From rodeo and hoe to helicopter and GPS, brothers farm into 21st CenturyFrom rodeo and hoe to helicopter and GPS, brothers farm into 21st Century
As they’ve done for the better part of seven decades, Roby and Billy Watson continue to battle pests, weeds and weather to earn a living from grain production.
May 20, 2014
Back when they were youngsters, Roby and Billy Watson worked all week on their father’s farm then took off on Saturday afternoon to compete in rodeos within driving distance of Leonard, Texas. They always made it home in time for church on Sunday mornings.
“We did calf roping and bulldogging,” Roby said from the relative comfort of a lawn chair in a barn situated just across the road from where he and his brother grew up. They were never particularly interested in riding bulls or bucking broncos.
The old homestead is now under cultivation—corn and wheat, both of which benefitted from an early May rainfall that had the Watson family farmers—Roby’s son James is part of the operation now—hopeful for decent yields.
The three talked about crop prospects, timely rain and some close calls with a late freeze or two on a windy, overcast, cool May afternoon that held promise for another soaking rain before dark. Roby and Billy also reminisced about their early days on the farm and remarked on the changes they’ve witnessed—from adding anhydrous ammonia to global positioning system agriculture.
They started early. Roby recalls wielding a hoe when he was about eight years old. He was born in 1936. Billy was born less than two years later, in 1938. “I know I was hoeing in 1942 or 1943,” Roby said.
He got out of school in 1954, served in the army for a time and came back to the farm, where he and Billy have worked together ever since.
“I don’t recall we ever disagreed on much,” Billy said.
They’ve worked in other occupations along with maintaining the farm. “We’ve done electrical work, “Billy said.
It’s a skill they picked up on the fly. They recall learning from a friend who worked for “the light company” as he was wiring a house on his own time. The brothers helped with that and leaned about wiring.
“He just showed us how,” Billy said. “It’s pretty simple.” They’ve reworked motors and done any electrical work that needed doing. They’ve gotten away from it in recent years.
“We might have been better off staying with wiring work,” Roby said.
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They also run a custom fertilizer business and take care to evaluate new products before they recommend them to customers. They see a lot of questionable claims about some products they’re asked to sell.
Lot of changes
They’ve come a long way from the farm they grew up on. “Daddy raised cotton on about 120 acres of land,” Roby said. “We quit cotton in 1965. It was selling for about 28 cents a pound.”
They also recall spraying sulfur on cotton to kill boll weevils, a pest that no longer threatens the little bit of cotton remaining in Northeast Texas.
Corn and wheat replaced cotton and they and James plant about 3,000 acres, typically in a fifty-fifty rotation.
“We’re getting back to that rotation this year,” Billy said. “We usually rotate fields every other year but we went to an all-wheat system when wheat prices went up and we had dry summers.”
“Corn rotation is an advantage,” say Texas AgriLife Extension integrated pest management specialist Jim Swart. Herbicide resistant ryegrass, an increasingly difficult control problem across Northeast Texas, is worse on mono-cropped wheat.
“All our wheat is planted behind corn this year,” Billy said. “We don’t have much trouble with resistant ryegrass.”
“We want to rotate every acre,” said James, who represents the fourth generation of the Watson family to farm this land. “We don’t have as much wheat this year as usual as we get back to corn.”
“Our corn is up and looks good,” Roby added. “We think planting slower is a big advantage in getting a good, uniform stand.” Nearby neighbor Ronnie Lumpkins planted the corn. “He said 4 miles per hour is ideal,” Roby said. “We do have a better stand.”
Wheat also looks good and they anticipate yields pushing 80 bushels per acre, if they get it harvested. “It all looks good but a lot can happen yet,” Billy said. He noted that they did take out hail insurance this year, just in case.
The early May rain was probably adequate to finish the wheat crop and assure the corn gets a good start. “I’d like to get the wheat out and then get a rain for the corn,” Billy said.
“We’ll probably start cutting wheat the first of June,” Roby said. “It would have to be early-planted wheat to be ready to cut before then.”
“Some has just started heading,” James added. Farmers in this area plant mostly soft red winter wheat.
They said freeze injury has been minimal.
It’s been a good growing season for wheat. “I planted everything just before Thanksgiving,” James said. “Soil was pretty wet when we planted it. The fields were beginning to get dry before that early May rain.”
“We were beginning to see a few small cracks in the soil,” Roby added.
Before that rain they figure the area was running about 8 inches short of normal rainfall. The deficit is now just about cut in half.
Not much disease pressure
The dry spring may have helped the wheat.
“We haven’t seen much disease pressure,” Swart said. “But just about everyone sprayed a fungicide.” The Watsons used a helicopter to apply fungicide on some of their acreage. “It did a good job,” Roby said, “and stayed close to the ground, almost as close as a ground rig.”
In the past, this area has been a hotbed for aflatoxin contamination on corn crops, typically exacerbated by hot, droughty summers. For the past few years, however, they’ve applied an atoxigenic strain of the fungus to “out compete” the toxic strain.
“We put Aflaguard on all our corn,” James said. “It’s a $20 per acre expense that needs to be part of our system.”
He said one of the first loads he hauled to the elevator last year came in right behind another farmer’s truck carrying corn that had not been treated with Aflaguard. “His load tested about 400 parts per billion,” James said. “Mine was zero to 1 ppb. That’s low.”
Roby recalls a situation several years back with a field they could not get the material on. “The elevator didn’t even want it,” he said.
Swart said almost every acre of corn in the area is treated with Aflaguard. The Watson’s apply some by air and some with a ground rig. “I prefer to do everything by air,” Roby said. “We get less stalk damage.”
They hope for good weather to make a corn crop this year. It takes more to break even that it used to. “We used to think 45 bushels per acre was a good corn crop,” Billy said. “If we hit 60, that was something. Now, 45 bushels won’t pay for the seed. We need at least 100 bushels per acre and corn price at about $5 a bushel.”
They have better tools to work with than when they started. They recall that their fathers began using anhydrous to improve nutrient management.
They remember running an F-40 tractor and being able to judge a farmer’s ability by how straight he laid out his rows. GPS does that now.
But the farming DNA remains intact. James is the fourth generation to farm this area, and Billy’s son Billy Michael, also works in agriculture, near Fort Worth where he manages a cattle operation.
As they’ve done for the better part of seven decades, Roby and Billy Watson continue to battle pests, weeds and weather to earn a living from grain production. And, as they did back in their youth, they are still willing to go the extra mile, maybe not to rope calves at a rodeo any longer, but they do everything they can to take advantage of an early May rain that offers at least the hope of a bountiful yield.
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