Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Big swings and shock absorbers

Two years ago when we started this blog, the Midwest was going through a major drought and ended up eaking out just above 123 bushels per acre (bu/ac) in corn yield. Today the USDA released its latest projection for 2014, with a forecast for record corn yields of 167.4 bu/ac, due to really good weather (as Wolfram summarized in the last post.)

The difference of 44 bu/ac between two years this close apart is bigger than anything experienced in the history of US agriculture. The closest thing was in 1994, when yields were 139 bu/ac after just 101 in the flood year of 1993. When expressed as a percentage swing, to account for the fact that yields overall have been going up, the swing from 2012 to 2014 (36%) is near historic highs but still less than some of the swings seen in the 1980’s and early 1990’s (see figure below).

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about what contributes to big swings in production, and why it shouldn’t be surprising to see them increase over time. Partly it’s because really bad years like 2012 become more likely as warming occurs, and partly it’s because farmers are getting even better at producing high yields in good conditions. Sometimes I think of good weather like a hanging curveball – a decent hitter will probably manage a hit, but a really good hitter will probably hit a home run. So the difference between good and bad weather grows as farmers get better at hitting the easy pitches.

Moving on from bad analogies, the point of this post is to describe some of the changes we might see as the world comes to grips with more volatile production. What kind of shock absorbers will farmers and markets seek out? Four come to mind, though I can’t be sure which if any will actually turn out to be right. First, and most obvious, is that all forms of grain storage will increase. There are some interesting reports of new ways farmers are doing this on-site with enormous, cheap plastic bags. We have a working paper coming out soon (hopefully) on accounting for these storage responses in projections of price impacts.

Second will be new varieties that help reduce the sensitivity to drought. Mark Cooper and his team at Pioneer have some really interesting new papers here and here on their new Aquamax seeds, describing the approach behind them and how they perform across a range of conditions.

A third response is more irrigation in areas where it hasn’t been very common. I haven’t seen any great data on recent irrigation for grain crops throughout the Corn Belt, but I’ve heard some anecdotes that suggest it is becoming a fairly widespread insurance strategy to boost yields in dry years.

The fourth is a bit more speculative, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see new approaches to reducing soil evaporation, including cheap plastic mulches. There are some interesting new papers here and here testing this in China showing yield gains of 50% or more in dry years. Even in the Midwest, where farmers practice no-till and crops cover the ground fairly quickly, as much as a third of the water in the soil is commonly lost to evaporation rather than via plant uptake. That represents a big opportunity cost, and if the price of grain is high enough, and the cost of mulch is low enough, it’s possible that it will take hold as a way of raising yields in drier years. So between storage and mulching, maybe “plastics” is still the future.

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