Mississippi Ag Industry in an Energy Crisis

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2/5/2001 Mississippi Ag Industry in an Energy Crisis by Kristin Danley-Greiner

Mississippi ag officials are admitting that the state’s ag industry is in the midst of an energy crisis, which is impacting the poultry and greenhouse sectors the most. However, no ag sector is safe from the rising costs that are cutting into already slim profits, they warn. "Farmers are already being squeezed by high production costs and low commodity prices. This situation will be devastating to many producers' profits," said Michael Ouart, state program leader for Agriculture and Natural Resources at Mississippi State University's Extension Service. "They must have up-to-date information on how to become more efficient and stay competitive."

One ag industry that utilizes massive amounts of heat is the greenhouse industry. This winter, producers across the state saw heating bills triple. David Tatum, Extension horticulture specialist, said producers who paid as much as $15,000 a month last winter saw bills of $40,000 from December. January bills may top $65,000 to $75,000.

"Growers have to do everything they can to stretch energy resources during difficult times of low temperatures and high fuel prices," Tatum said.

One of the most important things a greenhouse operator can do is cover the structure properly. Single-layer glass loses almost twice as much heat as a double layer of polyethylene film. Simply adding a layer of this film over single-layer glass cuts heat losses by almost 25 percent.

Use as little greenhouse space as possible, and group plants with similar temperature tolerances together when possible. This allows some greenhouses to be kept cooler than others.

Heating Poultry Houses a Problem Tom Smith, Extension poultry specialist, said high costs of propane and natural gas used to heat poultry houses have been a significant problem for growers this winter.

"The cost of propane gas has more than doubled in the last few months," Smith said. "Growers' chicken profits are greatly reduced because of the increased cost of propane gas, and they cannot continue to pay these fuel costs and still raise chickens."

Many Mississippi growers want to avoid lower profits by not accepting new chicks into their houses. Smith said that while farmers can't do anything about low chicken prices, they can save some money in their production by being more energy efficient.

"Farmers need to reduce the amount of energy consumed, yet do it in such a way that it does not hurt their productivity," Smith said. "Seal air leaks around the house, replace damaged or missing insulation and don't over-ventilate, which allows heat loss through wasted air circulation."

Crop Farmers Face High Costs Another high-energy cost to farmers comes from nitrogen-based fertilizer. Larry Oldham, Extension soil specialist, said natural gas is combined with air to produce anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer and common fertilizer component.

"Seventy-five to 90 percent of the cost of producing fertilizer is the cost of the natural gas," Oldham said. "Because of increasing natural gas prices in the last 12 months, nitrogen fertilizer which before cost $14 an acre for cotton may now costs $28."

Oldham said that despite the high price, the most pressing issue facing farmers is getting enough nitrogen for their crop needs. Nitrogen production has been seriously cut back in the past several months because of the energy situation, he said.

To save money, Oldham suggested farmers calculate application rates closely and calibrate equipment so only the correct amount is applied. Follow a balanced fertility program, and apply fertilizer for row crops under the soil surface. Time applications to just before the crop needs the nutrients.

Malcolm Broome, Extension forage specialist, said clovers fix nitrogen in the soil from the atmosphere, and are great ways to increase nitrogen levels at little cost, especially in pastures.

"We do many things out of habit, but because of extremely high energy costs, farmers are going to have to rethink everything they do that involves fuel to make sure it is absolutely necessary," Broome said. "Plant as many acres as possible using no-tillage because that reduces the number of trips across the field," Broome said. "The extra chemical cost will be a savings compared to the cost of the diesel needed for the extra trips across the field under conventional tillage."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), February 06, 2001

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