The Corn Belt Debate: Crops Or Cattle? Soaring prices for corn and soybeans are prompting some Midwestern farmers to consider turning pastureland into cropland. But with beef prices also rising, many are still betting on cattle.
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The Corn Belt Debate: Crops Or Cattle?

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The Corn Belt Debate: Crops Or Cattle?

The Corn Belt Debate: Crops Or Cattle?

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

But as Harvest Public Media's Clay Masters reports, it's a tough decision that depends on far more than this year's prices.

CLAY MASTERS: Ed Morse has land like that just outside of Council Bluffs, Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)

MASTERS: Wearing green coveralls and a tan hat, Morse stands outside his cattle barn watching his 17-year-old son Noah drive a feed wagon down a row of cattle. The cattle feast on corn and hay.

(SOUNDBITE OF A COW)

MASTERS: This 320-acre farm is going to see some land changes soon. But with record high corn prices, it's not the direction you'd expect it to go. Ed Morse is taking acres out of corn and soybean and putting it into pasture.

ED MORSE: With the cattle you're more on your own. You don't have those insurance policies on those cattle. You hope that you don't have problems with them, et cetera. And, you know, it's in some ways an act of faith because you've got to look out into the future a couple years and see that this will be a paying proposition, as well.

MASTERS: But that's an unusual decision, according to ag economist Darrell Mark with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

DARRELL MARK: It appears like, especially in key cornbelt states like Iowa and Illinois and, I think, eastern Nebraska, eastern South Dakota and parts of Minnesota are included in that, too, that we'd seen a reduction in the number of cow/calf operations, the number of cow/calf pairs in those states. And correspondingly, we're seeing an increase in the total number of acres being planted to row crops.

MASTERS: In central Missouri's Calloway County, farm owner Margot McMillen was offered three times the rent to convert some of her pasture land into row crops. But she turned down the offer. She says as a farmer, it's important to know what your long-term plans are for your operation and not make knee-jerk decisions based on what commodity is hot.

MARGOT MCMILLEN: It's almost like the gamble. You make the decision because of what your neighbors are doing, what you hear, you know, sort of the buzz. And you really can do better if you become independent and think on your terms, what's going to work for me.

MASTERS: The last three years have seen historically low cattle numbers. Combined with increasing worldwide demand, that's led to some of the highest cattle prices ever seen. Thirty-eight-year-old Sean McClatchey sees this as an opportunity. He grew up near the southwestern Nebraska town of Palisade but lives four hours to the east in Lincoln.

SEAN MCCLATCHEY: You got to grow it to make it work. You know, it's not like maybe it was 30, 40 years ago, where a farm the size of ours could support a family or two.

MASTERS: McClatchey's parents got rid of cattle when he was a boy. He now has 115 head and is slowly increasing his herd size. He's getting creative with his wheat crop this spring in order to save on input costs like feed and fuel. He'll graze on the wheat fields early in the growing season in a way that will still allow the wheat to be harvested.

MCCLATCHEY: You're getting essentially more than one harvest per year off that ground. You know, you can feed - you can graze cattle in the fall, if you get it drilled in time and get some moisture and get the weed up. And then in the spring, when it warms up, you can graze them for, I don't know, 30 days maybe.

MASTERS: For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters.

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