A baker’s dozen crop consultants gathered in a conference room on the last day of the annual Mid-South Farm and Gin Show to talk about challenges they and their cotton clients face in 2019.
It’s a big list. Mississippi consultant Tucker Miller’s inventory is extensive and includes: cost of production versus low prices, interest rates, production tool limitations (chemicals), insect threshold levels for Bt cotton, tarnished plant bug control, variety selection, weed management with herbicide resistance, dicamba and 2,4-D issues, regulations that may affect new chemistry, disease pressure, and weather (“which we can’t control”).
“We have a lot of issues for consultants and producers,” Miller said as the Memphis trade show wound down.
Some of those issues respond to basic management practices. “Variety selection,” Miller said, “makes a big difference. Trials show the difference between the top variety in a trial and the medium variety is as much a 100 pounds per acre.”
He said weed management issues have provided significant challenges with glyphosate resistant Palmer amaranth pigweed. “We have to manage new dicamba and 2,4-D technology, watching for off-target drift and volatility.”
Matt White, Tennessee, said drones offer consultants and producers new management tools, “especially with cotton. We see a big advantage with imagery over other applications.”
Drones may help detect crop problems with Normalized Vegetation Difference Index (NVDI) imagery.
“We’ve seen a good job picking up color differentiations,” said Grady Coburn, Louisiana. “It is very beneficial, and farmers are wiling to pay for it.”
Some drones, consultants said, cover more ground without a recharge, up to 200 acres.
Miller said drones help in checking for spider mites.
“Keep good records,” advised Wendell Minson, Missouri. “Photos could wind up in court.”
Tyler Hydrick, Arkansas, expressed concern that artificial intelligence (AI) applications “are coming so fast we can’t keep up with them. Something new comes along every day.”
He said drones offer opportunities to aid site-specific fertilizer applications. “We can plug information into a computer, and it tells us to apply a certain ratio to specific area.”
Hydrick said AI is more about business than about an individual farmer and wondered if producers get a return on their investment.
“They value experience,” Miller said. “They value someone who has been in the field for 20 years. That’s an advantage. We’ve seen it all and know what to do when we see something in the field. Computers puts out data but not a gut feeling.”
Sometimes, consultants said, that gut feeling prompts a quick reaction that saves yield.
Using data collected by GPS equipment also poses challenges or opportunities for consultants. Eric Bell, Tennessee, says some growers do not use available data.
“Other growers who make decisions based on data, get a good return from the investment.”
Time is issue
Southeast Missouri consultant Wendell Minson said a critical issue with farmers and data applications is time. “They have no time to analyze data,” he said.
Hydrick said the AI issue also creates problems with competition, companies that provide production products and offer consultant services for no fees.
“We get undercut,” he said.
Coburn said a possible solution is for each state to certify crop consultants and require a license to provide ag consultant services.
Louisiana has a certification program that requires significant training and testing to qualify for a license. He said the definition of an agriculture consultant in Louisiana is an important issue. “An agricultural consultant makes recommendations for a fee,” he said.
Abiding by that definition could eliminate or at least restrict no-fee service providers.
Minson said consultants should “be more proactive with folks in town about what we do and what we recommend.”
Hydrick said social media offers opportunities to communicate with the public. He also said a directory, Field Watch, helps limit off-target application. Farmers voluntarily register their fields on a computer platform. That program identifies what crop and what trait is planted in each registered field. Other producers and consultants can refer to the registry and avoid misapplication.
“Growers will know where an Xtend field is located,” he said.
Consultants are concerned about losing technology. “We have a limited number of effective herbicides,” said Hank Jones, Louisiana.
A recent Arkansas meeting on dicamba restrictions, one consultant noted, totaled 700 participants. “Most were not farmers,” said Jones. Most of the crowd were homeowners and environmental group advocates. More people outside agriculture are now involved in dicamba issues. Tree loss, they said, is a big catalyst for activity.
Technology adoption offers opportunities for crop consultants, said Minson. He mentioned a presentation he heard once that posed the question, “Where is the Tyrannosaurus Rex?” The answer, he said, is that it could not adapt and disappeared.
“Don’t be a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I will adapt to technology. We have to advance. We can’t just walk from one end of the field to the other. Famers want the technology.”
Clean up data
We have to clean up the data for them so it’s useful,” added Matt White, Tennessee.
“We will grow with the technology,” said Eddie Cates, Arkansas. “The best farmers want to use technology. They want us to use it to reduce risk. That will be one of the most important things we can do.”
He said risk management involves a lot of issues, including variety selection. “Identifying varieties that adapt to the field is important. We don’t want producers planting one variety across the farm.”
He said disease resistance or tolerance in varieties offers producers some insurance against loss.
Recommending rotation and crop mixes also offers crop consultants opportunities to limit clients’ risks. They also must know the fields and identify problems. “With bacterial blight, you can’t grow cotton,” Cates said. “Why would anyone plant a variety on a large acreage that’s susceptible to bacterial blight?”
Water management, he added, is becoming an increasingly important issue for Mid-South farmers. Variety selection, plant growth regulators and fertility management all affect moisture use.
Moisture monitors help producers manage irrigation and also schedule critical production practices—planting, spraying, and harvesting, for instance.
White said a demonstration from Precision King (Yazoo, Miss.) proves the value of moisture probes. On a side-by-side test, using a moisture probe to schedule irrigation saved 10 million gallons and eliminated three irrigation applications,” he said.
“I see more and more farmers using moisture probes,” Cates said.
They talked about fertility. “It’s the first thing they want to cut,” Cates said. “But they need to at least keep up with soil sampling and maintain the soil nutrient plan.”
Failing to do that, he said, will result in problems the next few years.
“This is why they hire us,” Cates added. “We provide risk management. They look to independent consultants to help with risk. They want experience; 10 to 15 years in the field is of great value.
“We’ve seen it all before. We know what to do when we see it again.”
The inaugural Midsouth Consultant Forum was hosted by the Southern Cotton Ginners Association and sponsored by the independent crop consultant e-newsletter Scouting Report.
“Crop consultants are on the cutting edge of technology,” said Tim Price, executive director, Southern Cotton Ginners Association. “You know what’s happening in the field. We hope you continue this forum every year.”