Managing farm costs key to profitability in 2021

Alejandro Plastina

Written by Alejandro PlastinaExtension Economist, plastina@iastate.edu

Corn and soybeans futures prices have recently rallied to their highest levels in years, providing hope for a market-driven profitable 2021 crop year. However, the only certainty about future prices is that they will continue to change until their expiration date, and they could plummet as fast as they rallied. Unless farm operators use futures or options to create a floor for their crop prices, current future prices might foster a false sense of security.

Winter is a great time for farm operators to concentrate on calculating their own costs of crop production, not only because they have more control over costs than crop prices, but also because knowing their break-even prices might ease the struggle to lock-in profits before harvest time. The latest issue of the ISU Extension and Outreach, Estimated Costs of Crop Production, reports average cost estimates for Iowa farms in 2021, and provides guidelines to help farmers calculate their own costs of production.

Estimated Costs of Crop Production in Iowa
Figure 1.

Total costs of corn and soybean production per acre are expected to increase, respectively, by 2.1% – 3.4% and 2.6% in 2021. However, higher expected corn yields over a 30-year trend for 2021 suggest that on a per bushel basis, costs would increase by 1.0% – 2.6% to remain below their 2019 marks (Figure 1). Fuel and insecticide costs, interest expenses on pre-harvest input financing, and crop insurance premiums are projected lower in 2021.

The estimated cost of production for continuous corn is $3.88 per bushel for a target yield of 166 bushels per acre, and it goes down to $3.82 for target yields of 184 and 202 bushels per acre. The estimated costs of production per bushel for corn following soybeans are $3.34, $3.31, and $3.32 for target yields of 181, 201, and 221 bushels per acre, respectively.

Cost of production estimates for herbicide tolerant soybeans amount to $9.16, $8.94 and $8.74 per bushel for target yields of 50, 56, and 62 bushels per acre, respectively. The total cost per bushel of soybeans is projected at $9.04 for non-herbicide-tolerant beans at 56 bushels per acre, according to the report.

The cost estimates are representative of average costs for farms in Iowa. Very large or small farms may have lower or higher fixed costs per acre. The full report is available online through the Ag Decision Maker website. The publication also includes budgets for alfalfa hay establishment with an oat companion crop and by direct seeding. Annual production costs for established alfalfa or alfalfa-grass hay as well as a budget for maintaining grass pastures are included. Actual costs can be entered in the column for “Your Estimates”, or by using the electronic spreadsheet Decision Tools on the Ag Decision Maker website.

Breakdown of costs for 2021

Costs of Crop Production in Iowa - 2021
Figure 2.

For corn, land costs account for about one-third of total costs of production (Figure 2). Values of $187, $222, and $256 per acre rent charges for the low, medium, and high quality land were assumed. Variable costs represent just over half of the costs of production, and nitrogen and seed costs account for about 43% of the variable costs. Nitrogen price is projected stable at $.34 per pound in 2021, but total nitrogen costs are projected to go up by 6 to 11% reflecting the higher application rates recommended by the ISU Corn Nitrogen Rate Calculator. Corn seed costs are expected to increase by 2% to $262 per bag.

Land costs account for 44% of total costs of soybean production, and variable costs account for an additional 42%. Seed and fertilizers amount to 44% of variable costs. Phosphorus and potassium were charged, respectively, at $.39 and $.30 per pound. Machinery costs are projected to decline by 6% primarily due to lower diesel costs: $2.02 in 2021 versus $2.53 in 2020.

Profitability Prospects for 2021

There is substantial uncertainty regarding crop prices in the coming season. The most recent USDA projections for 2021/22, published in October 2020, put the average US farm prices for corn and soybeans at $3.65 and $10.00. In this scenario, production of herbicide tolerant and non-herbicide tolerant soybean would be profitable for all target yields considered in the report. Net returns per acre to herbicide-tolerant soybean production would range from $42 to $78 per acre, depending on target yield and tillage practice.

Corn production would not be profitable in a continuous corn scenario if the price per bushel is $3.65. Net returns to corn following soybeans would range from $55 to $74 per acre under conventional tillage, and average $82 and $75, respectively, under strip tillage and no-till.

Current futures prices seem to indicate that corn and soybean prices might average $4.45 and $11.40 per bushel in 2021/22, respectively. In this optimistic scenario, corn production would generate profits north of $95 per acre in a continuous corn rotation, and above $200 per acre following soybeans. Profits from soybean production would exceed $110 per acre. However, futures prices are currently reflecting a market reaction to unexpected USDA production and stocks figures, and they could retrench fast once the market reassess the real impact of the new information. In any case, farm operators can always improve their profitability or limit losses by focusing on managing costs and using their break-even estimations to implement a tailored marketing plan.

Cost Calculations

Knowing costs is key, as it is to understand the assumptions behind the budgets used in the calculations. When using the ISU cost of production estimates for 2021, keep several things in mind. First, fertilizer and lime costs include volume and early purchase discounts. Second, farmers paying land rents higher than the ones projected in the report might face higher costs of production. Operator landowners on fully paid land will have much lower accounting costs, since the cash rent used in the report will only be an opportunity cost and not a cash cost (as it is for tenants).

Reference yields for corn and soybean budgets in the annual Iowa State University Extension and Outreach report reflect 30-year trend yields. In the latest projections used for the 2021 report, corn yields are 2 bushels higher than for 2020, while soybean yields remained unchanged.

Starting in 2021, the amount of nitrogen applied to corn production follows the recommendations from the ISU Corn Nitrogen Rate Calculator. The projected corn-to-nitrogen price ratio used in the calculator amounted to 12.35. Such methodological adjustment resulted in an average 6% increase in the amount of nitrogen applied to corn following corn, and an 11% increase in the amount applied to corn following soybeans.

Conclusions

Producers must have a strong grasp of their own production costs, and the ISU Extension report provides a step-by-step guide to help them estimate break-even costs, and serves to benchmark operations and trigger relevant questions on how to better manage enterprise costs.

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Big report day for USDA

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Chad Hart, ISU Extension Grain Marketing Economist, provides a summary of the latest USDA reports: WASDE, Annual Crop Production, and Grain Stocks.

As the market reaction shows, today’s release was a set of favorable reports. In the Annual Crop Production report, USDA ended up reducing 2020 crop plantings by roughly 200,000 acres and the national corn yield estimate by 3.8 bushels per acre. That reduced 2020 estimated corn production by 325 million bushels. Soybeans saw a similar drop, with the national yield estimate down 0.5 bushels per acre and estimated production lowered 35 million bushels. Looking at the state-level data, the corn production losses covered most of the Corn Belt, from the Dakotas to Ohio, with only the southern states (Kansas and Missouri) seeing an increase in the yield estimates. Iowa’s corn yield estimate was lowered 6 bushels, to 178 bushels per acre. For soybeans, the state-level data showed more variability, with Illinois, Missouri, and North Dakota gaining in yield, while most other states declined. Iowa’s soybean yield estimate was lowered by a bushel, to 53 bushels per acre.

The December crop stock levels came in at or below expectations. While USDA’s estimate of soybean stock levels landed well within the trade range of estimates, the corn stocks were estimated at least 250 million bushels below any of the published trade guesses. Crop usage for feed and exports has continued to chew through this year’s crop quickly.

Turning to the WASDE report, USDA bumped up 2019/20 corn feed usage by roughly 75 million bushels, which lowered 2019/20 carryout. For 2020/21, plugging in the 325 million drop in production (from the Annual Crop Production report), total supplies were lowered by 400 million bushels. To partially offset, USDA lowered expected feed (down 50 million), export (down 100 million), and ethanol (down 100 million) usage, based on higher expected prices. But that still implies a 150 million bushel decline in 2020/21 ending stock, dropping the estimated stocks to 1.55 billion, which would be the lowest level we’ve seen in several years. With all of these corn changes, USDA raised its 2020/21 season-average price estimate by 20 cents, to $4.20 per bushel. The changes to the soybean balance sheet mainly concentrated on the 2020/21 outlook. Given the smaller crop, USDA raised soybean imports by 20 million bushels, partially offsetting the yield loss. But soybean usage continues to expand. Domestic crush was raised 5 million bushels.  Exports were raised 30 million bushels. The only soybean usage category that declined was seed and residual, by 13 million. Overall, 2020/21 soybean ending stocks were lowered 35 million bushels, to 140 million bushels in total, continuing the trend of tightening over the last several reports.  USDA’s 2020/21 season-average price estimate was increased 60 cents, to $11.15 per bushel.

See presentation on latest Ag Market Outlook

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Making 2021 ARC/PLC Decisions

Contributed by Steve Johnson, Extension Farm Management Field Specialist, sdjohns@iastate.edu

Steve Johnson, headshot

Enrollment for the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program for the 2021 crop year is underway at your local USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) office. That decision is by FSA farm number and the historical base acres of crops on that farm and tract. The signup period runs through March 15, 2021.

ARC/PLC is one of the USDA farm safety-net programs that can help producers with fluctuations in either revenue or price for certain commodity crops. These include barley, canola, large and small chickpeas, corn, crambe, flaxseed, grain sorghum, lentils, mustard seed, oats, peanuts, dry peas, rapeseed, long grain rice, medium and short-grain rice, safflower seed, seed cotton, sesame, soybeans, sunflower seed, and wheat.

Local FSA offices are encouraging producers to take time over the next few months to evaluate their program elections and enroll for the 2021 crop year. ARC provides income support payments on historical base acres when actual crop revenue declines below a specified guaranteed level. PLC provides income support payments on historical base acres when the final national average cash price for a covered commodity falls below its effective reference price. For 2021, that’s at $3.70 per bushel for corn and $8.40 per bushel for soybeans, respectively.

2021 election and enrollment

Producers can elect coverage for the 2021 crop year and enroll in crop-by-crop ARC-County (ARC-CO) or PLC. Another choice is to enroll the entire farm in the ARC-Individual (ARC-IC) program. Although election changes for 2021 are optional, enrollment (a signed contract) is required for each year of the program. If a producer has a multi-year contract on the farm and makes an election change for 2021, it will be necessary to sign a new contract.

Key to this decision will be the national average cash price outlook for the 2021-22 marketing year. That is because the final national average cash price by crop will not be known until late September 2022. It must fall below the effective reference price for a PLC payment to be triggered. Most analysts expect those national cash price projections to be roughly $4.00 per bushel for corn and $10.00 per bushel for soybeans based on larger US planted acres, normal growing conditions, and strong US export demand. Since these projected prices are above the effective reference prices, then PLC payments would not be triggered for the 2021 crop year. Based on these current projections, most producers will likely elect and enroll both their corn and soybean base acres in the ARC-CO program to increase the likelihood of triggering a payment.

ARC-CO program payments are triggered when the actual county crop revenue of a covered commodity is less than the ARC-CO guarantee for the crop. The actual county revenue and the revenue guarantee are based on county-level yield data for the base acres’ physical location of the farm and tract. ARC-CO payments are not dependent upon the planting of a covered commodity or planting of the applicable base crop on the farm. Some producers could elect the ARC-IC program that combines the entire farm’s crop base acres, perhaps noting a higher risk of yield loss for 2021. ARC-IC farm eligibility is contingent on the planting of a covered commodity.

Signup deadline is March 15

If your ARC/PLC decision is not submitted to your local FSA office by March 15, 2021, the election defaults to the current election for crops on the farm from the prior crop year. For each crop year 2022 and 2023, you can make new elections annually during those sign up periods that end March 15. Farm owners can’t enroll in either program unless they have a shared interest in the crops on their farm.

Rather than waiting until the March 15 deadline, producers are encouraged to work with their local FSA office to make their election and enrollment decisions early. This will help spread out the workload for your FSA office and allow more time to focus on any crop insurance changes for your 2021 crops. 

New crop insurance product

A new county-based crop insurance product called Enhanced Coverage Option (ECO) can be added to your traditional multi-peril crop insurance coverage beginning in 2021. Note that ECO can be purchased regardless of your base acres having been enrolled in the ARC or PLC program. The Supplemental Coverage Option (SCO) product can not be purchased unless the base acres on that farm were enrolled in the PLC program.

The ECO offers producers a choice of 90% or 95% trigger levels of county-based coverage for a portion of the underlying crop insurance policy. If you choose revenue protection, then ECO covers revenue losses. ECO provides a band of coverage between these elected levels and 86%. Expect most producers interested in buying ECO in 2021, may plan to enroll in either ARC or PLC and then buy-up their farm-level revenue protection to the 80% or 85% levels. That’s because of the subsidy levels and premiums to be paid for the underlying crop insurance products.

Educational programs on the 2021 Farm Bill sign-up decision will be offered virtually in early 2021 from ISU Extension and Outreach. Watch the Ag Decision Maker Farm Bill page for details.

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December USDA WASDE Summary

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Chad Hart, ISU Extension Grain Marketing Economist, provides a summary of the latest WASDE report.

The trade was hoping to receive some additional demand strengthening, but USDA’s update provided next to no changes. The December report is almost always about demand, as the corn and soybean supply numbers are rarely changed in this month’s report (saving up the changes for the “final” estimates in January). The corn numbers remained as in November, with 2020/21 ending stocks at 1.7 billion bushels and the 2020/21 marketing year average price estimate at $4 per bushel. The only demand shift in soybeans was for domestic crush, up 15 million bushels. That lowered 2020/21 ending stocks to 175 million bushels, so the market should be getting close to “pipeline” levels (stock projections that are low enough where price can rise significantly to limit usage and hold the stocks at that level, preserving a small reserve going into the next marketing year). The 2020/21 marketing year average price estimate was raised 15 cents to $10.55 per bushel.

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November USDA WASDE Summary

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Chad Hart, ISU Extension Grain Marketing Economist, provides a summary of the latest WASDE report.

Compared to trade expectations, USDA lowered corn and soybean yield and production estimates and raised corn exports by more than expected. The slide in yields was across a broad swath of the country, reflecting the longer-term impacts of the drought and the extremely dry crops were brought in (yield loss due to crop moisture being below to well below average). Corn dropped 2.6 bushels per acre, knocking 215 million bushels out of total production. Soybeans dropped 1.2 bushels per acre, taking 98 million bushels out. For soybeans, the yield drop dominated the other small tweaks and the lack of adjustments to crush and exports. With the new soy stocks to use ratio now below 5%, the report provided another upward leg for the soybean market. USDA raised its 2020/21 season average to $10.40, the futures market was already at $10.60 and added roughly 30 cents today.

For corn, the yield drop was only part of the story. USDA also projected exports to rise to 2.65 billion bushels, a record. The export rise can be chalked up to a near doubling of expected corn sales to China. Most of those Chinese sales have already been made (roughly 85%), but only 15% of the targeted exports to China have been delivered at this point. 2020/21 ending stocks were lowered to 1.7 billion bushels (lowest level since 2013/14) and the USDA season-average price estimate rose to $4 per bushel. The futures market was at roughly $3.70 before the report, so for corn, USDA is already projecting continued price strengthening.

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