Texas: Remaining Profitable with Low Commodity Prices

    Dr. Jourdan Bell, AgriLife Extension agronomist, enters data from a study testing the effectiveness of the DuPont herbicide Zest and Pioneer ALS-resistant grain sorghum. (Texas A&M AgriLife Communications photo by Kay Ledbetter)

    Low commodity prices often results in a shift in acreage from one crop to another. However, when crop prices are low across the board, growers must look for alternative ways to remain profitable. Crop inputs are naturally the first place many will look. Will reducing input costs increase net returns? The wrong cuts could result in yield reductions and/or detrimental impacts over the next several years, such as with poor weed management. Increasing efficiency may be a more viable option. Below are several tips for becoming more efficient.

    Pest Control

    Pest control inputs for cotton, corn and grain sorghum may include weed, insect and disease control. Weed control is one area that should not be sacrificed. Most herbicide programs are designed to address very specific weed issues, including herbicide resistant weeds. Starting the season weed free, using residual herbicides, and postemergence herbicides with different modes/sites of action will be essential for managing resistant weeds now and moving forward.

    Allowing resistant weeds to produce seed could drastically increase cost of weed control and reduce yields of future crops. Also remember that early season weed competition can reduce yield significantly. For example, cotton needs to remain weedfree for 6 weeks after planting to minimize yield loss from weed competition. The bottom line, weed management programs should not be adjusted to compensate for lower crop prices.

    Insect and disease control will remain important to maintain yield. Economic thresholds have been established for major crops and pests in Texas. Take advantage of the tools, apps and calculators that are available. For example, sorghum headworm, stinkbug and midge calculators are available through the Department of Entomology here.

    These calculators take into consideration grain value and the cost of application to determine when insecticide applications are economical. Economic injury levels should also be applied for management of crop diseases. Preemptive fungicide applications that may contribute to improved plant health but may not contribute to higher yields or a positive return on investment.


    Seed costs differ proportionally by crop depending on production cost and technologies contained within the seed. The first decision for planting is which variety or hybrid to select. Consistent yield performance should always be the first criteria. Selecting the wrong variety or hybrid can result in yield losses greater than 10%. Following yield, other characteristics should be considered, such as herbicide tolerance and insect protectants.

    After the seed is selected, the next decision is seeding rate. Some crops can compensate for changes in population by adjusting yield components. Grain sorghum can compensate by adjusting head size and tiller number per plant to maintain grain yield per acre. Cotton can compensate by adjusting the boll size and number of fruit per plant. Therefore, minor reductions of seeding rates could be implemented with minimal impact on yield. Uniform stands (no long skips) may be just as important as final plant populations.

    Additionally, with lower seeding rates, seed quality becomes more important, and more attention should be paid to germination rates and varieties or hybrids with better seedling vigor.

    Corn can compensate for changes in plant population to some degree. This is often referred to as “flex” versus “fixed” hybrids. All corn hybrids will respond to changes in plant population by adjusting the number of kernel rows and/or the kernels per row. The larger issue when deciding if corn-seeding rates can be reduced is the yield potential of your environment.

    In high yielding environments (irrigated corn), reduction of seeding rates may not be justified. Yield reduction from small changes in seeding rate would likely exceed savings on seed costs. In low yield environments, small reductions to seeding rates may be economically justified.

    Planter maintenance and setting is critical for efficiency with seed. It is necessary for achieving the target population with uniform spacing. Maintenance goes beyond routine cleaning and lubrication. Ensure that all row cleaners, coulters, opening disks, seed meters, closing wheels, etc. are properly adjusted and replaced if worn as recommended by the manufacture.

    Next, calibrate seed drop using seed that you will be planting. Check again if changing to seed of a different size. Look for doubles or triples and within row spacing and make adjustments if necessary to achieve uniformity. Always dig and ensure proper seed depth as well and repeat when moving to new fields. Uniformity and precision will save seed cost and optimize yield.


    There are many options for becoming more efficient with fertilizer. This includes subsurface banding, variable rate applications, etc. Yet, the basics are the best place to start. Fertilizer applications should always be based on soil test results. Soil nutrient levels could be higher than you expect which may enable you to reduce or eliminate unneeded applications. Soil submittal forms and nutrient recommendations can be found at the links below.

    In addition to routine 6-inch depth soil samples, soil sampled to a depth of 12″, 18″ or 24″ can be submitted and credit given for residual nitrate-nitrogen (NO3-N). Use the form and the instruction found on the link below. Studies across Texas have demonstrated the ability of crops to recover NO3-N to depths of 2 ft and 100% credit can be given to nitrate-nitrogen found in the soil samples. The amount of residual N found in soils is uncertain but the economic value could be substantial.

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