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Merced County corn growers enjoying bumper crop, increased prices

Local growers have jumped on the corn bandwagon that's led to the second-largest corn crop ever in both the county and the nation.

Locally, though, cotton has become a casualty.

In Merced County, all types of corn have seen acreage increases, according to Mark Smith, a biologist for the Merced County Agricultural Commissioner's office.

"We are looking at about a 10,000-acre increase in silage corn," Smith said. Add to that a doubling of grain corn plantings, and it's obvious that corn — and ethanol — have changed the way some farmers do business.

Across the nation, more than 87 million acres are devoted to growing corn this year, the second-largest crop ever, trailing only last year's record-breaking total of 93 million acres.

For the past few years, corn has become a popular crop because of its use in ethanol. But the ethanol industry has taken a hit this year because of all the corn being grown. Corn funneled to ethanol plants means less corn for livestock feed. That means higher prices for corn and all feedstuffs.

Most ethanol plants were built before the price of corn skyrocketed, and some plants have seen corn priced out of their range.

Chris Hurt, a professor of agricultural economics at Indiana's Purdue University, said that two years ago, corn was about $2 a bushel. This year, prices are above $7 a bushel in some parts of the country. Some ethanol plants across the country may close because they can't afford to buy the corn.

But for corn growers in Merced County, prices have been good. Because ethanol was a new market for the grain, a lot of growers abandoned other crops and focused on the sure bet of planting corn. "Everything corn has gone up," said Smith. "Silage is seeing a big jump (in price) because of the price of hay," he said.

Alfalfa hay, along with grain hays such as wheat and oat, has gone from about $160 a ton last year to more than $230 this year. Because of that spike, dairy farmers, whose cattle need the most high-powered feed, will probably turn more to silage for their cows this year, Smith said.

"These guys are caught between a rock and a hard place," he added. "Everything is expensive."

While cornfields are sprouting everywhere in the county, another commodity has withered.

"Our cotton acreage took a big dump this year," Smith said. Although cotton acreage has been dropping steadily over the past few years, between 2007 and now it saw the biggest drop of all. "We had 47,000 acres of cotton last year — now it's at 35,000," Smith said.

During the past two years, cotton acreage declined by 14,000 acres while corn acreage saw an increase of almost 12,000 acres.

Smith said the burgeoning price of feeds such as corn and hay all have one thing in common:

"It's all because of the cost of gas. We're seeing a snowball effect. It's crazy."

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com

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