and some cotton fields. He said corn will make up about 40 percent of his total acreage this year.

“With current prices, an average corn crop is equal to a record-setting cotton crop,” said Ford.

Beneficial to cotton

If the price of corn falls in coming years, the current planting trend could be beneficial when farmers return to cotton.

Corn is a good rotational crop with cotton and may reduce disease and insects, help control weeds and increase cotton yields, said Burmester.

North Alabama is a hot spot for reniform nematodes, microscopic worms that attack roots and decrease cotton yields.

Most corn varieties are resistant to reniform nematodes, said Ford.

At least one area cotton gin operator is considering building storage facilities for corn as the decrease in cotton acreage points to another year of declining business.
At least one area cotton gin operator is considering building storage facilities for corn as the decrease in cotton acreage points to another year of declining business.
“If you have them, and you rotate with corn, the soil population of nematodes will decline to levels that won’t hurt your cotton the following year,” he said.

Increased corn production isn’t without potential problems, said Ford.

Storage problem?

Ford said he is concerned that this region may not have enough trucks or storage to handle the increase in corn production.

Corn has to be protected from the elements immediately after harvest. Otherwise, there’s a risk of it being contaminated by fungus and disease, which can be harmful to humans and livestock.

Once contaminated, it’s not useful to the ethanol industry, which buys only top quality grain. The residue from making alcohol is used to produce animal feed.

Roger Felkins, manager of Hillsboro Gin, said he is considering building infrastructure to store corn and other grains that require special handling.

“The increase in corn may be a trend, so we’re taking a step back and watching how things go,” he said. “We’re not set up right now to store grains, but we will build what we have to in order to accommodate our customers.”

Constructing a grain-storage system would cost several hundred thousand dollars, said Felkins.

Gin business

The decrease in cotton acreage could mean another year of declining business for area gins. Last year’s drought caused significantly lower cotton yields.

“Last year was a bad year, and we ginned a little over 18,000 bales of cotton,” said Felkins. “If farmers plant 20 percent less cotton and have a decent crop, more so than last year, we should still be in the high teens.”

Heath Potter, a regional extension agent based in Moulton, collected crop estimations from area farmers during the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s annual cotton meeting last week. Once the data is compiled, Potter will provide a more accurate estimate of how much cotton and corn will be planted this year in North Alabama.

Many farmers will start planting corn next week.

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