Driving down a bumpy, sometimes muddy, dirt track between two fields of newly planted or soon-to-be-planted peanut fields, Rickey Bearden stops at an irrigation system where one of his employees is working on an electrical panel.
He steps out of his pickup, lends a hand with the repair, offers instructions for the next chore, gets back into the truck and heads to a reservoir that’s used to collect water from several wells. From the reservoir, water is pumped to several pivots. A check of the reservoir level is a means of evaluating how well water is holding up in this West Texas region that’s accustomed to prolonged drought.
“All our water resources are weaker than they were a decade ago,” Bearden says. “The last five or six years, we’ve seen just how much it’s declined.”
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Water is the most critical aspect of growing peanuts in Yoakum County, Texas, he says. “The most important thing we have to remember is to not plant more than we have water to make. We have to be careful not to put more inputs into a crop than we can get back.”
He’s also committed to supplying the resources the crop needs to attain yield goals. “We often live in a no-man’s land,” he explains. “We have to make crucial decisions before we have all the facts.”
It’s a hard choice sometimes, he admits, to decide to make a crop “as cheaply as possible,” or to expect to make good yields. “Some years we get help from Mother Nature.” Some years he doesn’t.
Bearden’s fallback position is to strive for yield. He also pushes for the most efficient crop he can make. That philosophy — and consistent production — helped earn him the 2016 Farm Press Peanut Efficiency Award for the Southwest region. He will receive the award during the Southern Peanut Growers Conference in late July at the Sandestin Resort at Destin, Fla.
PEANUT ACREAGE UP
Bearden’s peanut acreage is up this year. Folks who know him may peg him as a cotton farmer when they see him at West Texas farm meetings, or read about his testimony before congressional committees, or are aware of his leadership in Plains Cotton Growers, the National Cotton Council, and other cotton organizations.
“Last year was the first time since I’ve been farming that I didn’t plant the first row of cotton,” he says. “I haven’t planted cotton this year either. We’re 20 cents below the old target price — and that’s a killer for cotton.”
He’s increased peanut acreage from 650 acres to 1,000 acres, and has added grain, mostly milo, but also some corn. “I picked up a little more irrigated land, so that helps with peanut,” he says. He’s aware that peanut supply/demand numbers suggest farmers should reduce acreage, but says the farm program favors peanuts.
“Someone in Washington asked how we could reduce peanut acreage. Fix the cotton program is how. But I just don’t know how to fix it.”
Peanuts offer challenges. Prices are not as high as producers would like. Bearden contracted the 2016 crop for $450 a ton, so achieving yield goal is important. Last year, he averaged 4,399 pounds per acre on Virginia peanuts and 4,290 pounds per acre for Spanish. Not a bad year but not his best. He plants half his acreage in each of those two market types.
“I have made close to 6,000 pounds per acre with Spanish peanuts,” he says. “With the improved varieties available now, I think we can do better.”
He started his peanut operation with Spanish varieties back in 2000. “That’s the only kind I could get at the time, and since the price was lower, not many people wanted to plant them. I’ve had good luck over the years with Spanish peanuts.”
His area has increased Spanish and Virginia acreage, with some Valencias. Runner acreage has declined.
He’s planting Schubert, Tamnut Ol06 Spanish varieties and Gregory, Suggs, Ole’, and Wynne Virginia peanuts.
Virginia peanuts are planted in single rows, but he plants Spanish in double rows. “Spanish varieties don’t bunch out as much as Virginias,” Bearden says. “I would plant Virginia peanuts in double rows, but digging would be difficult. We don’t get good windrows at harvest with double-row Spanish peanuts, but harvest has not been too difficult.” He makes two passes across fields to plant the double rows.
He also likes Spanish peanuts because of the lower incidence of disease infection. “We might get a little leaf spot late in the season with wet weather.”
Overall, disease pressure is not a critical issue. “We don’t get the disease problems that are prevalent in other areas. Our challenge is getting enough water — through irrigation or rainfall. And we can get bad weather in the fall; it can turn quickly.”
SOUND ROTATION CRUCIAL
A sound rotation program contributes to reduced disease infection. Bearden typically plants peanuts behind milo, but followed blackeyed peas on some acres last year.
“I usually have no less than three years between peanut crops,” he says. “I plant a quarter-circle, or a quarter of the pivot system (some systems don’t make complete circles.), and rotate to something else the following year.”
He plants mostly clean till, but this year has planted some peanuts into sorghum stubble. “I want to see how it works.”
He’s also testing adding liquid calcium at planting with the inoculant. “We want to see if it makes a difference. We tried it last year, and I think we saw improvements.”
Weed control starts with a preplant application of a yellow herbicide, Sonalan, followed with Valor after planting. “I apply the preplant yellow herbicide, water, then two or three days later, add Valor, and water again. We sometimes have to spray johnsongrass escapes.” Insect infestations are rare,” he says. “We had to spray for worms two or three years ago.”
Bearden doesn’t rush to plant peanuts, but wants to harvest around the first of October. “We never try to plant too early, but we were delayed about a week this year by rainfall. The delay may not hurt since it was cool that week. Harvest should be on time. Harvest season is busy — when the weather is right, we run as hard as we can.”
Planting, spraying, digging, and combining are all crucial from a timing standpoint. “Peanuts have a time value,” Bearden says. “It’s critical that we do things on time.”
His crop consultant, Justin Tuggle, helps make certain that happens. “I’ve relied on Justin for years,” Bearden says.
He credits Karen, his wife of 41 years, for supporting him through good times and bad. Their son, Tracy, is a partner in the farm operation and also works in real estate at Flower Mound, Texas. Their daughter, Kyley Martin, lives nearby with her husband, Greg, who also grows peanuts, and their two children, Riley, 7, and Kynlee, 4.
Bearden says he’s made 40 crops since he started farming. “I’ve been farming on my own since 1975. It’s been pretty good, mostly, although there have been some trying times. When the price was good, we made one good crop. Seems like we ate up all the equity before we got it built. We’re all trying to be efficient as we can.”