Matter of priorities: N.C. grower gives attention to little things

The way Wayland Spruill figures it, attention to the little things make a big difference — in his farming operation and in his life.

Whether he's riding in his pickup checking fields for problems, pod-blasting peanuts to determine when to dig, or helping his wife Lucy tend to their brand-new infant son, Wayland is learning it's the little things that count in a big way.

“All the little things you observe out riding around make a big difference,” Wayland says.

Paying attention to the little things that lead to profits has earned Wayland and his father, Hunter W. Spruill of Windsor, N.C., the 2001 Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award. The Spruills have a five-year average yield of 3,500 pounds per acre, mostly on dryland peanuts.

While driving by one of his fields, he spots standing water. He gets out of the truck, walks the waterlogged area and places flags to mark the spot. “This trench we're about to cut will improve the yield in this area,” he says.

The list of profit-enhancing measures he takes on the farm includes the use of strip-till, the use of Irrigator Pro, the use of disease advisories as well as treating each field separately and, above all else, staying in touch with Billy Griffin, Bertie County Extension agent.

Driving by a nearby conventionally planted field of peanuts, Wayland discretely points out the difference in tillage practices. Four inches of rain in less than a week in the heart of North Carolina's peanut belt, however, tend to be more blatant. Water is standing throughout the conventional fields and is visible from the road.

There is little to none in the strip-till field. “The cost per acre of strip-till is about the same (as conventional-tillage), but there are other benefits you can't put a figure on or you can't measure,” Wayland says.

Chief among those are savings of time, which is money in the field.

Wayland estimates it takes about two-thirds the amount of time to operate in a strip-till system as it does with conventional tillage.

“Six of us farm 2,000 acres. That would require eight to 10 workers if we were farming conventionally,” Wayland says. “We would be running three disks, two bedders, and two planters.” The Spruills have 400 acres of peanuts.

“The way I think of it is, we can spray 30 acres in an hour — so with two sprayers that's 550 acres a day,” Wayland figures as he's driving the backroads around Windsor.

Wayland acknowledges he's trading herbicide applications for tillage, but he says it's a matter of priorities.

“In February and March we work 35 hours a week when some other folks are spending up to 90 hours a week preparing their land for planting,” Wayland says.

Wayland and his father begin the process in the fall with one pass by stale seed bedding the cover crop on their peanut land. The $20 per acre cost of the bedding operation will make it easier for the two, four-row Ferguson diggers to dig more of the peanuts that matured on the vine at harvest.

Strip-tilled land also makes it easier for the peanuts to peg, even if it hasn't rained in a while, Wayland says. “The ground just doesn't crust over as easy.”

Before emergence, if rain is in the forecast, he'll spray Roundup at a rate of a pint and three quarters with Dual. If rain is not in the forecast after emergence, he sprays six ounces of Gramoxone Max and one and one third pints of Dual Magnum, along with a half a pint to a pint of Basagran. “If rain isn't in the forecast, we'll hold off on spraying Dual because we don't want to throw the Dual away,”Wayland says.

“Then we come back and scout the fields and see which herbicides need to go where” From then on, it's IPM management.

In the season, scouting gives the Spruills a tool to cut costs “by determining which fields have grass troubles and which fields don't.”

For example, last week Wayland scouted two fields in the same vicinity. One field had reached threshold and needed an application of Storm. In the other field, the weeds weren't at risk of getting out of hand. So Wayland waited a week on the second field in order to kill more weeds.

“Scouting is very important because you want to catch the weeds at threshold levels so you aren't throwing away chemicals,” Wayland says.

Morningglory, sicklepod and day flower are troublesome weeds for Spruill. “The rest of the weeds we can knock out pretty easily.”

On the disease front, Wayland faces Sclerotinia blight, web blotch, leafspot and Cylindracladium black rot.

At the same time he burns down the cover crop, he strip-tills the Vapam or Sectagon with a KMC strip-till rig at eight gallons per acre and 10 to 12 inches deep. “We don't use a fumigant on every acre where CBR is a problem — only where we have enough damage to justify the expense.”

Even before the fumigant is applied, however, Wayland has been thinking about which varieties he'll plant where.

In areas where CBR is hot, he'll plant NC 12C. “12s are much more resistant to CBR than (NC-V) 11s,” Wayland says. “We have different peanuts for different land.”

He is also growing the new Perry variety this season. Experts are touting this Virginia-type as an up and coming winner because of its moderate level of resistance to Sclerotinia and good resistance to CBR. Limited seed was available this season. It is expected to be more widely available in 2002.

For leafspot control, Wayland goes with a four- to five-block spray program with Folicur, ending with an application of Bravo.

“We pay attention to leafspot advisories,” he says. “Sometimes, when conditions are right, you can stretch it out 20 or 21 days versus 14 days. That's what's so nice about the leafspot advisory: You can decide when you can stretch the applications out and when you shouldn't.”

By stretching out the intervals between sprays, Wayland can save a spray on the end of the program. Should a wet late August and September be in the forecast, he can spray a fifth time for leafspot.

With two center pivot irrigation rigs on the farm, he uses it to its full potential.

For the past several years he has been testing Irrigator Pro, an irrigation program developed by the National Peanut Research Laboratory in Dawson, Ga.

The program makes recommendations based on a number of criteria, including variety, stage of growth, rainfall events and soil temperatures. The farmer plugs the various criteria into the program.

“It's really been wonderful knowing when and how much to irrigate,”Wayland says. “Billy Griffin (Bertie County, N.C. Extension agent) has helped us immensely with Irrigator Pro.

“He would just call and say, ‘Okay, you need seven-tenths of an inch, or you need an inch of water on your peanuts now, or you need to think about irrigating next week if you don't get any rain,’” Wayland recalls.

This season he purchased the Irrigator Pro software. The Peanut Foundation markets the software, which is distributed through state peanut farmer organizations.

“Irrigator Pro is a great program,” Wayland says. Irrigated yields consistently top two tons per acre.

But what he does at the end of the season is just as important as what he does while the peanuts are growing. No matter what time of the season, Wayland listens to his county agent.

For example, he brought his peanuts to a pod-blasting clinic last season and walked away a little wiser.

“We paid attention to the maturity profile of the board,” Wayland says.

“We were about a week behind other people digging, but we had the finest grading peanuts anywhere around. We were digging peanuts with a grade of 75 percent meat.”

e-mail: [email protected]

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