It's all about the water. Producing peanuts profitably in the Texas Southern Plains demands efficient water management, says Otis Johnson, Seminole, Texas, peanut and cotton farmer and winner of the 2008 Southwest Peanut Profitability Award.
“Irrigation efficiency is the key,” Johnson says. “We are selling water and we're selling it cheap, so we have to pump it carefully.”
Johnson says several other practices also factor into production efficiency including strip-till on cotton and peanuts, a strict four-year rotation program and global positioning system technology to get the most out of fertilizers and to reduce overlaps and harvest losses.
Johnson averaged 6,600 pounds per acre on 523 acres last year and made 7,710 pounds per acre on one 60-acre field.
“I had a 120-acre circle with half planted in Virginia peanuts and half planted in runners,” Johnson says. “The Virginias (NC-7s) made 6,800 pounds and the runners (FlavoRunner 458) made 7,710. I didn't do anything different in that field but I had a lot of timely rains.”
He was a bit surprised, nonetheless. “I typically plant a lot of peanuts on new ground, fields coming out of CRP. But this field had been farmed continuously since the 1930s. It was an exceptional year.”
He says the crop got off to a slow start and was delayed 10 days to two weeks by cool weather. “Temperatures warmed up nicely and we got timely rains and little disease pressure. And we got a three-inch rain in August that finished the crop.”
Those rains helped with irrigation timing and costs last summer. “Most years we use full irrigation; once we turn the systems on we don't turn them off. But we had rain last year and were able to rest the pivots.”
He's also saving water with efficient irrigation. “I use LEPA and some wobblers,” he says. “I don't use drag hoses and don't have furrow dikes.”
He says the dikes are hard to maintain with strip-till. “With minimum-tillage, water doesn't run out of the fields as it does in conventional systems.”
He says if water levels keep dropping he may have to reconsider irrigation practices.
“Last year we had good rainfall and levels didn't drop, but we used a lot of water in 2001 and 2002.”
He's considered drip irrigation. “I've thought about it but I'm not certain how to make drip work when we need to break the land. We also have sandy soils, so we can get a two-inch rain and be back in the field the next day.”
He says strip-till helps conserve moisture but also requires a bit more water for the cover crop. He plants peanuts in strips between four rows of rye. He terminates the rye and the stubble helps protect peanut seedlings from blowing sand that's common in west Texas. The rye stubble deteriorates rapidly and adds organic matter to the soil.
He says establishing cover may mean using 3 to 5 more inches of irrigation water, but the moisture that falls on the field in-season stays put better. “If we get a 3-inch downpour, the water stays in the soil.
“My whole farm is in strip-till,” he says. “My sprayer has become my most important piece of equipment. After planting, it's what's running until harvest time.”
With strip-till he can cultivate if necessary and he always breaks peanut land in the fall, lists and sows rye. “It's good to break the land once every four years,” he says. “That helps get the fields level and establishes beds. Also, breaking buries the seed left from Roundup Ready cotton.”
He never breaks cotton land.
He's been 100 percent strip-till since 1996. “I had one field that year with tight soil. When cotton was about to the six-leaf stage we had an 80 mile-per-hour wind that just smoked it. That was the lowest yield I ever made under that circle and the lowest yield ever on conventional-tillage. One good blow can cost a bale of cotton.”
Rotation makes a big difference, too, Johnson says. “I plant three years in cotton and one in peanuts. That's why we make the yield.”
Last year was wet, cool and humid. “We knew we would have more disease pressure. And with a shorter rotation period, disease would have been heavier.”
He says he may occasionally plant two years to cotton and one to peanuts one time in new ground. “Then I get on the four-year rotation.”
Planting one-fourth of his land in peanuts and three-fourths in cotton also makes harvest a bit easier. “We can get in trouble if we don't harvest peanuts on time,” he says. “Harvesting peanuts late can hurt worse than late cotton.”
He and his brother share peanut harvest equipment and jokes that the only stipulation is that they both get to go first. “We hire cotton harvest.”
He says labor also plays a role in their decision to have cotton custom harvested. “Labor is hard to find and we can't hire two crews.”
Johnson says fungicides made a difference in the 2007 crop. “We had some leafspot and if we didn't treat we got in trouble.”
He says three different treatments proved the point. One field did not get sprayed, another got one application of Abound and another had two applications, one of Abound and another with Folicur. Difference in the unsprayed field and the one application was 1,000 pounds per acre. “The fields with two applications were some better than those with just one.”
He says by harvest time the untreated field had been defoliated by the disease.
“We see enough disease problems in this area now to figure on at least one fungicide application. If we wait too late, we have problems. A lot of us learned that lesson last year.”
Weeds were a bit more troublesome last year as well. “I like to apply Trilin and then Prowl and Gramoxone at cracking. I use Pursuit in some fields, about half my peanut acreage, usually the first week of June.”
Pursuit goes on his toughest weed problems. “I have some fields with morningglory and other weed problems and that's where I use Pursuit. I don't use it unless I need it and it's typically the same fields every year. Those are usually the fields I cultivate, too. I'll cultivate and then spray Pursuit and I don't touch it again.”
He missed his Prowl and Gramoxone applications last year. “It rained for three days straight and I don't like to go over the top so I had a few weeds.”
He's looking for other ways to increase production efficiency, especially in light of increased energy and fertilizer costs.
“GPS offers a huge advantage,” he says. “We're not using variable rate application yet, but it's coming, especially with higher expenses. I'd like to get it going.”
He's already using GPS on two tractors and says working across as many as 24 rows is no problem. “When I go to variable rate application I'll add GPS to the sprayer.”
He says some of his fields run three-fourths of a mile long and with GPS he keeps rows straight. “I use the guidance systems for digging and thrashing peanuts. I can usually see the rows at harvest, but GPS makes it easier to stay on track. It saves money. We have to stay straight when we're digging and thrashing or we lose peanuts.”
He didn't lose many last year but credits a lot of his success to good weather, timely rains and a late fall. “Fall was about perfect for harvest,” he says. “If we'd had an early cold snap, we could have been hurt.”
He's looking at upgrading to larger equipment to save time and began using a seed tender last year to make planting more efficient. He's cut back slightly on seeding rate, from 94 to 91 pounds per acre. He also uses a large storage unit instead of smaller peanut wagons to streamline harvest.
Johnson says he doesn't do it alone. He credits his wife Teri for keeping the books and doing whatever else is necessary to keep the farm running smoothly.
He's found one more advantage to reduced-tillage systems. He knows he's saving soil, conserving water, using less energy and protecting young plants from harsh spring weather. But he also saves time.
And extra time allows him to stay involved with his family and community. He's coached his two daughters, Jenna, 15, and Kaley, 12, in softball and is chairman of the Texas Peanut Producers Board. He serves on the Western Peanut Producers Board as well and somehow finds time for the Seminole Independent School District Board, the Livestock Show Association Board and is on the finance and television ministries at the First Baptist church in Seminole.
Efficiency doesn't stop in the peanut field.