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Serving: Central

Mississippi farmer guides operation through multiple challenges

Brad Robb dfp-brad-robb-g-bailey2.jpg
With the Gold Strike and Horseshoe casinos towering in the distance, Gary Bailey, right, and his farm manager, Bill Griggs, lean against a round module from their 2019 cotton crop. Griggs' father, Joe, once managed the farm that Bailey now farms.
Row cropping in an entertainment corridor is never dull.

Gary Bailey has learned to navigate a multi-commodity row crop and ginning operation around complexities from the Mississippi River, inconsistent weather patterns, and volatile commodity markets.

The river complexities started early this year. Because the Mississippi remained above flood stage for six months, underground seep water pushed up through the silty loam soils, saturating many acres of BCF-09 Farms in Tunica County, Miss. Clear well water flowing in reverse sent water cascading down unplanted hipped-up rows. One 200-acre block of land never got a seed.

"The river usually falls after a big rise, the soils recover a week later, and we can plant," Bailey says. "We didn't plant soybeans this year until the middle of June on some of that ground. Seep water was still affecting much of it well into July."

Bailey and farm managers Bill Griggs and Teddy Cook wind down each year doing field work on that "at risk" ground first, and then move to ground they can get on even after inclement weather. "The weather has been so inconsistent, it forced me to plant on ground in less than optimum agronomic conditions," Bailey says.

"A planting date that worked well last year may be 15 days later next year. It's also affecting how we choose our crop mix. We manage that through crop diversity, especially in commodity markets that are so volatile. Cotton might be at 75 cents at planting, but by the time July rolls around, it might be at 60 cents, and that is a big difference to an operation's bottom line."

Bailey is an active managing partner with his father-in-law, Brad Cobb, and has taken on more oversight responsibilities the last 20 years at their Tunica, Miss., Three Way Gin. "In-season, I'm sort of a vulture, riding across the operation keeping an eye for anything I see that might hurt our chances for healthy crops and good yields," Bailey says. "We're in phase two of a project that, when complete, will take us to 3,000 acres of land-leveled ground which has allowed us to broaden our crop mix and get into rice production."

He has seen efficiency improvements in both pivot and in-furrow irrigation. "I think pivots are the most economical way to utilize and save water, but Pipe Planner has increased our in-furrow irrigation efficiency, too," Bailey says. "Land-leveling has also strengthened our corn production because it's hard to get enough water on corn with a pivot. You always have corners that don't get much, if any."

Rice, cotton, sprayer contamination and casinos

Bailey and his crew also face sprayer contamination every year. "Cotton doesn't like a lot of the chemicals we use on rice, and vice versa," Bailey says. "While products we use on one crop may not kill the other crop, it sure can knock your yields in the teeth."

Bailey never rushes his guys when they are cleaning out a spray rig, sometimes spending three hours on one machine. They take off all end caps to verify no clay-based products remain. "Some of these products have a chalk-base and when you look in the tank, you can see a visible layer on the inside wall," Bailey says. "We go so far as pressure washing the insides of tanks. Household ammonia works really well and being thorough pays in the long run."

Bailey started working for Cobb when the casino boom had just begun in Tunica County. Their farms are not contiguous and traveling across Highway 61 was necessary. "We were moving eight basket pickers, boll buggies, and module builders back then. The Tunica County Sheriff's Department had to escort us down the road or we never would have made it to the shop safely," Bailey says.

"If the wind blew out of the south during harvest, the amount of dust going across that highway from the boll buggies on the turnrow was blinding and not conducive to safe driving conditions. We had to stop harvesting at times."

Trading the armada of traditional harvesting equipment and transitioning to on-board module harvesters, eased the problem and diminished his labor problems and reduced costs. "It was difficult finding crews to work two months out of the year," Bailey says. "With the training we got from John Deere, our basket picker drivers made the transition with little learning curve. With the increased tailgate size of the bailer pickers, we did have a few days with down time after bumping into telephone poles or staged modules."

The casinos never drew labor away from Bailey, and his landlords have always maintained a consistent rent structure. A few times the casinos provided a venue for the unusual. "Two guys tried to rob the casino hotel one day. The getaway driver fled, leaving his accomplice who ended up in one of our fields of defoliated cotton," Bailey says.

"The authorities wanted to bring in a helicopter, but I knew the wind force would blast cotton across the fields, so that was not an option Mr. Brad and I were willing to allow."

Bailey had another idea. He lined up eight harvesters across the field and started harvesting. Before long, the bandit started running and was caught.

Gin upgrades

They are also upgrading the gin and recently made a down payment on a new gin press for Three Way Gin. "Our gin managers, Whitt Read and Robert Atkins, say The Continental BesPress has been a wonderful piece of equipment, but it takes three people to run it," Bailey says. "It doesn't take long to pencil out the labor savings and increase in capacity from 33 bales to 46 bales an hour with the Lummus bale press we're going to install."

Some modifications will be needed to accommodate the new press and a new strapping system. "We're still pushing wire, and that's more expensive," Bailey says. "Mr. Brad and I have been evaluating the Continental press for a while. It may lead to adding more cotton to the gin, but that decision will be made well into the future after we see how the gin adjusts to the changes and new equipment."

For now, Bailey just wants to get this year's ginning season in the books before winter.

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