Corn Prices and Falling Cattle Numbers

I’m a devotee of Market to Market, Iowa Public Television’s farm program. Because Idaho PTV broadcasts it at the ungodly hour of 6:30 a.m. on Saturdays, I seldom see it on TV, but I can catch it on the internet anytime, and even see episodes I’ve missed.  To get in the spirit of the thing, I suppose that by 6:30 I should already have been up and out to check the sheep, or something. Oh, wait, I used to do that during lambing season — and at  midnight, at 2, at 4….it was enough already.  And my in-laws in Illinois, who actually do grow corn, are on the Redneck Riviera this time of year, so they’re not sitting at their kitchen table in their John Deere caps at that hour of the morning, either.

My favorite part of the program is the last segment, where one of several rotating commodities experts pontificate on whether it’s time to sell that big pile of corn that we all have in our backyard silos — fraught with tension, these discussions.  Will prices rise or fall?  Time to buy some puts?  Fun, especially if you have no money invested yourself.  My favorite gurus are Virgil Robinson, Sue Martin, and Tomm Pfitzenmaier.  I love Virgil because he predicted the big run-up in grain prices back in 2008.  I like Sue because I can imagine being her, if I’d been born with better career sense.  Virgil always thinks prices are rising, and Sue always thinks prices are about to fall, so if you alternated acting on their advice, you’d probably break even.   Tomm Pfitzenmaier — well, I just like his name.

So what are these experts saying?   I’ll paraphrase the last few episodes.  Cotton first: where prices have been screaming higher and higher for months and are now over $1.60 a pound.  This after years and years, decades really, of prices between 40 and 60 cents a pound, prices that effectively held down other fibers, like wool. Some of this was due to the subsidies paid to American agribusiness to grow cotton, one of the most soil-draining, pesticide-intensive crops ever.  And it’s not like we actually even make anything from our cotton anymore: we apparently ship almost all of it to mills in Asia.  But the subsidies caused overproduction which in turn bankrupted poor cotton farmers in Africa.

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Greater Yellowstone Bison show signs of inbreeding.

Government slaughter could irreparably harm bison species.

Buffalo on Horse Butte © Ken Cole

Recently I referenced unpublished data indicating that bison suffer from compromised mitochondrial DNA which could be exacerbated by government slaughter without any examination as to how it will affect the already genetically compromised herd.  That information has now been released.

Historically, bison have gone through what is known as a bottleneck where the population declined to such a low number that their genetic diversity became severely limited. The Yellowstone herd of bison is derived of only about 50 individuals, half of which were brought in from other areas such as northwest Montana and Texas. In recent years, while conducting repeated culling – where greater than half of the Yellowstone herd could be killed either by slaughter or winter kill – government managers never studied how their actions affected the genetics of the bison. For example, prior to the winter of 2007/2008 the population was estimated to be 5,500. That winter 1,631 buffalo were killed by the government and hunting but an additional 1,500 died from starvation due to the harsh winter that they were unable to escape because their habitat has been so curtailed by the policy of Montana and its greedy livestock industry. This left only 2,300 bison, or less than half of the bison herd, the following spring and possibly irreparably harmed the remaining genetic diversity of the herd. Read the rest of this entry »