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Nicholas O’Neal, left, O’Neal Planting Company, and his crop consultant, Virgil King, maintain an open line of communication that delivers benefits for O’Neal’s farm all year long.

Farmer/consultant maintain successful partnership

Open communication, patience key to good decision-making on Mississippi farm.

A trusted crop consultant can provide crop protection recommendations in-season and offer advice throughout the year.

Veteran consultant Virgil King has been working for Holmes County, Miss., farmer Nicholas O’Neal since 2015. “Virgil and I maintain an open line of communication that encourages us to share opinions and vet options before I make a farm-related decision,” O’Neal says. “If he sees something on another operation that’s working, he doesn’t hesitate to call to see if I think it might be a good fit on mine.”

A conducive partnership

King and O’Neal have the kind of professional partnership that inspires frank but friendly questions without questioning each other’s ability. “I may want more information about a specific recommendation, but he knows I’m not questioning his ability as my consultant,” O’Neal says. “He’s been with me since 2015, but we’ve known each other for a long time, and I’ve never spoken with anybody who’s been disappointed with the crop advice he has given.”

During the growing season, King will scout O’Neal Planting Company once a week. “I eventually progress to what I call ‘twice-a-week’ where I check the farm three times in a two-week period,” King says. “We don’t go more than two or three days without conferring about something related to his operation. I don’t know how many times I’ve left his office and called him back because of something relevant I forgot to mention.”

O’Neal likes to challenge King periodically to see if he notices something O’Neal has done on the farm, whether it is altering a plant population or finding a disease problem that’s only in one area. “He likes to keep me on my toes,” King says. “He’ll ask me a question to which he already knows the answer, or he won’t tell me about something he’s found in the field because he wants to see if I include it in my report.”

Varieties, weather, and pests

King and O’Neal know varieties come and go, some more quickly than others. “When my dad ran this operation, we grew varieties for multiple years, and we benefited from learning how to manage plant growth with fertility inputs and specific timing intervals of plant growth regulators on our cotton,” O’Neal says. “Virgil and I have been doing that same thing and it’s paying off.”

Over the last three years weather has made it difficult to get crops planted and harvested for many Mid-South producers. “Weather has definitely become a bigger unmanageable risk,” O’Neal says. “When I was farming with my dad, it didn’t seem weather was against us so frequently, but today we struggle to get a crop in and out with any consistency.”

Of the 3,000 acres O’Neal farms, 500 did not get planted this year because of spring rains and flooding. Weather has also changed the way he chooses varieties, more so with soybeans than cotton or corn.

“I think the bigger decision I make each year is what to plant rather than the maturity of the varieties we go with,” O’Neal says. “Because we don’t get anything planted on time anymore, we never plant full-season varieties. We would be looking at the middle of September for a full-season variety, whereas for a mid- to full-season variety, we can harvest around the first of September if we can get it planted around the first of May. On rare occasions, I might be able to harvest toward the end of August if we’ve had good heat unit accumulation.”

This spring, he had to disk stalks, run a hipper, and then a roller all before planting. “We caught a dry spell this fall and got caught up on a lot of overdue field work we’d been neglecting since 2017,” O’Neal says. “That should help us this coming spring.”

Looking back on 2019, King says plant bug populations were down, which surprised him, considering the mild winter the Mid-South experienced. “I thought more of them would overwinter and come at us hard,” King says. “We had to spray a few soybeans for worms and some looper populations toward the end of the year because of the late-planted crop. We saw only light pressure from red-banded stinkbugs, but they didn’t cause yield loss.”

Farming next to these hills is different than farming in the Delta,” King says. “We have some sandy soils, some silt loam off the bluff, but we also have some alligator clay where Nicholas plants a little row rice.”

Decisions

O’Neal puts a pencil to every aspect of his operation well in advance of each season. The interaction, in one aspect or another, is constant between King and O’Neal. “Virgil and I don’t just communicate during the growing season,” O’Neal says. “We both watch the markets to help us decide what crops to plant, what varieties to go with, and at what populations to use based on soils types, long-range weather forecasts and fertility programs. Before I’m finishing shelling corn, we’re talking about how the varieties performed this year and what seed I should book next year based on those conversations.”

As soon as the last field is harvested, O’Neal plans to install three more lift pumps so he can use more surface water from a nearby lake. “It’s much more energy efficient and costs me about a third of what ground water costs,” O’Neal says. “I also have two well-positioned tailwater recovery ponds.”

O’Neal was impatient when he was young. He would often tell his father they were wasting time and needed to be doing something. “He eventually taught me to be more patient,” O’Neal says. “My dad always did things at his own pace. He never made any decision in a hurry, and I don’t recall him ever making a bad decision.”

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