“I keep saying, ‘This was a year that we’d never had before,’” says Keith Fehringer, after two decades as an agronomist with Bingham Ag Services in American Falls. The year 2023 started cold and wet in southeast Idaho, with snow loads late into spring.
Between freeze kill, pathogen pressure and spring ponding, much of the winter wheat had to be disked up and replanted when the weather finally did break. Potatoes, sugarbeets and corn also had to be planted in the same short window. “Spring fertilizing and putting in crops was compressed immensely,” Fehringer says. “Growers around here did a good job getting everything in.”
But he was pleasantly surprised by yields last fall. Wheat yielded somewhat poorly, but, he says, “For the slow start this spring, corn did better than I thought it would – we had an average crop.” Potatoes and beans fared well, with little disease pressure in his area.
Cool weather across the state
That pattern seemed to hold across the southern portion of the state. In the Hagerman area, crop adviser Jacob Patterson with Simplot Grower Solutions says, “Overall, yields were good – as long as guys were contracted at good prices, they should have done pretty well.” Potatoes, silage corn and feed corn were all at or above average in his area, although alfalfa yield was inexplicably low.
In southwest Idaho, crop adviser Eric Ball of Valley Agronomics in Greenleaf saw slightly below-average wheat production. However, he says, “It was a pretty good year for most things.” Sugarbeet yields were normal where disease pressure was not heavy.
“I thought corn wouldn’t do well, but it turned out OK,” says Ball. In fact, yields were above average in places with enough water. Seed corn did exceptionally well. “We had some cooler weather during pollination, and I think that helped,” he says.
Pathogens and pests
However, pests were an issue in both the Magic and Treasure valleys. “Spider mites are getting worse,” says Patterson, who believes that 2023 was the worst he had seen in his 12 years as a crop adviser.
Ball also saw a lot of spider mites in corn last year. “The chemicals don’t seem to be working as well as they used to,” he says. While he believes that pressure was about average in his region in 2023, treatment in many fields occurred too late or not at all. “I think this is an issue that’s been going on for a while,” he says. “I think farmers can struggle with knowing when to pull the trigger on preventative measures such as miticide or insecticide – with knowing when it will pay off.”
Cercospora was another pathogen whose activity concerned Patterson in 2023. “We’re seeing more of it in beets,” he says. “It’s moving east, into places where we’ve never seen it.”
Then, the Idaho State Department of Agriculture (ISDA) confirmed in September that invasive quagga mussels were present in the Middle Snake River, triggering a rapid response plan. Aquatic ecosystems and agricultural irrigation systems are both susceptible to damage if this mollusk becomes established. “Hopefully the treatment works, and they did what they need to do to get it out of there,” says Patterson.
Harvest and beyond
As the calendar progressed to harvest, fair-to-good yields and plenty of water left the 2023 growing season on a positive, if somewhat hectic, note. In the American Falls area, the compressed spring planting season meant that harvest was also rushed. “Everybody was worried about getting everything out before it froze up,” Fehringer says. With an abnormally extended fall, they were mostly successful: “Some sugarbeets froze, but that’s not an issue like it is with potatoes,” he says.
Many of Fehringer’s producers were also able to put in winter wheat, even those who replanted so much earlier this year. “More people this fall fertilized with slow-release nitrogen,” he adds, “so they can be not so pressed next spring.” This may pay off if forecasts for another late spring hold true.
In the Magic Valley, fall work was somewhat hampered by wet conditions – but a damp fall bodes well for 2024. Similarly, says Ball of southwest Idaho, “A lot of guys were able to carry over water from this year into next year.” Both good weather and water-retaining farming practices are lending themselves to optimism for the year ahead. “I’ve got some guys switching to no-till or strip-till on corn, and they’re seeing the benefit of that,” he says.
Income and expenses
Commodity prices around the state are another story. “Guys are getting pretty gloomy,” says Patterson. “If they didn’t contract wheat, they will have to sell for 6 dollars.”
“Commodities are starting to slip a bit,” says Ball, referring particularly to grain, milk and silage. While there are outliers, such as seed corn, he says that many dairies in his area “are struggling from a cash-flow perspective.”
Meanwhile, both Fehringer and Patterson are anticipating cuts in contracted potato acres for 2024 following 2023’s high production. “It doesn’t look like Simplot will be down there,” says Patterson, “but others are reducing their contracts.”
On a bright note, fertilizer costs are predicted to come down with commodity prices. Fehringer says many of his producers postponed fertilizing until spring with that hope in mind. However, equipment supply chains are still proving temperamental, and fuel prices statewide were high through harvest and planting.
“It seems like farmers get one year of reprieve where they get a bit of rest, then fuel goes back up and prices go back down,” says Patterson. “I don’t mean to say that it’s doom and gloom, but it looks like it will be one of those years where they need to watch expenses.”