Winners of the 2005 Farm Press Peanut Profitability Awards achieved excellent yields and quality during the 2004 growing season, but they also maintained cost-efficient production systems, distinguishing themselves among their peers and earning the Peanut Profitability seal of approval.
Each of the winners represents one of the three major U.S. peanut production regions — the Southwest Region, the Southeast Region and the Virginia-Carolina Region. Farm Press established the awards program in cooperation with the Southern Peanut Growers Conference and the Southern Peanut Farmers Federation.
“Despite being ravaged by tropical storms in the Southeast, U.S. peanut producers achieved high production levels again in 2004, with many producing near-record yields and excellent quality,” says Greg Frey, publisher of the Farm Press Publications. “What separates our Peanut Profitability winners from the pack is that they recognize that maintaining production costs is as important as high yields in the profit equation.”
The 2005 honorees, says Frey, achieved high yields and grades while at the same time maximizing profits. “You can't have one without the other and remain in peanut production over the long haul,” he says.
Recognizing deserving growers, says Frey, is only one part of the Farm Press Peanut Profitability Program. “Education is an equally important component of this program, and Farm Press accomplishes this by publishing numerous articles throughout the year focusing on production efficiency in peanuts. Growers also will benefit from reading about the production practices of our award winners,” he says.
Good weather, proven production program Help Hockley County farmer earn award
It was a very good year for peanuts. Good planting moisture, ample rainfall, and moderate early-season temperatures, combined with a proven production program, put more than 5,500 pounds per acre in the hoppers for White Face Farms in 2004.
It also earned White Face Farms manager Rex Carr the 2005 Southwest Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award. Each year Farm Press Publications recognizes one grower from each of the three peanut production areas (Southwest, Southeast and Virginia-Carolina) for production efficiency.
Carr will receive the award at the annual Southern Peanut Growers Federation Conference July 19 in Panama City, Florida.
Carr says consistent rotation plays a key role in a 10-step production scheme on the Hockley County farm, near Levelland, Texas.
“Rotation is crucial,” he says. “When we first decided to grow peanuts we established a policy that we would stay on a four-year rotation.” He also plants wheat and cotton.
“Before we planted peanuts, we studied research that showed a four-year rotation to be critical,” he says. He made his first peanut crop in 1998 and 2004 was the first time he planted peanuts on land that had made peanuts before. “We will never plant peanuts on the same field two years in a row.”
Peanuts usually follow cotton; wheat follows peanuts.
Carr likes to break peanut land and says deep plowing helps start the year with a full soil moisture profile. “If I don’t have that, I’ll irrigate before planting.”
His third recommendation is to plant as early as possible. “I prefer to plant the last week in April or the first in May,” he says. “This year, we were too cold in late April so we had to wait a bit to get started. We had a nine to 10-day delay. Peanuts began to emerge in mid-May.”
Variety selection is Carr’s fourth key. He plants Spanish varieties primarily because of good prices and early-maturity.
“They come up quicker and I get them harvested earlier,” he says.
Early digging may save the crop from erratic weather patterns common in late summer and early fall in the Southern Plains.
“I treat Spanish varieties like I would a runner-type peanut,” Carr says. “I fertilize and water as I would runners. But I harvest as much as two weeks earlier. That means a lot on the plains where weather is unpredictable.”
He has not lost a crop to late-season weather.
He planted Tamspan 90 in the past but switched to a new Spanish-type, 9899-14, a Golden Peanut selection, this year. “I’m planting all my acreage in that variety, a high oleic peanut,” he says. “It’s a cross between a Spanish variety and a runner but is classified as a Spanish peanut.”
Carr says a number of White Face Farms tenants also planted 9899-14 this year. “It looks like a good fit for this area. It produces a good vine and makes a good root crop and a good limb crop.”
Carr says good fertility pays off on Spanish varieties. He begins with a base application of 20-50-20-20 (sulfur). “That’s the normal routine. I may side-dress twice with anhydrous ammonia. I used to add some calcium but no more. The base fertility program and the anhydrous do more than additional calcium would.”
Carr says weeds posed a bit more trouble last year than usual. “We have to keep weeds down,” he says. “And I’m not crazy about applying a herbicide over-the-top for anything other than johnsongrass.”
He starts with a pre-plant application of Prowl. “We’ll come over-the-top with Select if necessary,” he says. “We knife the fields a couple of times but make certain we’re done before pegging. I want to get the plant as big as possible as soon as possible so it will shade the ground.”
A good canopy helps prevent weed emergence and also creates a better environment for pegging, he says.
Cold steel also plays a role. “We’ll hoe peanuts three or four times a season, as often as we need to. A crew of five or six covers the acreage in three or four days. I’ve been fortunate to get the same crew most years so we have experienced hands.”
Water is always a limiting factor and efficient irrigation a necessity. Carr likes wobbler heads on his LEPA irrigation system. He also uses subsurface drip irrigation and side-row sprinkler systems.
“The wobblers, overall, do the best job,” he says. He limits side-row sprinkler use to what he can cover in a week. “Still, some of the best peanuts we’ve made were under side-row sprinklers.”
Carr may make 30 irrigation passes a season to water peanuts. Last year he measured 30 inches of rainfall on the peanut fields and added 18 inches through the systems.
“I’ve only had peanuts on drip irrigation for one year,” he says. “They did well and I couldn’t have picked a better year to use a drip system. We made 4,900 pounds per acre on a 20-acre field with only four gallons of water per acre.”
Ample rainfall last year allowed him to push moisture up to help germination. “Timely rain is a key to drip irrigation in peanuts,” he says. “A 3/10-inch rain will go a long way with a drip system. That little bit helps keep the ground moist until the vines grow together to create the peanut plant’s own little greenhouse.” Harvest timing also earns a spot on Carr’s top-ten practices list.
“I like to dig the first of October,” he says. The early maturity of Spanish varieties gives him a bit of an edge over runners most years and allows him to get peanuts off the ground before cold weather threatens. “We have a lot of money on the ground after digging,” he says. “I like to field dry the crop but if weather predictions indicate a frost coming in, I’ll combine them and dry them mechanically.”
Carr uses his own digger but hires a custom harvester to combine the crop. “I like to be first on the list for combining,” he says. “I may even sacrifice a few points on grade to get harvest going. I want to get them out when they are ready.”
He says his Spanish peanuts typically grade 75 to 76. “We pick up a few dollars for grades above 69.” Carr uses a liquid inoculant, Lift Optimize, to give peanut seed a better start. “It’s a key,” he says. “I put it straight into the furrow at planting time. That gives me better seed coverage and helps activate the inoculant. I also need to keep it wet so the seed will absorb the product. That usually means irrigation but it all depends on pre-plant conditions.”
He says coverage this year has been good because of ample soil moisture at planting time. Disease and insect control pose few problems for Carr, but he says pressure was higher than usual last year because of rainfall. “Even with higher pressure, I only had to spray one time for pod rot.” He typically uses Abound fungicide for pod rot and this year applied six ounces with the inoculant. “I think it paid off with this year’s cool start,” he says.
He relies on a crop consultant, James Powell of Powell Ag Consultants, for pest management recommendations. “We occasionally spray for worms but we use low rates of pyrethroids to take care of them. We’ve had to spray for insects only two or three times since we started growing peanuts.”
Carr says peanuts have been a good addition to the White Face Farms crop mix. “Last year was the best I can remember for peanuts and cotton,” he says.
He started in peanuts while the quota system was still intact. “We got in four or five crops with quota,” he says. “We bought some quota and leased some. When the program ended, we had benefited from several years of experience with peanuts.”
He says the 160 acres of peanuts he plants works well with the cotton acreage. “That acreage fits with our rotation system. Currently, the profit potential from peanuts looks a little better than it does for cotton and peanuts help our cotton production.” He handles marketing. “I like to be in control. I like knowing what I’m working for so we contract most of our acreage before we plant.”
In the past he’s been able to get a premium for Spanish peanuts. “This year, about $45 above the loan was the best we could find.”
He also grows a seed block and picks up about $25 per ton for seed peanuts. Carr says efficient production may be more difficult to achieve this year than it was in 2004. Fertilizer and energy prices jumped significantly over the winter. “Irrigation costs could double this year,” he says. “We may be looking at $5.50 per inch of water we apply. And we may have to make 25 to 30 circles to produce the crop.” Carr says a farm needs at least a four-gallon per acre water source to make a peanut crop under irrigation. “We can’t risk too many acres with limited water resources,” he says.
Carr credits a lot of the farm’s success to help from Golden Peanut Company. “Rusty Andrews has been a big help,” he says. “He played a big part in helping us get started. He’s never steered us wrong on when to plant, where to plant and how to market.”
He also credits Bill DeLoache, White Face Farms president of operations, for “allowing me to be progressive and take some risks. He (Bill) requires good records and he permits me to farm the land as if it were my own, and that’s how I treat it.”
Timeliness key to success for Peanut Profitability honorees
Timeliness and attention to detail can make all the difference in a smaller scale farming operation. A strict adherence to this philosophy is one of the reasons Fenn Farms of southeast Alabama has been chosen as the Southeast Region winner of the 2005 Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award.
“We have to pay attention to timeliness if we’re to get that extra yield and grade that’ll help keep us in business,” says Lee Fenn. Lee farms in Barbour County, Ala., with the full-time help of his son, Will, and the part-time help of his son, Jim, an Auburn University graduate who lives in Blakely, Ga., and works with Universal Blanchers LLC.
“We have to take a realistic snapshot of what our deep sandy soils can produce. Based on this assessment, we develop a detailed budget of all anticipated expenditures from fertility needs to drying costs before any land preparations begin.
“Together, the three of us monitor these very closely throughout the year, and we won’t vary from this budget unless we all agree that the added expenditure provides a payback,” says Jim.
“Daddy and I get tired of hearing Jim talking about not being a budget-buster, but our farm has definitely benefited from the three of us scrutinizing each expenditure,” adds Will. Fenn Farms grows about 100 acres of irrigated peanuts annually under their two center pivots. The other 100 irrigated acres that these pivots cover are managed under a bahiagrass/cattle rotation. They farm 185 dryland acres that are rotated between peanuts and cotton.
The dryland acreage helps to spread fixed costs while the irrigated peanuts are the “money makers,” says Lee. “We have 175 brood cows on our farm, and we’re moving towards having the entire operation in bahiagrass, cows, and peanuts — that’s our ultimate goal. Our current irrigated rotation is two years of bahiagrass followed by two years of peanuts.
“For many years, we have worked closely with the Wiregrass Experiment Station’s Dallas Hartzog and Ron Weeks doing on-farm research in these fields on every aspect of peanut production. We have learned many valuable lessons from Dallas and Ron, but the most important one has been the significance of a bahiagrass rotation. The University of Georgia Peanut Team’s John Baldwin and John Beasley have given us some good tips on how to quickly establish bahiagrass under our systems, which is important in terms of our cows,” he says.
Future plans call for adding another pivot that will cover an additional 100 acres, if the budgets allow, adds Jim, with a longer-term goal of having a rotation that includes four years of bahiagrass/cattle followed by two years of peanuts. “Right now, with the uncertainty of the upcoming farm bill, we have decided to go with a two-and-two rotation, as least until we get a better handle on this system. We first began this intensive management system back in 2002,” says Jim.
The move towards irrigation came from Jim’s experience in working with Universal. “At UB, our business is the custom processing of peanuts, so we work closely with the shelling and manufacturing segments of the industry. I saw firsthand how the industry was moving towards high-quality, irrigated peanuts with low foreign material. To stay in the business, I knew we had to have the ability to irrigate and produce a high yielding, high-quality peanut crop that would generate a large return per acre. Otherwise, we were out of business.
“Since we began irrigating, our grades have averaged 76 to 79 with 2-percent LSK and less than 1.5 foreign material. Quality is a priority because the increased dollars per ton add to the bottom line. I understand the importance of removing as much foreign material as possible at the farm level and how that helps create a safer, foreign material-free product for our consumers, which is a positive for the peanut industry as a whole.”
Jim credits one of his friends, Drew Collins of Edison, Ga., for providing a wealth of knowledge that helped them get started on the right foot in irrigated production.
“Drew stressed the importance of using Irrigator Pro to provide the right amount of water at the right time to maximize yield and grade. He also mentioned his success with Senninger’s i-Wobs and the importance of matching soil type and sprinkler package to maximize absorption and minimize runoff and compaction.”
“We took the information from Drew and worked with Auburn University’s Ted Tyson and the folks at Henry Farm Center to customize our irrigation pond and pivot setups,” he says.
Fenn Farms irrigates peanuts by closely following the recommendations of Irrigator Pro, a computer-scheduling program developed by the National Peanut Research Laboratory in Dawson, Ga. They give much of the credit for their 5,000 to 5,500 pounds-per-acre average yields to the combination of Irrigator Pro and i-Wobs.
“This sprinkler package is the next best thing to natural rainfall,” says Lee. “We have minimal compaction and runoff, and that’s important on our sandy soils. We also get a lot more absorption. It’s a very efficient package.”
The Fenns follow the University of Georgia Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus (TSWV) Index when planting, trying to plant as early in the “minimum point window” as possible. “We like to be as close to the front end of the planting window as possible because of nematodes in our sandier soils. We also use the full rate of Temik as a safeguard against nematodes,” says Will.
Like most other peanut producers in the Southeast, the Fenns are planting Georgia Green, but Jim says the next new variety needs to possess the traits desired by all segments of the industry.
“Each year, you see and hear of more impact from TSWV on Georgia Green. As you can see from our average yield and grade, it still performs well. However, each staple variety that we have had since Florunner has become more disease susceptible with each growing season. The success of the industry as a whole hinges on identifying a variety that the grower can successfully grow and obtain a maximum yield and grade, that the sheller can successfully shell and store, that the blancher can successfully remove the foreign material and the skin from, that the manufacturer can successfully process into an edible good, and that the consumer will purchase and consume on a repeat basis.”
The Fenns plant 100 percent of their peanuts in twin rows. All of the irrigated peanuts are in conventional-tillage. “We’ve had success with strip-tillage in dryland situations, but we understand that we must utilize conventional-tillage on the irrigated acreage because the cows create a great deal of soil compaction during their time on the winter grazing. Also, it would be impossible to create a well-prepared, level seedbed for optimum stand establishment. Prior to planting, we go in and deep turn the land with a bottom plow. We utilize the Auburn University Soil Testing Lab to monitor our pH and fertility levels. We field cultivate and then apply our lime and/or fertilizer. We plant after incorporating these soil amendments with another pass with the field cultivator. We try to minimize our trips across the field to keep down fuel costs,” says Will.
About 30 days after planting, they go back into the field with a treatment of Cadre, Ultra Blazer, and Bravo. “Ten to 14 days later, we’ll go back with 1.5 pints of Bravo. If it’s the first year out of bahiagrass, we’ll go with two treatments of Abound at 18 ounces. The second year out, we go with two treatments of Abound at 24 ounces. Abound is applied as the third and fifth spray or the third and sixth spray, depending on the weather. Limb rot has been a significant problem for us in the past, even behind three to four years of bahiagrass, and Abound has been a cornerstone of our soil-borne disease control program,” says Lee.
In addition to using Cadre and Ultra Blazer for weed control, the Fenns also use Prowl after planting. If they don’t receive rainfall within seven days of the treatment, they water it in with irrigation.
Controlling the three-cornered alfalfa hopper, a relatively new insect pest to peanuts, has been a major factor in the success of Fenn Farms. Lee credits Barbour County Extension Director Charlie Mason with helping them recognize the damage being done by the insect.
“Some growers, when they drive by and do a windshield check, might be mistaking damage from the three-cornered alfalfa hopper for TSWV. We treat them on an as-needed basis per Charlie’s recommendations. I would say we average treating about three or four times a year with Karate Z. It might look like TSWV from the truck, but upon closer inspection, you can see the girdling caused by the three-cornered alfalfa hopper,” says Lee.
Will also credits Charlie and his willingness to assist in testing their peanuts on the hull-scrape chart as a key to their success. “We start charting our peanuts at 110 days and continue this once a week until digging. With Irrigator Pro, the peanuts stay on schedule and a uniform taproot and limb crop are generally ready between 130 to 138 days. You don’t see the split crop that we sometimes experience in our dryland.”
The success of the 2004 crop will always be special for the Fenns. Lee was diagnosed with a compressed C4/C5 vertebrae in early May and basically lost use of his right arm due to nerve compression. With Jim and Will helping him into and out of the tractor, he planted the crop the last week of May and then underwent corrective surgery. Will ran the day-to-day farm operation with Jim providing technical/budget support. Lee was not able to get back onto a tractor until late August, but he regained his form and was able to dig the best crop of his career in early October.
As for the immediate future, Jim sees 2005 as a “survival year” for farmers. “If you can survive this year, you will have done an excellent job because so many things are out of our control. The government doesn’t need to take a loss on the peanut program this year, especially with farm bill negotiations coming up,” he says.
The price of peanuts, adds Lee, isn’t keeping pace with input costs. “With the price of fuel, fertilizer, and operating costs, the price of peanuts needs to go up. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of adding on a surcharge when we deliver to the buying point. We’ve been profitable under this farm bill to this point. Hopefully, the leaders within the industry, as well as our elected representatives in Washington, will negotiate the new farm bill that will keep peanuts profitable so we can put in that third pivot.”
By spending money on when necessary, upper Southeast winner saves money
Before diseases, insects or weeds set in, scouts are already in the field. Before peanuts are dried at harvest, they’re cleaned. Four- to five-year rotations with cotton are the norm here. Money is spent only when it’s justified. When an input is justified, however, there are no corners to be cut. Such is the philosophy of Robbie Umphlett, the Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award winner from the Virginia-Carolina region for 2005.
Back before peanut farmers took a huge cut in price from the dismantling of the federal program, the Gates, N.C., farmer had already started scouting religiously in order to justify expenses.
To the suggestion that growers have to trim expenses in order to survive, Umphlett replies, “Probably not…because you still have to maintain yield.
“I was in the field scouting 10 years ago,” Umphlett says. “We weren’t spending any money that we didn’t need to spend.” Today, Harrell Crop Consultants does the scouting. By the time they make a recommendation, Umphlett has already begun spraying.
While the four to six times sprays during the year may seem about in line with a spray schedule, he points out that the applications are timely because of the scouting.
“By scouting the fields on a regular basis, we’re able to see what’s going on in the field and make adjustments,” Umphlett says. “It just depends on the situation. Sometimes, we work on a two-week schedule and sometimes on a three-week schedule.”
It’s all about maintaining yield and it begins with rotation. On a four- to five-year schedule, Umphlett rotates his 375 acres of peanuts with cotton. He says cotton “cleans” the land for the peanuts. He sees similarities between the two complementary crops — both require a lot of management. Both rotational crops are planted on 38-inch rows.
While he doesn’t fertilize peanuts directly, Umphlett applies nutrients based on soil tests, plus a certain amount extra, to cotton, the crop previous to peanuts. The peanuts thrive off the residual fertilizer left from the cotton crop. The practice benefits both crops. Last year, Umphlett had exceptional cotton yields of 1,033 pounds of lint per acre. Even in normal years, he averages 800 pounds to 900 pounds of cotton lint per acre.
In peanuts, Umphlett has a five-year average yield of 4,250 pounds. About half of his crop is VA 98R; the other half is divided between Perry, Wilson and Gregory varieties.
He also uses Lift, Asset and Early Harvest on new peanut land. Because most of the crop is marketed as seed through Severn Peanut Company, Umphlett maintains good calcium levels in the soil. He applies 1,250 pounds of land plaster per acre. “Growing peanuts for seed isn’t that different than growing peanuts for the market,” he points out. “What you do for seed peanuts you should be doing for your other peanuts anyway. You just have to separate the peanuts you’re growing for seed from the others.”
Since the peanut program changed in 2002 and quota was bought out, Umphlett has seen changes in the landscape around his northeastern North Carolina home.
Peanut acreage shifted out of Virginia and northeastern North Carolina to points south. “I’ve got a lot of neighbors who didn’t plant peanuts this year because of a lack of contracts,” Umphlett says.
In addition to few contracts, prices have declined. Umphlett considers himself “fortunate” because “things have averaged out.” Under the free market, Umphlett has been able to plant larger blocks of land with peanuts. Before, the fields were much smaller. “If the price continues to go down, I don’t know where that will leave me,” he says. By knowing his cost of production, Umphlett keeps track of where he’ll have to draw the line on what it costs to produce peanuts. From a file, he pulls out the numbers from past seasons that guide his decisions. “It all depends on the year,” he notes, but cost of production ranges from $425 to $527 per acre, excluding land and equipment. Weather represents the differences from year to year.
“We don’t cut expenses just to be cutting expenses,” he says. “Yield is still the most important thing in peanut production. If you don’t have something to sell, you won’t have anything to cut.”
While focusing on the important things to bring in yield, Umphlett is quick to also give the details their share of attention.
You’ll notice that the peanuts are not planted fence row to fence row or road to ditch. There’s a reason for leaving the ground bare leading up to the ditches. “Most years, we suffer from too much water rather than too little water,” Umphlett says, noting the heavier soils near the Great Dismal Swamp. “Anywhere peanuts won’t dig good — like near the ditches — we don’t plant them.”
The areas where peanuts aren’t planted will be sown to soybeans. Umphlett also grows about 1,100 acres of soybeans. When it’s time to harvest peanuts, Umphlett uses an Amadas 9000 self-propelled peanut combine that he purchased several years ago. He has plans to add a peanut cleaner to the implement.
Before switching to the self-propelled combine, Umphlett used two pull-type combines, with peanut cleaners attached.
His operation served as on-farm research for Paul Blankenship, retired scientist at the National Peanut Research Lab, several years ago. The cylindrical cleaner removed dirt and foreign material before the peanuts went into the combine.
Umphlett now uses a stationary peanut cleaner, but has plans to outfit the self-propelled combine with a cleaner. “Using a peanut cleaner saves me about 25 percent to 30 percent on the cost of drying, since I dry my own peanuts,” Umphlett says. “I wouldn’t take anything for my cleaners.”
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