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Farm News and Views - March 1, 2022

It must be that I’m getting older, but we’ve only got 19 days until the Spring equinox, and it seems like I was just talking about the winter solstices a couple of weeks ago!

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has the attention of many farmers and ranchers, since the country is a major player in agricultural production and trade, supplying 17% of the world’s corn exports and 30% of all wheat exports. Last week, commodity futures markets were highly volatile for both corn and wheat. For example, while corn futures prices were more subdued, wheat went on an unprecedented $1.00 per bushel swing on Friday, trading from a high of $9.60 to closing at $8.60 per bushel. A week earlier, on February 18th, wheat closed at $8.04 a bushel. Yesterday, May corn closed at $6.90 a bushel, up about $.40 from a week earlier. Cattle futures contracts have also been affected by the turmoil, with both feeder cattle and live cattle futures contracts closing $6 to $7 lower over the past week due to uncertain markets and potentially higher feed costs.

However, commodity prices aren’t the only concerns that producers may have in the near future, because Russia’s attack on Ukraine threatens to disrupt global supplies of nitrogen fertilizer, which reached record high prices last fall. Russia was the world’s largest exporter of nitrogen products in 2021, and if trade embargoes affecting nitrogen fertilizer are put into place to punish Russia, fertilizer prices will likely rise if the conflict continues. Last week, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned fertilizer companies and other farm suppliers against taking “unfair advantage” of the Ukraine conflict and said his department would be watching for unjustified price increases.

Farmers in the U.S. may have some empathy for Ukrainian farmers, since they often have to wait for weather to clear up before planting in the spring. But this spring farmers in Ukraine may have to deal with bridges that are no longer passable because they’ve been blown up, making it difficult to get seed, fertilizer and fuel to destinations where the farmers need it.

A recent report by the Environmental Working Group and Midwest Environmental Advocates points out the downside of confined feeding operations that can house hundreds of animals in small areas. While these confined operations are economically efficient, they are often environmentally unsound. According to the study, in nine counties in Wisconsin, animal manure is over-applied to farmland, which has degraded the state’s water quality. In four of the counties, manure was applied at rates more than than 50% above the rate recommended by University of Wisconsin researchers to minimize pollution. In one county, phosphorus in manure exceeded the total crop phosphorus removal by 23%. In other words, over 1,200 tons of commercial phosphorus fertilizer that was estimated to be sold in the county are unnecessary. While Wisconsin has lost 44% of its dairy farms over the last decade, the report also notes that the current record levels of milk production is due in part to the increase in the number of confined feeding operations in the state that house more than 1,000 animal units each. Today, about 3% of Wisconsin’s farms produce around 40% of the state’s milk.

Former President Calvin Coolidge said, “It takes a great man to be a good listener."

Bob has been an agricultural educator and farm and ranch management consultant for over 40 years in southwest Colorado. He writes about agricultural issues from his farm near Cortez, and has helped to produce farm reports on KSJD for more than a dozen years.