As June drew to a close in the Lower Coastal Bend, the farming community started its annual grain sorghum harvest season.
During the past few weeks, farmers have been servicing harvest equipment, applying harvest-aid treatments to accelerate maturity, lining up trucking, and praying for one good rain to help the cotton crop before sorghum harvest gets underway.
This year's Coastal Bend grain sorghum crop is a real "mixed-bag" with tremendous variability in production potential across the region. This part of Texas typically grows as much as 20 percent of the entire state's production of this important animal feed grain crop. In San Patricio, Jim Wells and Nueces counties, some grain harvest activity got underway in early maturing fields between June 16 and 20. Harvest is expected to be very active by June 25 and in full swing by the first of July.
Persistent dry conditions during the growing season have many growers amazed that some fields are yielding better than expected. But the farming community continues to be very concerned about potential for grain stalks falling to the ground as they ripen. This common complication of drought stress allows a disease condition known as "charcoal stalk rot" to affect plants across the field. It is typically a problem in areas of fields with lighter textured soils that are the first to deplete moisture from the root zone during a drought.
Besides the usual weather woes, this year farmers in South Texas are worried about harvest and hauling cost to local storage elevators and delivery cost to buyers at the Port of Corpus Christi. Harvesting and hauling is a very diesel dependant activity. And diesel prices are up sharply from a year ago.
Even though grain sorghum prices have tracked slightly behind the record high prices for corn on the futures markets, major grain buying firms have built in a wide basis discount in their bid price for port delivered grain sorghum during the South Texas harvest season, which also cuts into grower's margins. For most of the past 25 years, sorghum farmers have yearned for a return to grain prices above the $5 per hundred weight that were common during the early 1970s. (Of course that was with the assumption that production expenses would remain rather constant, which is never the case.)
In the past 16 months, that $5 barrier has been broken and the price has continued to climb throughout the winter and spring. With the recent flooding and planting delays in Iowa and other key corn producing states, corn prices took another sharp jump. Sorghum prices have continued to climb along with corn, since it is a direct substitute in most livestock feed rations.
Grain elevators in the Corpus Christi-area had prices of better than $10.50 per hundred weight posted for grain sorghum during the final week of June. This is an exceptional price for a crop that has been expensive to produce and which has had tremendous variability in harvested grain amounts produced from field to field.
Farmers can't help but be concerned about the financial health of their primary customers - the livestock and poultry feeders. They are likely to find it next to impossible to break even feeding animals for market with record high feed grain prices without upward adjustment in beef, pork and poultry prices.
It has become apparent that agriculture must soon reach an economic "equilibrium" that will allow all segments of the industry to make reasonable profits for their efforts and risk-taking without bankrupting inter-dependent segment of the industry.
Out-of-kilter commodity prices must be adjusted to cover production costs. If not, one segment will briefly prosper while the other falters.
This is not a recipe for a healthy, sustainable industry.
Harvey Buehring is the former Agricultural Extension Agent for Nueces County. Readers may contact him at (361) 767-5223.