For all of agriculture’s technological advances, there’s still no substitute for boots on the ground … or the seasoned experience that comes from years of walking fields. As farmers continually battle new and old pests, unpredictable weather and tight margins, the expertise of the men and women who scout crops for a living continues to play a crucial role.
“There are a lot of decisions a grower has to make,” said Phil McKibben, an independent crop consultant serving eight counties in north central Mississippi. “Some are easy. If a grower gets a 10% stand, he knows he has to replant. He doesn’t need a consultant to tell him that. The biggest benefit we bring is providing answers to the difficult questions, such as, ‘Should we fertilize for 80% of our yield potential or 120%?’ or ‘Do we need to make that fungicide application now?’ Those are the decisions that, with some knowledge and history of the farm, we can help our producers make and pay for our services many times over.”
“The biggest thing we offer is perspective,” McKibben added. “We visit many farms during the course of the week, which allows us to see things across a wider region. It helps us to make decisions on each farm and field because we have a broader perspective.”
Consultants like McKibben see it all in the course of a crop season. We spoke with several consultants who work in different crops across the region. They shared their perspective on the 2020 season, what they anticipate for 2021 and why they believe you need the boots of an independent crop consultant on the ground.
Row rice and untimely rain
Amy Beth Dowdy is beginning her 31st year as an independent consultant for rice producers in southeastern Missouri. These days her territory is comprised mostly of the flat, heavy clay fields of Pemiscot and Dunklin Counties in the Missouri Bootheel region. She jokes that she gets paid to tell men what to do, but as an independent consultant, Dowdy puts in long hours in the field to make her producers more profitable and help them tackle problems as they arise. Unfortunately, 2020 saw many challenges for rice farmers in the southern Bootheel.
“We kept getting rain this spring, and acres were planted late,” Dowdy said. “Other areas of Missouri were planted in a timely manner, but we pushed the envelope a little bit. I always say that’s a gamble, and this year we weren’t so lucky on some of the fields. Rain from the first hurricane messed up pollination.”
Dowdy says in between the spring downpours and the hurricanes, “the water turned off” in her part of the state. Issues with untimely rainfall were compounded by the fact that many producers in the Bootheel switched to row rice in 2020.
“We pumped a lot of extra water to keep those clay fields wet in a very dry July and August on the row rice.”
“Rice was meant to be grown in water,” insisted Dowdy. “Water is the number one herbicide for rice. We have too much resistance to herbicides already, we need to be using water as a herbicide as much as we can. There may be some fields where row rice can fit, but there are lots of fields where it doesn’t fit.”
Dowdy says she anticipates growers in the southern Missouri Bootheel being more cautious with row rice in 2021.
“There will be some that completely give up on row rice and some that will change the way they use row rice on their farm. They’ll look at well capacity a little more. Hopefully, we’ll have an early planting time this spring.”
Across the Mississippi River from Dowdy, Tim Roberts runs TennArk Consulting Services. He and four employees scout mostly cotton, but some corn and soybeans on farms across western Tennessee and the Missouri Bootheel. Like Dowdy, he saw persistent spring rains delay planting on many acres.
“Most of our cotton was planted May 20 or later,” said Roberts, “which is always a little scary for growers in this part of the world.”
Fantastic fruit retention, timely summer rains and an uneventful insect season led to a good Tennessee cotton crop, although Roberts said September weather almost put yields in jeopardy.
“We got behind on heat units and the 2020 cotton crop creeped to a conclusion,” Roberts said. “Patience was rewarded. Most of my guys were patient, got it all open and saw good yields.” Roberts says his growers saw an average yield of 1,200 – 1,300 lbs.
Big news for cotton
Pigweed is still the number one issue in cotton, according to Roberts, and the approval of the new over-the-top dicamba label was perhaps the biggest news for cotton growers in 2020.
“We didn’t know what we were going to do if the label had not been approved, but now we can continue business as usual,” Roberts said.
“We know that dicamba is not a stand-alone and that there have been issues with dicamba not working as good as it once did, but it’s still a very viable tool that we need until we can come up with what’s next.”
Looking ahead to 2021, Roberts says he anticipates growers beginning to shift to Bollgard 3 varieties, although he feels the northern edge of the cotton belt may still be a year away from widespread adaptation.
“Bollgard 3 is going to be huge, but the number one thing is yield, and there are still too many good Bollgard 2 varieties for Bollgard 3 to overtake the market,” Roberts said. “But the shift is beginning and will be bigger as you move south where they’re having to make multiple insecticide applications for bollworms.”
Sweet potatoes and grain
In Mississippi, McKibben and Ethan Willers scout cotton, soybeans, corn and sweet potatoes, with sweet potatoes and grain comprising the bulk of their business. Like much of the Mid-South, a wet spring influenced everything from burndown applications, to field prep to planting date, although McKibben is optimistic that planting could be timelier this spring.
“The one big difference is this past fall is we were able to get a lot of field work done for the first time in three to four years,” McKibben said. “So, we’re in really good shape and most of our fields are ready to plant.”
McKibben said he is hopeful for a hard winter to drive back the high numbers of red-banded stinkbugs he has seen over the past two years in soybean fields. He is also seen increased southern blight in both soybeans and sweet potatoes over the past two years probably due to weather.
“With each crop there’s a different thing going on. Variety selection in soybean is difficult because there’s so many varieties on the market and matching the varieties on the farm to the field is really critical to soybean,” said McKibben. “Sweet potatoes are a whole different crop, and it seems like there’s no rule book for sweet potatoes.”
Why an independent consultant?
The biggest thing we have that others in our industry do not is a viewpoint that’s not related to the sale and distribution of any of the products we recommend. Our salary is derived from one person and that’s the grower. Anytime we’re in the field our focus is his profitability,” McKibben said.
Dowdy says as farmers get older and farms get bigger, consultants are going to be a key to continued success. She advises producers to choose a consultant with whom they can build a solid relationship.
“It takes so many different people to farm. Farmers don’t come in just one personality, and consultants are the same way. Find someone you can mesh with,” Dowdy said.
“The main thing is the independence,” said Roberts. “We’re unbiased. We don’t have anything to sell except our service. Most of us have been doing this a long time, and we get hired back on performance.”