Farm Progress

Strip-tillage, technology among keys to efficiency for Belch family

Mike Belch's family doesn't have the largest farm in Northampton County, N.C., so efficiency and attention to detail are all the more important to their success.

John Hart, Associate Editor

July 8, 2016

6 Min Read
<p>Mike and Cindy Belch began farming in Northampton County, N.C., in 1980 and son Brandon joined the operation full time in 1989. The Belch family farms 1,300 to 1,400 acres. They planted 140 acres of the Bailey peanut variety this year. The rest of their land is in corn, cotton, soybeans, and wheat.</p>

Mike Belch’s family doesn’t have the largest farm in Northampton County, N.C., so efficiency and attention to detail are all the more important to their success.

A first generation farmer, Mike began farming with wife Cindy in 1980, the same year they married, on land east of the small town of Conway that once belonged to his great-great grandfather.

“We bought this land from an elderly couple — cousins of mine — who didn’t have any kids,” Mike says. “We built our house on the land and moved in when our son, Brandon, was one year old.”

“We’ve been farming here for 36 years now, a long time,” says Cindy, whose father raised Perdue chickens in Northampton County.

“She didn’t want to have anything to do with chickens,” Mike says with a smile.

Today, Mike and Cindy farm in partnership with Brandon, who returned to the farm fulltime in 2009, after earning his agriculture degree from North Carolina State University.

Farming certainly has changed in the 36 years the Belches have farmed in Northampton County, but one thing that hasn’t changed is their willingness to try new things, with an emphasis on watching the bottom line and a commitment to improving the land.

“We farm 1,300 to 1,400 acres — we’re an extremely small operation in this area,” Mike says. “It’s difficult to expand because land is extremely hard to come by, and very expensive to rent, so we’re forced to do a better job with what we have.”

Download this article in .PDF formatThis file type includes high resolution graphics and schematics when applicable.

They grow cotton, grains, and peanuts. Except for one year, they have produced peanuts every year since 1980. They are known and respected as successful peanut farmers, and that success has earned them the 2016 Peanut Efficiency Award winner for the upper Southeast region.

Peanuts a small but important part

The family planted 140 acres this year, up from 110 acres in 2015. They are also growing 500 acres of cotton, with the rest of the land in corn, wheat, and soybeans.

Both Mike and Brandon are committed to efficiency in every step of their operation. Keys to their efficiency are strip-tillage, cover crops, and well-maintained equipment. Reliance on new technology is vital for efficiency, they say, as is watching the bottom line every step of the way.

Their land is very sandy and light, and best suited for cotton and peanuts. “This pushed us eight years ago to using strip-tillage for our peanuts, and it has worked very well for us,” Mike says. They have strip-tilled corn and cotton for 15 years, and they no-till soybeans and wheat.

“Strip-till is good for the land,” Mike says. “It keeps the soil in place, builds organic matter, and allows us to control runoff. It’s good for the entire area — everybody around here is using strip-till or no-till now.”

Strip-till has helped improve their peanut yields over the years, Brandon says. Since incorporating that practice, they have been able to maintain yields of 5,000 pounds to 6,000 pounds per acre.

In addition to strip-tillage, they credit the Bailey variety for their stellar yields, All of their acreage is Bailey this year, although down the road they plan to transition to the high oleic varieties, Sullivan and Wynne.

The long rotation

They also like a long rotation, which Mike says goes a long way in both building yields and reducing input costs. “I like a minimum of four years in my rotation, but we average five. Depending on the farm, we will do a rotation of seven or eight years.” Bailey is a good variety for a long rotation program, he says.

Planting two to three years of cotton or corn ahead of peanuts works well, Brandon says, and adding grains allows them to spread their risk.

The family farms with one-full time employee and some seasonal help. “We have no choice but to be efficient,” says Brandon. “We don’t have a lot of labor, and we are growing five crops at one time — which is rewarding, but a challenge nonetheless.”

They credit their consultant, Daniel Fowler, with helping them succeed. He has encouraged them to adapt new technology, such as real time kinematic (RTK) navigation, Trimble Autopilot with Field IQ, and variable rate fertility.

“We tell Daniel that we want to be in the upper 10 percent,” Mike says. “We tell him we need him to help us get there. We are always looking for ways to improve at minimal cost. You can always push yields through the roof — but if it costs too much to get there, you haven’t accomplished anything.”

Fowler and his staff scout the Belch fields every week, and communicate with them by phone, text, and e-mail. This close working relationship with their consultant insures timely pesticide and fungicide applications.

“It keeps everything on schedule,” Mike says. “We don’t spend a lot of time looking for diseases, because we have a trained eye to do the looking, and he tells us when something needs to be done. Daniel helps us figure out what we’re going to do, and find the most cost-effective way to do the job. This allows us to spend most of our time getting jobs done in the field. We work together as a team with our consultant.”

They say it all boils down to where precision agriculture is their key to efficiency. Relying on the science behind precision agriculture is the only way to farm these days, Brandon says. “I don’t know how you can farm without the new technology. The word ‘precision’ means you don’t second guess.”

Mike adds: “You’re not over-doing anything, you’re not under-doing anything — it’s good science, another way of taking care of the land.”

Fowler helps the family with zone mapping on the farm, which is vital because of the vastly differing soil types in their fields. With zone mapping and variable rate fertility, they were able to convert a sandy field that was one of their worst yielders to one of the best within three years.

Both Brandon and Mike agree that their aim for constant improvement is vital for efficiency. “Our goal is to make it better every year,” Brandon says. “We look at what we can change, what worked and didn’t work, and what can we do to improve upon it.”

Both father and son say they are devoted numbers guys. They always watch the bottom line. “We examine the cost of every single input,” Mike says. “You always have to look at the numbers — numbers never lie.”

They always look at return on investment for everything they do, Brandon says. “If we’re going to do something, we figure how we are going to pay for it. Without a return on investment, you’re just wasting money.”

One thing is certain: The Belch family believes in serving the peanut industry. Cindy served on the National Peanut Board from 2005 to 2013, and was chairman in 2012. Mike is on the board of the North Carolina Peanut Association and has served as treasurer, vice-president and president.

“Farming is a way of life for us,” Cindy says. “We love the land and what we do. With God by our side every day, we strive to be great stewards of the land so our  son will be able to carry on the legacy we leave behind.”

About the Author(s)

John Hart

Associate Editor, Southeast Farm Press

John Hart is associate editor of Southeast Farm Press, responsible for coverage in the Carolinas and Virginia. He is based in Raleigh, N.C.

Prior to joining Southeast Farm Press, John was director of news services for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C. He also has experience as an energy journalist. For nine years, John was the owner, editor and publisher of The Rice World, a monthly publication serving the U.S. rice industry.  John also worked in public relations for the USA Rice Council in Houston, Texas and the Cotton Board in Memphis, Tenn. He also has experience as a farm and general assignments reporter for the Monroe, La. News-Star.

John is a native of Lake Charles, La. and is a  graduate of the LSU School of Journalism in Baton Rouge.  At LSU, he served on the staff of The Daily Reveille.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like