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Land, labor and water resources are keys to cottons

The Ronnie Qualls Farm in northeast Arkansas may have reduced cotton acres over the last few years, but the family farm is not forsaking the crop that built the business. In fact, thanks to new technology, a solid labor force, good soils, access to water and ownership in a local gin, cotton continues to make money.

Ronnie Qualls and his son, Cade, farm 3,800 acres of cropland, including 1,700 acres of cotton, 920 acres of corn and 1,200 acres of soybeans around Monette and Black Oak with the help of five full-time hands.

The season has been an unusual one for the operation, Ronnie notes. “We got the crop all in, then we lost about 375 acres of cotton to hail right around this shop. After that, it was one thing or another. We had a couple of 4-inch rains right behind the hail, which was devastating on small cotton.”

The early-season troubles meant planting more acres of soybeans than they intended. On top of that, getting soybeans established proved difficult due to excessive rainfall and saturated soils. “We farm close to the river, and we're real close to the water table,” Cade said. “We can dig down a foot, and there will be seep water coming up. The ground was saturated. Even in the sand blows, the water would stand for a week after it rained.”

“Not only us, but everybody in this area planted soybeans three or four times,” Ronnie said. “We finally got a stand.”

The resulting crop mix included more acres of soybeans than the farm has ever had, and pushed them a little out of their comfort zone. Despite all the rain and replanting, the farm received a good bit of sunshine in early July, and as of July 10, the crop was progressing at a rapid pace. “The only cotton that looks behind is the cotton right around the shop here,” said Ronnie.

Resistant horseweed galloped into the region about four years ago, but the Quallses have figured out how to keep it from trampling yields. “We're now seeing careless weed (Palmer pigweed) that is resistant to glyphosate,” Cade said.

“That's going to be a major problem,” Ronnie said. “We can go back to plowing and controlling what we can that way, but so far, there's no chemical that will take care of it.”

At harvest, the Quallses will pick cotton one time and shred the stalks. As soon as possible after the shredder, they'll run a ripper on some sections, then hip up and seed every other middle in wheat, leaving water middles clean.

They use an RTK guidance system to construct rows, “and we've been lucky for the last several years because we've had dry falls,” Cade said. “As long as we don't have ruts from the pickers, we can use the old rows and hip over them. It saves a lot of trips and a lot of time. With the RTK, our rows are uniform and straight. It does create a lot of work at first. You have to tear everything up and get them right, but once they're right, they're right.”

The RTK system operates from a base station shared with neighboring farmers.

In the spring, they'll go after resistant horseweed with dicamba. When the wheat starts to head, they'll burn it down with glyphosate, knock off the top of the bed and plant, adding a DNA herbicide for residual weed control.

This year, they went with 100 percent Stoneville B2RF cotton varieties. “Since we've gone to Bollgard II cotton, the only bugs we've worried about have been spider mites and plant bugs,” Ronnie said. “Boll weevil eradication has taken care of the boll weevils, Bt technology has taken care of the worms. The Bollgard II has made things much simpler because we don't have to construct a refuge. We hope that corn is going that way pretty soon too.”

The Quallses will add Prowl behind the presswheel for resistant pigweed, “plus we used some Dual at a broadcast rate,” Ronnie said. “But just those few pigweed that you miss can hurt you. I read that one weed can produce 200,000 seeds. Surely, we can develop something that will help us, but right now, we're having to go with either hoe hands or cultivators to get the misses.”

The Quallses run soil tests every other year, and usually put out their potash and phosphate in late March. They apply about 110 units of nitrogen on the cotton once they've established a stand.

For weed control during the season, the Quallses will apply glyphosate two or three more times with High Boys. “We had quit using hoods a while back,” Ronnie said, “but we may have to go back to them to put some Dual under the plant at layby. That should help us on the pigweed. We'll plow one time during the season to clean out the water furrow middle.”

The farm is 95 percent irrigated with seven center pivots and rollout pipe. “We were close to 100 percent irrigated up until this year,” Ronnie said. “We rented another 300 acres and some of it needs leveling for irrigation.”

Even during times of high input costs, the Quallses' philosophy is to always give the crop what it needs, when it needs it. When their consultants, Eddie and Danny Dunigan, recommend a spray, it's done quickly and efficiently. “Everybody around here is the same way. It's not so much we're competitive. It's just that everybody wants to do as well as they can.”

At defoliation, they'll go with two shots of Prep and Def, and will pick one time. “The cost of the machines, two John Deere 9996, 6-row pickers, determine that we can pick only one time. We can't afford to run them twice,” Ronnie said.

Cotton yields average in the two-bale plus area most of the time. “Sometimes, we hit three-bales, and we have to thank Eddie and Danny for some of that.” Cotton is ginned at Black Oak Gin, a corporation owned by the Quallses and several other area farmers. The enterprise is a big part of why cotton is profitable for them. “We're lucky enough to be able to farm it and gin it. We have a cottonseed warehouse, so the more cotton we can raise, the more money we can make.”

The Quallses only disagreement is whether or not they want to continue to expand the farm's acreage. The younger Qualls says, “It wouldn't bother me to add more acreage,” while his father is happy with what the farm has currently.

“I'm very fortunate,” said Ronnie. “We have as good a ground as there is in the country, we have an abundance of groundwater, and I've got the best help there is in the country, bar none. As long as I can keep both of those, it's OK. But if you lose good help, it's hard to replace. Then how can you handle the acreage? Once you get to a certain point, bigger is not necessarily better.”

Some of the Quallses' hands have worked on the farm for 15 years, and their experience and work ethic are big keys to the farm's success. “Everybody knows what to do. We can leave and the operation runs just like it's supposed to,” Cade said. “Every one of my guys is programmed like we are. None of them want to take off when there are things to be done. That means a bunch.”

Having good labor allows Ronnie to enjoy some downtime every now and then, too.

“I kind of like to hot-rod and go to the lake,” said Ronnie, who has meticulously restored a 1941 Willys Coupe and a 1946 Ford pickup in his spare time and attends many of the car shows in the region. “You work all the time, it messes that up,” he said with a smile.

Cade's heart is hardly ever far from the farm, however. When asked if he had a hobby like his father, he didn't hesitate to add his own formula for achieving peace of mind. “I can have just as much fun driving tractors and moving dirt.”

TAGS: Cotton
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