By MATTHEW D. ERNST
ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Missouri row crop acreage has reached record levels and more marginal cropland, especially in southern Missouri, is being brought into corn and soybean production. That increase has come during this year’s drought, as well as in drought in most of southern Missouri in 2011.
“We have not reported 9 million acres of row crops (soybeans, corn, cotton, rice and sorghum) for the state since the mid-1980s,” said Bob Garino, acting director of the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) Missouri field office. “Then in 2010, we hit 8.9 million acres. In 2011, it was 9.2 million.”
Missouri’s row crop area for 2012, according to NASS, is a record 9.595 million acres, including 5.4 million in soybeans and 3.6 million in corn. There were also 790,000 acres of wheat planted in Missouri this year. Much of Missouri’s wheat is double-cropped with no-till soybeans.
Hayfields are likely candidates for conversion to row crops when markets rise. But NASS reports Missouri’s harvested hay area has remained steady during the last four years, between 3.55 million-3.65 million acres. This supports reports that some pastures, and former Conservation Reserve Program ground, are becoming corn and bean fields.
“It seems like soybeans are really driving this in our area,” said Brie Menjoulet, University of Missouri agronomy specialist for Hickory and Dallas counties, 30-60 miles north of Springfield. “The interesting thing about the bean increase is, in our area, it’s 30 acres here and there, 60 acres, maybe an 80-acre field,” she said.
Missouri soybean area increased to 5.4 million acres in 2012. This level equals the previous state high for soybean ground in 1999. Prospects of high bean prices have attracted a different kind of soybean grower, said Menjoulet.
“It’s often guys renting the land from the landowner, then contracting with custom operators to have the fieldwork done,” she said.
Most of the new soybean ground is no-tilled to avoid stirring up the region’s rocks, but compacted soils create challenges. “I’ve seen soybean roots 2 inches long, and then they ‘L,’ growing horizontally because of compaction,” said Menjoulet.
Wildlife is also a problem. “Deer pressure is a real threat to soybean yields in our region,” she said. “Just ask anyone who has tried to grow alfalfa around here in a field bordered by timber.”
Tim Schnakenberg, agronomy specialist for 10 counties in the southwestern corner of Missouri, has seen row crop increases on more marginal land in his area driven by more corn plantings.
“The majority of it is hay and pasture that has not grown corn before,” he said. In Missouri’s 10 most southwestern counties, corn acreage has increased from 99,000 acres in 2008 to 143,000 acres this year.
Missouri had 3.6 million acres of corn planted this year, the state’s highest acreage since 1960. As elsewhere, drought stifled yields. “We had drought conditions here not seen since at least 1953,” said Schnakenberg. “Much of our corn was chopped for silage.”
Increasing producer age is also a factor. “Some of the landowners are getting older and have sold cows, but still want the land used,” said Menjoulet. “So they are more open to seeing the land brought into row crops.”
Average farm producer age in Missouri increased from 54.4 in 1997 to 57.1 in 2007, according to the Census of Agriculture.
Both MU agronomists recognize the limitations of their region’s soils.“
A lot of this ground was only producing a ton, maybe a ton-and-a-half, of forage, before being row-cropped,” said Menjoulet. “The river bottom ground in our region is going to work the best for row crop production.”
There were 13.175 million acres in Missouri used for row crop and hay production this year, according to NASS data. The only prior years approaching this level were 1998 to 2000, when total acreage hovered at 13 million acres.
Missouri’s combined hay and row crop area peaked at 13.186 million acres in 1999. This year’s hay harvest was 3.58 million acres, compared to 4.25 million acres in 1999.