Jolley Nash is a strong believer in diversification.
Since he began farming on his own near Coushatta, La., Nash has built a 1,500-head cattle operation, a 450-acre turf farm and an 800-acre pecan orchard in addition to growing 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat.
But Nash will be the first to say that his latest attempt at diversification – planting his first cotton crop – was a big step even for someone who has become accustomed to taking risks and making the best of whatever hand nature deals him.
About this time last year, Nash was looking at the commodity markets and listening to reports of large corn and soybean crops in the Midwest. A few analysts were predicting grain prices were on a bubble that wouldn’t last much longer. Meanwhile, December 2014 cotton futures were trading in the range of 80 cents to 90 cents a pound.
“I decided that if I was ever going to grow cotton, 2014 might be the year to do it,” says Nash, who had helped his grandfather raise the crop when Nash was younger, but had never grown it “when the full financial burden was on me.”
Like others who have grown up in rural areas in recent decades, Nash worked on his grandfather’s farm at an early age. His father worked for a paper mill and didn’t farm. “I had my first calf when I was five years old,” says Nash. “I liked being on the farm and working with my grandfather.”
After graduation, Nash went to work for a local farmer. When that farmer decided to retire, he asked Nash if he would like to take over management of the operation. Nash still considers the farmer a mentor, one of several who have helped him in his career.
Nash didn’t just decide to grow cotton one day and start planting the next. He began preparing for it last fall, much like a general would prepare for a full-scale war.
One of his first steps was a conversation with Robbie Scarborough, an agronomist with the Crop Production Services outlet in Coushatta. He asked Scarborough what other cotton producers in the Red River Valley were doing that worked.
“I went to Scott, Miss., and met Jay Mahaffey, an agronomist with Delta and Pine Land Co.,” says Nash. “I spent the better part of a day with him and asked him every question I could think of.”
Mahaffey made a number of recommendations, including some varieties that he thought would be a good fit for Nash’s farm. One of those was DP 1321 B2RF, a new variety that grew the “perfect bale” in the Mississippi Delta in 2013. Another was DP 1133 B2RF, which had performed well in yield trials in the Red River Valley.
Nash also settled on Phytogen 499, one of the highest yielding varieties across the South, and Americot NG 1511, a lesser known variety with a reputation as a strong producer in Texas, as the other varieties for his first year.
He started sampling his soils on a 2.5-acre grid rather than the 5-acre grid he had been using. He had been variable-rate applying phosphorus and potassium for corn and soybeans in the fall and tailored those applications to cotton.
“I had been fertilizing for 225 bushels of corn per acre and that would have been more than I needed for 2.5 to 3-bale cotton,” he said. “But I also wanted to make sure I had a top crop in the cotton so we fine-tuned the K application to match the soils.”
He looked at each of his 20 fields separately last fall and applied from as low as 80 pounds to as high as 300 pounds of K, depending on his soils maps and yield data.
Nash also hired two consultants, Hank Jones and Ashley Peters, who work on the “Mississippi Delta” side of Louisiana. “We talked about their approach to consulting, and they basically interviewed me,” said Nash. “They wanted to make sure I would manage for at least a 3-bale crop. I told them I wanted to make more than 3 bales if I possibly could.”
During the growing season, Peters scouted Nash’s cotton on Tuesdays and Jones on Fridays, driving 150 miles from their offices in northeast Louisiana to Powhatan where Nash farms. “I wanted advice from someone who was from a cotton culture,” said Nash. “I wanted cotton guys, the best in the state.”
‘Leap of faith’
Nash also made a $650,000 “leap of faith,” purchasing a John Deere 7760 module-building picker last December.
“I think it gave me the confidence to plant the crop,” says Nash. “But it was a practical decision for me. I felt that if I had invested in two basket pickers I would need two drivers for the pickers, drivers for the tractors pulling boll buggies and an operator and helpers for a module builder. I went from needing a crew of 10 down to 3.”
He began planting cotton with a John Deere 1720 planter on April 23 and had finished nearly 600 acres when the soil temperature dropped. A week later he got back in, planted for two or three days and then began losing soil moisture. He turned on his center pivots, applied .3 of an inch of water one day and another .3 a day later. He finished planting the remaining acres; then the area received 4 inches of rain.
“I was very fortunate,” he said. “If the cotton had not come out of the ground with the irrigation, that 4-inch rain would have packed it in.”
He didn’t have to replant, and his plant population of 37,500 seed per acre came up to a good stand of about 32,500 per acre.
During planting, Nash applied a starter fertilizer consisting of two units of N, seven units of P and 2 units of S in-furrow. He followed that with 100 pounds of ammonium sulfate per acre when the cotton was four weeks old. Later, he knifed in 80 units of N.
The biggest weed control challenge came from Palmer amaranth. Nash says he noticed the first flush occurred after he applied chicken litter in one of his fields. “We are waging war on it,” he says. “If the plant has seed on it, we haul it out of the field. We’re spraying ditches and the edges of the field and spot spraying. If we miss it with herbicides, we hoe it out.”
Nash sprayed his cotton for insects nine times with a John Deere 4730 spray rig and four times with an airplane. “We had some issues with flea hoppers,” he noted. “Plant bugs were about normal, according to Hank and Ashley. We feel we lost some yield due to the cloudy weather in July.”
With the two consultants constantly monitoring the cotton, Nash used tissue sampling to determine whether the crop needed foliar feeding. He also made foliar applications of potassium where needed to help fill out the top crop. “We did not allow the crop to suffer for nutrients or moisture,” Nash notes. “As a result, we got a tremendous top crop.”
On two of his varieties, DP 1321 and Phytogen 499, Nash “had to stay on top of them,” making multiple applications of plant growth regulators. “We probably should have been more aggressive with those.”
Nash also installed two moisture monitoring stations. “We had been irrigating using visual symptoms,” he noted. “By the time, we saw the symptoms, it was too late, and we lost yield. With the stations, we watched the moisture levels and when they dropped between 50 percent and 40 percent, we turned on the pivots. We never allowed the crop to stress.”
He made six trips with the center pivot during the summer – two prior to planting, the next three around full bloom and one late “to help fill out the bolls.”
The first defoliation application – a mixture of Prep and Dropp with .5 ounce of Display – was made Sept. 10. Picking began Sept. 23. Nash was understandably nervous.
“We had a new machine and a new process for us,” he said, referring to the 7760 picker. He picked 35 acres the first day, all from the Phytogen 499. The yield average 3.4 bales per acre.
“The machine worked great. We found it is very sensitive and that cleanliness is a necessity. You have to follow the maintenance recommendations very closely. We rolled 600 modules on the first 750 acres, and it only missed one wrap.”
Nash considers his first year of experience with cotton a good one. He will plant cotton next year and will continue to try to build his yields.
“With prices falling the way they have this year, yield has become even more important. The yield is the key. It costs just as much to grow one bale as it does three, but the end result is much better with three bales.”
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