In difficult times: Diversification offers farm options

Bob Beakley's North Central Texas farm operation is as flexible as a well-oiled slinky.

The diversified farm he runs with his son, Steve, near Ennis, Texas, gives him options he wouldn't have with just a two-crop or even a three-enterprise rotation.

They raise cotton, corn, wheat, soybeans and sometimes milo. They also maintain a cattle herd.

Diversity may pay off more than usual this year as the Beakleys prepare for an uncertain spring planting season in which rainfall is iffy, commodity prices remain low and high production costs persist.

“We will stay as flexible as possible for as long as possible,” Beakley says.

He plans no wholesale changes, even with a cost/price challenge.

“After visiting with my insurance advisers I've found that some crops take quite a bit more to put in than others, but (with higher input crops) insurance coverage is still better. The bottom line remains pretty close on all crops except for milo.

“We've pretty much decided to stay with our normal rotation but we will wait until the last minute to make final decisions on variety selection, planting rates, fertility and herbicide use. Rainfall between now and planting time also may dictate decisions.”

He's concerned about moisture. The Beakleys do not irrigate and rainfall has been sparse since last summer.

“At corn planting time, usually beginning at the end of February, if we have no moisture, we'll hold off and maybe plant milo later in the season,” he says. “The first week in February, a good portion of Central and East Texas got some rain, so we do have soil moisture but nothing like a full profile. We need one more good shower to plant corn.”

He's already applied some herbicide, which affects crop selection on those acres.

He's looking at tillage and has been eliminating trips across fields for several years. “I have a small amount of no-till wheat following a corn crop that shows excellent results so far,” he says. “I'll probably increase acreage in no-till wheat next year. I'm moving slowly into less and less tillage with high diesel prices.”

He says proper planting equipment makes a critical difference in reduced tillage systems. “I don't have all the equipment I need but I can get custom planting. I did that with the wheat,” he says.

He's cut cultivation trips with other row crops as well. “In corn, I normally plant behind cotton. I disk once, run the field cultivator once, harrow and plant. But that varies from year to year. This year we've had no winter rain so we have fewer weeds so we need less tillage and less herbicide. That may change with a wet year.”

Cotton usually follows wheat or soybeans. He needs little tillage behind soybeans. “I can plant no-till easily. Behind wheat, tillage depends on conditions at harvest. If the ground was wet and combines left ruts, we need tillage to smooth it out. We also may run a field cultivator and spray herbicides. It all depends on the amount of moisture we get in the winter.”

He likes to follow soybeans with wheat to take advantage of fertilizer left by the beans. “I get an immediate response.

“I have no definite system for soybean rotation,” he says. But he doesn't like to plant any crops back-to-back. “Rotation also depends on the land. If I have root rot infestations, I may not grow cotton in that field for three or four years and I may go two years with corn or wheat. I have some bottomland that produces good soybeans, so I've plant beans there for the last three or four years and they seem to do well.”

He says Asian soybean rust does not affect his planting decisions yet but he's concerned about the potential for damage. He hopes sentinel plots and reports from neighboring states will give him ample time to prepare.

He says forward pricing fuel and diesel to lock in prices offers little help. “Prices are too high to justify forward contracting,” he says. “It's the same with commodities except prices are too low to lock in. When they get to break-even or show a little profit, we'll start.”

He says on-farm storage has been a valuable marketing tool. “We store almost all the soybeans and grain we grow,” he says. “And we're building more storage.”

He says storage adds to the operation's flexibility. “Usually we like to price grain just before harvest. We can contract it, store it on the farm and move it after harvest. Or we can hold some until prices improve.”

He says on-farm storage also eliminates a lot of stress at harvest time. “We can handle the crops quickly if we don't have to worry about moving them to a commercial elevator. I also maintain more quality control.”

He sells all his grain himself and believes that by maintaining control of it in his facilities he can ensure buyers get what they want.

Growing registered seed is part of his market strategy. “We grow for AgriPro and sell certified planting seed. That works well for us.”

Beakley looks forward to the 2006 cotton crop, the first full season under a newly initiated Boll Weevil Eradication Program. “I expect, with normal rainfall, we will make better yields and better quality,” he says. “Without rain, we wouldn't make anything anyway.”

He also expects some first-year glitches with early destruction of beneficial insects. “Planting 95 percent Bt cotton will help,” he said. “We use Bollgard anyway.”

He plans to use some Bollgard II this year and some Roundup Flex. “I have not used either of those enough yet to be comfortable with them,” he says. “But our stacked gene cotton yields better than anything else we grow. We get better yield and quality and we spray less.”

The Beakley cattle enterprise also plays an important role in the diversified operation. They have been fortunate this year to have adequate feedstuff for their cattle. “We bought cotton burrs from the gin last fall,” Beakley says. “We hauled that to our cattle for two months. We also fed cattle some cheap grain we had in storage and saved our hay. We still have plenty of hay.”

He still has grain in storage for sale and feeding some helped carry his cattle through winter.

“Being diversified has all kinds of advantages,” he says.

In fact, if he does not get adequate rainfall to plant corn he says he could wait until April and plant “7,000 acres of cotton. I wouldn't do that, but I could.”

He says if he does have to delay planting that long he would plant cotton and grain sorghum.

“I have a combine so costs for that machine go on whether I have a grain crop or not. I need to plant some grain.”

He also says that with nothing but cotton harvest time stress would be intense.

“But more than the weather, I'm concerned about rising production costs and no outlook for better prices. And we are very uncertain about how the government program will turn out. But I believe it will be something we can live with.”

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