The upbeat news in agriculture in Montana is all about pulse crops (lentils and peas) with prices expected to rise and production increasing by 75 percent, while more traditional farm production has suffered price declines over the past couple of years. George Haynes of the Department Economics and Agricultural Economics and Extension Economics at MSU, called the emerging importance of pulse crops a "remarkable story," in speaking to the attendees of the Economic Outlook Seminar in Billings on Jan. 31.
The other big story going on in agriculture has to do with technology. Because of technological advances in machinery, equipment efficiency, biotechnology and in other areas, farmers are able to produce more with fewer workers, reported Haynes. The number of farmers in Montana, per 1000 population has declined from 23 in 1950 to only 7 farmers in 2010. If they were still using 1950s technologies, wheat acreage would have to increase by 100 percent and cattle prices would have to increase by 50 percent to meet current levels of wheat and beef demand.
In a sense, the introduction of pulse crops is also an innovation that helps to smooth out market downturns while also improving the quality of soil by reintroducing nitrogen. They have been steadily gaining a foothold in Montana agriculture, finally eclipsing one million acres of production in 2016. The acreage increased from 293,000 to 515,000 - a 75 percent increase - with total production up by more than 195 percent from last year.
Haynes predicted that prices for pea and lintels would increase in 2017. US beef production increased by nearly six percent in 2016 and it is expected to increase by over four percent in 2017, which will put more downward pressure on already low cattle prices. Helping out will be a five percent increase in exports of US beef, while imports decline by more than ten percent. Despite two years of depressed markets, declining land prices and lower profits, farm equity is expected to drop less than two percent this year, indicating that the average farm balance sheet remains very healthy with a debt to asset ratio of less than 15 percent, according to Haynes.
Because of the decline in the number of agricultural producers there have been declines in the number of people living in many of Montana's small more rural communities. Since 1960, the 12 rural counties in the Golden Triangle, Montana's most productive agricultural area, have lost more than 15 percent of their population. So while technologies bring benefits they have also had "substantial and complex impacts on Montana's rural communities," said Haynes. They also bring controversy. Genetically engineered (GE) seeds have been the most controversial. GE technology has been most important in Montana to crops such as alfalfa, corn for grain and sugar beets, in making them resistant to the herbicide Roundup. GE crops may have other attributes such as being more disease and drought resistance, or contain nutritionally important vitamins and minerals.
Other technological advancements include such things as GPS-based auto-steering for tractors, combines and swathers, swath0control technology for sprayers, all of which allows for more precise applications of seeds, fertilizers or chemicals, while reducing costs. The technologies also improve the quality of soil by reducing over-fertilization or chemical use. Monitoring capabilities have also been enhanced with the use of drones. Beef cattle producers have adopted antibiotics, implants, ionophores and beta-agonists to improve animal performance and well-being while improving profitability. Their use has increased productivity in the US beef herd by over 80 percent in the past 50 years. Computerized technologies have helped feedlot producers to more accurately determine the amount of feed consumer, antibiotics administers and rate of gain. Ear tags utilizing radio frequency technologies have also brought in efficiencies.