It’s all about timing, with maybe a little about flexibility or adopting new technology, and perhaps variety selection — but marketing also plays a role in producing an efficient peanut crop.
Making target yield goals for peanuts doesn’t come in a one-size-fits-all package, as some of the best producers in the business will tell you.
The three 2016 Farm Press Peanut Efficiency Award winners, honored at the annual awards breakfast of the Southern Peanut Growers Conference at Destin, Fla., may tackle the challenge from different perspectives, but in a question-and-answer session following the awards presentation, they revealed common approaches for making the best yields possible without pinching too many pennies, sacrificing tonnage, or spending too much on inputs.
Their farms are significantly different. Rickey Bearden, Southwest winner, farms 1,000 acres of Spanish and Virginia peanuts on an operation encompassing 11,000 acres. Water is his primary challenge, and every acre is irrigated. Mike and Cindy Belch and their son, Brandon, grow only dryland peanuts in the northeast corner of North Carolina. Mike is a first generation farmer. Matt Bryan and his wife, Tonya, operate Faith Farms in Baker County, Ga.; he traces his family farm heritage back at least six generations, to the 1850s. All his peanuts, except a few pivot corners, are irrigated.
The Q&A session, a highlight of the awards breakfast, revealed some interesting common practices and production philosophies, as well as some significant differences in the three operations.
Q — Bob Kemerait, professor of plant pathology University of Georgia: “How does risk management factor into the equation of production efficiency?’
A — Rickey Bearden: “We manage risk according to the economic climate each year. Each season is different. We also look at available underground moisture at the beginning of each planting season. Water is our most limiting factor in the Texas High Plains. But we have to be comfortable with a certain amount of risk. Some years we can cut back on inputs, and some years we can’t, and very seldom do we do the same thing two years in a row.”
Brandon Belch: “I agree that no two years will be the same, no two farmers will be the same. But if we take something away from production, it will likely be detrimental. The more we put into a crop, the more we get out of it. Sometimes it’s hard to find a balance, though, between efficiency and yield goals, because the economy changes from year to year.”
Matt Bryan: “No two years are ever the same, and we see different challenges every year. I know what works, and I stay with those practices. Keeping yield up is the main thing. But we save on inputs where we can.”
Marshall Lamb, panel moderator and research leader at the USDA National Peanut Lab in Dawson, Ga.: “Research from our Land Grant Universities and USDA provides growers some important information and tools to help them manage risks and reduce uncertainty.”
Q — Bob Kemerait: “How do you put that research to work?”
A — Matt Bryan: “We switched to twin-row peanuts in 2000, and we stay on the high side of the seeding rate. I think we see a yield advantage with the extra seed. But we walk a fine line; lower seeding rates might work one year, but not the next. Longer rotation also helps; we want at least a four-year rotation with peanuts.”
Brandon Belch: “A long rotation definitely helps, and it reduces risk. High seeding rate is also an advantage, but better genetics also plays a role with reduced disease susceptibility. Research will play an even bigger role in the future.”
Rickey Bearden: “We’re on the high end of seeding rates, too. We plant double rows with Spanish, but not Virginias. Virginias are just too hard to harvest. The help we get from Extension is valuable; that’s the only way we get the information we need. Although a lot of the research in the Southeast doesn’t apply to the Southwest, and vice versa, with scientists talking to each other, we may all get the information we are looking for.”
Q — John Harrell, Georgia Peanut Commission and former chairman of the National Peanut Board, to Rickey Bearden: “Would you discus the Lee Spider spray rigs Texas peanut farmers use to spot spray for pigweed in peanuts and cotton? What about the cost?”
A — Rickey Bearden: “A new sprayer costs about $30,000, and several different ones are available. The rigs aren’t new; they’ve been around since before Roundup Ready crops. We have several in the barn that we can bring out. We load them with the appropriate herbicide and go across the fields and spray only where the weeds are.
“It’s a way to get across our fields quickly, it saves chemical and money, and it’s efficient. In the Southwest we have got to the point if we see an escaped weed, we assume it’s resistant. I don’t have any scientific data to support it, but I now think resistance is the dominant gene in pigweed. I think that’s why it spreads so fast.”
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Q — Audience member: “Can each of you explain how you manage timing of fungicide applications?”
A — Matt Bryan: “We band a herbicide, then add Provost, and then Bravo and Folicur at the end. We try to stay on a 14-day schedule, but will narrow that to 10 days if we have a lot of rain and heavy disease pressure.”
Brandon Belch: “It depends on rainfall. We use pretty much the same products as everyone else; we don’t have that many available. We push intervals out as far as we can, but rainfall will close it up.”
Rickey Bearden: “Don’t get mad at me, but in West Texas we just scout and spray as needed. We are fortunate that we don’t have to fight that battle constantly. But we have costs in other areas.”
Q — Joe Boddiford, vice chairman of Georgia Peanut Commission: “A question for Mike Belch: How did you manage to become a first-generation farmer? That’s unusual, these days.”
Mike Belch: “I grew up with neighbors who were farming, and at about 10 years old I got really interested in their farm equipment. When I got older, I was hired to do farm work. I went to community college and then got a few acres of my own and some equipment, and just grew from there.”
Q — Bob Parker, President and CEO, National Peanut Board: “How do millennials affect how you use technology?”
A — Rickey Bearden: “I’m a little slow to adopt technology; I still have a Big Chief tablet and a pencil on the dashboard of my pickup. But I’m beginning to use more technology. My son-in-law, Greg Martin, has an app on his cell phone that allows him to access and control all his irrigation pivots. We are adapting to technology, but we also have to consider how to use technology to market our products to consumers.”
Brandon Belch: “I often get asked by folks I meet: ‘Why do you farm?’ I am always glad to answer. I take a lot of pride in what I do, and I think we have to tell our story. I take photos in the field and I show them what a modern farm is like. I post photos on social media.
“Today, folks picture us as the old stereotypical subsistence farmer, or they think farming is all shiny, new equipment, and that we are misusing pesticides and water. The truth is, we are probably the most efficient users of water and inputs. We don’t give millennials enough information — we need to tell our story to as many people as we can.”
Matt Bryan: “I live with millennials. They think my cell phone is a dinosaur. But I agree that we need to use technology to inform consumers about what we do. Millennials, particularly, are of a different mindset.”
Q — Tyron Spearman, National Peanut Buying Points: “Where do you get marketing information?”
A: Brandon Belch: “We look at newsletters, email, and cellphones.”
Matt Bryan: “We use APG — they do a good job of marketing peanuts, so we keep up through them.”
Rickey Bearden: “In the current economic climate, the price for peanuts is never enough, and we often have to be willing to take less. In the Southwest, about 95 percent of the crop is contracted before planting.”
Q — Mark Abney, University of Georgia Extension peanut entomologist: “How do you like to receive information from the Extension service?”
A — Matt Bryan: “We have a close relationship with our county Extension agent; we stay in touch, and we also use e-mail, texts, and phone calls.”
Brandon Belch: “I still like to write things down, so I like to get newsletters, texts, and e-mails. I like to have a paper copy. We have a good relationship with our Extension agent. Grower meetings and facetime are also important, but we realize that money is a big problem and that Extension doesn’t have the budget to do all they want to get messages to growers.”
Rickey Bearden: “A one-on-one relationship is important, but I like to get information from text or e-mails.”
Marshall Lamb: “You’ve touched on a critical problem. Extension agents are hired to serve agriculture and natural resources, but today, they are critically overburdened with responsibilities that have nothing to do with agriculture and natural resources. That limits how they can communicate with producers.”
Ed White, an Alabama peanut producer and former chairman of the National Peanut Board, presided over the awards breakfast. NPB, along with Farm Press, co-sponsors the annual awards event.
“The National Peanut Board is happy to be part of this recognition of outstanding growers from the Southeast and the Southwest,” White said. “We thank Farm Press for what they do, and for their contributions to agriculture for a long time.”
Forrest Laws, Farm Press director of content, complimented the award winners for “an outstanding job,” and praised their commitment to agriculture and especially to the peanut industry. He thanked Lamb for his oversight of the program, and noted that award sponsors make the program possible.
Sponsors for 2016 include Agri-AFC, AMVAC Chemical Company, Arysta LifeScience, DuPont Crop Protection, Helena Chemical Company, Golden Peanut Company, National Peanut Board, Verdesian Life Sciences, Southeast Farm Press, Delta Farm Press, and Southwest Farm Press.