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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Income Tax Problems in 2020?

Contributed by Charles BrownExtension Farm Management Field Specialist, crbrown@iastate.edu

Charles Brown headshot

Market Facilitation Payments (MFP), Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP 1 & CFAP 2), Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Syngenta payments, ARC/PLC payments, crop insurance, etc. have pumped close to $40 billion into the US farm economy in 2020. If you are thinking of deferring any of these government payments, only crop insurance may offer the possibility of deferral. In February of 2020, the USDA was predicting a reduction in US farm income, but now is predicting growth in farm income, up to $115 billion.

This increase in government income could cause some unexpected tax consequences for some farmers this year. Even though crop and livestock prices were low for much of the year, they have now improved and coupled with government payments, farm income is looking better than expected.

If you happen to be in the group that is having a good year and may be better than expected, what can you do to manage your income and income taxes? Here are a few tips that you may use to manage your income.

Prepay expenses: This only works for cash basis taxpayers, not accrual. Some examples that you may prepay are seed, fertilizer, chemicals, feed, up to 12 months land rent that is coming due and any accrued business interest. You must have a business reason for doing so, such as to lock in a price or to insure supply. Tax avoidance is not a good business reason.

Defer income: Using deferred payment contracts for grain sales gives you a lot of flexibility. If you like the price today, you can lock the price in, but take the payment in 2021. The added flexibility is that if you are a cash basis taxpayer and find that you needed the income in 2020, you can pull the contract back into 2020 from 2021 and report the income in 2020, even though you will not receive the cash until 2021. There is a catch, you must pull back a full contract, you cannot pull back a portion of a contract. To have added flexibility you should have multiple smaller contracts and not just one large one. This allows you to have a better chance at managing your income to a level that you want. The added bonus is that this decision can be made after the end of the year.

Crop insurance also may be deferred if the payment received is due to crop damage and not price loss and you normally would have sold the majority of the crop the following year. Again, this does not work for accrual taxpayers.

Depreciation: There are several options for determining how much depreciation you want to take on new asset purchases. If you want to use accelerated methods you have available Section 179 and bonus depreciation. For 2020, the maximum Section 179 is $1,040,000. Farm machinery, grain bins, solar grids, breeding livestock, confinement buildings and field tile all qualify for Section 179. They have to be used more than 50% in the business of farming and it is an asset-by-asset decision. Section 179 cannot create a net operating loss. If you take more than allowed, the remainder will carry over to the following year. The good news is that unlike in previous years, Iowa now couples with the federal rules.

Bonus depreciation is another accelerated method of depreciation. Unlike Section 179 where you choose how many dollars you expense, with bonus depreciation, it is all or none. You expense either the full purchase price or none of it. It can be used on new or used assets and can be used on 20-year property, such as machine sheds. Bonus depreciation is a class-by-class decision. New machinery is a class life 5, so if you decide to use bonus depreciation on a new machinery purchase, all new machinery you purchased will have to use bonus depreciation. Bonus depreciation can create a net operating loss, unlike Section 179. Iowa did not couple with the federal rules on bonus depreciation, so you may reduce federal income, but not Iowa income.

Bonus depreciation also can be used by land owners receiving cash rent.

Retirement plans: Funding retirement plans will reduce federal income taxes, but not self-employment tax. Some retirement plans to consider may be traditional IRAs, 401Ks, Simplified Employee Pension Plan (SEP), Solo 401K, etc.

Charitable giving: The standard deduction for married filing jointly is $24,800 in 2020. You have to exceed this amount with your itemized deductions before it pays you to itemize. Gifting to charities is one of the itemized deductions, but many farmers do not exceed the standard deduction so their charitable giving does not create a tax deduction. Gifting grain to your favorite charity is a much better option. If you sold the grain and then gifted money to your charity, you would have to pay federal, state and self-employment taxes on the income. When you gift the grain directly to the charity, you do not get a charitable deduction, but also have no income to report and avoid the tax consequences. Ownership of the grain must be transferred to the charity before it is sold. Someone from the charity then makes the arrangement to sell the grain.

College savings plans: Contributing to 529 plans can save Iowa income taxes, but not federal taxes. A single person can contribute $3,439 per beneficiary in 2020. A husband and wife could contribute twice that amount. When the money is withdrawn and used for eligible education expenses, it is not taxed.

These are just some of the ways you can manage taxable income, but everyone’s situation is different. It is advisable to contact your personal tax preparer to determine what is best for your tax situation.

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Ten tactics to face farm financial issues

Melissa O'Rourke image

Contributed by Melissa O’Rourke, B.S., M.A., J.D. Farm and Agribusiness Management Specialist, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, morourke@iastate.edu

The farm economy is cyclical in nature, and in recent years has been impacted by one crisis after another. Agricultural credit conditions are described as having an overall decline which deepened in the first quarter of 2020 after some signs of improvement in the fourth quarter of last year. On the ISU Extension and Outreach Farm Management team, we hear from farmers and agricultural lenders about rising debt levels, cash flow issues and farm financial stress. 

Farm financial stress can generally be thought of as an inability to meet debt service payments – both principal and interest. The severity of the financial stress depends on the debt level, interest rates (cost of the debt), and the farm income available for debt service. In recent years, low interest rates and sufficient farm income have kept financial stress at bay for many operations. Nevertheless, we continue to hear from producers and lenders about elevated levels of financial stress on the farm.

Confronting a tough financial situation is a challenge for anyone. It’s not unusual for producers to procrastinate and avoid facing the problem. Just hoping things will get better is not a solution – but many folks do not know where to start.

Following are several suggested actions to get started in figuring out how to proceed. This list of tactics to consider are not necessarily in a particular order – but presented as possible approaches to move forward and address the problems, depending on the farm business and family circumstances.

Tactic One: Seek support for stress management

Financial difficulties can cause significant emotional stress. Start by talking to someone. Do not be embarrassed to reach out to family members, friends, or professionals who can just listen. A good place to start may be the Iowa Concern Hotline via the website (which includes e-mail or chat) or the toll-free number: 1-800-447-1985. Since 1985, the Iowa Concern Hotline has been available 24/7 with trained counselors who can provide access to an attorney for legal education, stress counselors, information and referral services for a wide variety of topics.

Tactic Two: Gather debt and income information. 

While good accounting would direct us all to have current financial documents – starting with a balance sheet (or net worth statement) and income statement – folks who are facing strained finances may have avoided record-keeping tasks. Start by gathering all debt information – both for the farm as well as personal debt (vehicles, credit cards, personal spending). It’s useful to have an online or computer-based accounting system, but do not hesitate to get back on track with a pad of paper or the back of a pizza box. Write it down – balance owed, to whom, and when the next payment is due (monthly, quarterly, annually) and the payment amount. After starting this process, explore the financial planning resources available on the Ag Decision Maker website. Guidance is available on how to build financial statements, including information on understanding and building net worth statements (the balance sheet) and farm income statements

Next, estimate available expected income during the next twelve-month period. Again, include all possible income from on-farm and off-farm sources.

Part of this information gathering should include collecting any written communication or notices that may have been received from lenders. The act of compiling this financial data is a first step in facing the extent of the problems faced. Defining the problem may help stimulate ideas for solutions. And, to get help from advisors, a fairly-accurate picture will be necessary. 

Tactic Three: Evaluate the assets

Again, an updated balance sheet would enumerate and place values on current, intermediate and long-term assets. But think about assets that may not appear on the balance sheet. Go over the most current balance sheet available, and add any assets that might not appear there. Include farm and personal assets. Are there items of equipment no longer needed? Is there a motor home no longer in use? Is there a land parcel that is no longer an essential part of the farm operation? Make conservative, best estimates of the value, and consider whether the asset could be used to generate cash.

Tactic Four: Outline possible plans, identify advisors

Have a personal brainstorming session. This is not intended to be a final, detailed plan, but an outline of possible strategies going forward. To assist, think about who might be able to help identify strategies. This might be the farm bookkeeper, accountant, tax or other financial advisor, a personal lawyer, an insurance professional – someone that can help with financial troubleshooting to focus on where solutions may lie. There may be other respected people with good judgment and a set of clear eyes who could give a fresh perspective on the operation. These are the kinds of people to sit down with, talk things through, and see what ideas might arise. 

Tactic Five: Cash generation and belt tightening

Basically, financial problems arise when income exceeds expenses – due to an assortment of causes. Contemplate assets which could be used to generate cash, either through sale or lease—but remember there may be tax consequences of selling depreciated assets. Is there custom work or other services that would raise some income? Explore off-farm employment of one or more household members. Consider both farm business and personal or family-living expenses. Eliminate or reduce discretionary spending. Medical insurance is a significant expense which may be decreased via off-farm employment. Ideas on how to stretch cash flow can be found on the Ag Decision Maker website.

Tactic Six: In-depth farm financial analysis

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach offers a free farm financial planning and analysis program. This service consists of confidential financial counseling, a computerized analysis of the farm business, and possible referral to other useful programs or services. The program uses FINPACK software to provide a more complete picture of the farm’s financial situation. An in-depth plan with options helps a farm operator work with lenders to make decisions for the future. Trained extension associates meet with farm operators to discuss the results of the analysis as well as the impacts of possible changes. The service is offered at no charge. 

Tactic Seven: Communicate with bankers, lenders, creditors

Avoidance is not a winning strategy, and it’s common for those facing financial stress to sidestep those to whom money is owed. Make a list of set times to visit in-person about the situation. Bring along the data that has been gathered – accompanied by an outline of proposals to address the problems. Before the meeting, review guidelines of good communication skills. If communication has become strained, consider bringing along one of the other advisors or professionals that may have assisted in brainstorming or analyzing the situation. A third party may be able to serve in a facilitation role, at least to take some of the stress out of the conversation. As part of the communication process, openly share ideas for cash generation or expense reduction. There is the possibility some aspects of the farm operations have become unprofitable and should be eliminated. Talk about ideas for debt restructure – perhaps debts that could be consolidated, or stretched out to reduce payments.  In this regard, it may be worthwhile to talk to other lenders who might have a different view of the future potential of the farm business.

Tactic Eight: Professional advice on debt restructure or bankruptcy

Depending on a wide range of factors, it may be wise to seek professional advice on the need for debt restructuring. Iowa State University’s Center for Ag Law and Taxation (CALT) provides a number of resources and articles that can facilitate the thought process. In particular, there is an article on how to find an attorney who has expertise in this field and can provide solid advice on next steps.  

Tactic Nine: Explore mediation services

Mediation is a process where parties meet with a neutral third-party who assists in identifying solutions to a problem or dispute. Information is available about agricultural mediation services at the CALT website, including a video about how mediation works. In Iowa, mediation may be a voluntary process – but it may also be mandatory. Iowa Mediation Service is a non-profit organization founded in 1985 and dedicated to solutions for farmers, families, and anyone who may find themselves in need of a dispute resolution expert. There is even a short video that explains agricultural mediation services. If the farm’s financial situation has reached a point where professional mediation services are needed, this is an excellent resource available to Iowa farmers.

Tactic Ten:  Contemplate retirement or liquidation

For some folks – depending on age, health, family situation, and many other circumstances – it may be time to consider retirement or partial to full liquidation. Retirement from farming can lead to a new phase of life which could result in new accomplishments. Lessons learned in farming can be a basis for new experiences. While some approach retirement or liquidation with apprehension and a sense of uncertainty, many later report a feeling of relief and freedom to move on to other opportunities and interests. Of course, it is important to consult with a range of advisors regarding tax consequences and obtain guidance on managing future life plans.

In summary, these tactics are offered to provide possible actions for farm families facing financial issues. Consider each action and move forward. Most importantly, avoid isolation at times of stress and work to surround yourself with people who can listen and perhaps provide encouragement or assistance.

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ARC/PLC Decision Deadlines Loom

Steve Johnson, headshot

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

Iowa producers on row crop farms have until March 15 to make a 2-year election and then enroll by commodity crop and USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) farm number. There really is no reason to delay, as no ARC-CO/PLC payments are projected for the 2019 crops. Besides, many FSA offices could be swamped as the deadline approaches.

Undecided producers should start by understanding the importance of the effective reference prices of $3.70 per bushel for corn and $8.40 per bushel for soybeans. In order to trigger a PLC payment, the final national cash for the entire marketing year must be below these levels. The national cash price projections for the 2019 crop as of January 10, 2020 are $3.85 per bushel for corn and $9.00 per bushel for soybeans, respectively. Thus, no PLC payments are expected for corn and/or soybean base acres that are elected and enrolled in the PLC program.

If there are 2019 ARC-CO or PLC payments, it will likely be in a county with exceptionally low 2019 final yields. These final county yield numbers from the USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) will not be known until later this year. The 2019 Iowa yields from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) January report were estimated to be 198 bushels per acre corn and 55 bushels per acre for soybeans. Such levels indicate that most final county yields are likely too high to trigger a 2019 ARC-CO payment.

If there is a 2019 payment, it will likely be under the ARC-Individual (ARC-IC) program. The producer probably has a farm with poor 2019 yields and possibly prevented planting acres. That producer should consider electing and enrolling all crops by FSA farm number in the ARC-Individual (ARC-IC) program if a likely payment will be generated. It will require further examination and production evidence for each commodity crop produced on that farm since the 2013 crop year.

It’s actually for 2020, that an ARC/PLC payment seems more likely. Corn and soybean planted acres are expected to increase by roughly 11 to 12 million total planted acres for both crops as a result of the large prevented planting acres in 2019. Two sources of 2020 price projections released last fall are the USDA Outlook and the Food Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) at the University of Missouri. Both sources project an increase in 2020 US corn planted acres by 2.5 to 4.5 million acres and use 30-year trendline yields assuming normal production. Those 2020 crop cash price projections for corn are $3.40 and $3.53 per bushel, respectively. Thus, the likelihood of a 2020 PLC payment for corn that would be received in October 2021, as the final cash price would fall below the reference price of $3.70 per bushel.

Using those same two sources for 2020 soybean cash price projections, US soybean planted acres would increase between 7.5 and 8.5 million acres as compared to 2019.  Again, they use 30-year trendline yields and normal production. Those 2020 crop cash price projections for soybeans are $8.54 and $8.85 per bushel, respectively. Thus, no 2020 PLC payment for soybean base acres is expected as the final cash price is not below the effective reference price of $8.40 per bushel. However, the lower national cash price improves the chances of ARC-CO payments for soybean base acres depending on the final county yields.

Producers will also have a one-time chance to update their PLC Farm Yields starting with the 2020 crop. Even if a producer elects the ARC-CO or ARC-IC program option, the PLC yield can be updated and becomes the public record of the farm’s yield. Supporting evidence for the PLC Yield Update will likely come from a producer’s crop insurance records if a program crop was produced in the 2013 thru 2017 crop years. In some cases, the yields for a crop insurance unit might not match with the FSA farm number and will need to be averaged. Note the farmland owner on cash rent farms will need to approve this PLC Yield Update and sign the form CCC-867 unless a power of attorney form is on file.

Use the ISU Ag Decision Maker ARC/PLC Payment Estimator and PLC Yield Update Tools to provide your analysis. More Information on the 2018 Farm Bill, including web casts on various pieces of the program, can be found on the Ag Decision Maker Farm Bill page.

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Income Tax Changes for 2019

Charles Brown headshot

Contributed by Charles Brown, Extension Farm Management Field Specialist, crbrown@iastate.edu

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) was signed into law December 22, 2017. Among many changes, it created new tax brackets for 2018 thru 2025. It also eliminated the deduction for personal exemptions and raised the standard deduction in 2019 to $12,200 for single fliers, $24,400 for married filing jointly and $18,350 for head of households. Keep in mind that most of the changes in TCJA end in 2025 and move back to pre-2018 tax law.

Table 1. Tax Brackets and Rates, 2019

Section 179 Expense election was one of the changes that was made permanent. In 2019, this is now $1,020,000 and the phase-out starts at $2,550,000. On Iowa returns, the maximum amount is $100,000 and the phase-out starts at $400,000. In 2020, Iowa couples with the Federal amounts.

One of the other major changes in the TCJA was the repeal of like-kind exchange treatment for traded personal property. Under old law when a farmer traded machinery, the farmer depreciated the difference paid plus any remaining basis on the item traded in and no taxes were due. Under TCJA when a farmer trades machinery, the trade is considered a sale in the amount the dealer allowed for the trade-in, triggering ordinary taxable gain, and the farmer gets to depreciate the full purchase price of the machinery received. If the farmer does not want to pay tax on the gain of the trade-in, they are forced to use Section 179 or bonus depreciation to offset the taxable gain. Iowa did not couple with the Federal change in 2018, but maintained the old like-kind exchange rules. In 2019, for Iowa returns, farmers may use the old rule for like-kind exchanges or use the new Federal rule. In 2020, Iowa will couple with the Federal rule.

If farmers are forced to use Section 179 or bonus depreciation to offset gains from trading machinery, there can be other consequences. Excessive accelerated methods of depreciation reduce net Schedule F income, possibly taking it down to $0 or maybe even a negative situation. IRA and other retirement plan contributions are based on earned income (Schedule F). The deduction for self-employed health insurance is based on Schedule F net income. Contributions for self-employment tax are based on Schedule F net income. Reducing Schedule F income affects money available for retirement planning and other “above the line” deductions taken on the 1040. Also new in 2018 was the new “post card” 1040 Form that also had multiple schedules attached to it. After numerous complaints, there is another new 1040 Form for 2019. This one is a combination of the old 1040 and the 1040 from 2018. Maybe eventually they will get it right. I am not sure I can stand more simplification in our tax code.

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