Making timely applications of water, fertilizer and pesticide isn't always a matter of knowing when and where to treat, according to Bishop Whitley and his father, Wayne. Often, it means getting in a spray rig or pickup truck when you would rather be somewhere else.
On those days, what matters most is support from family, consultants and labor. Fortunately, this quality is in abundance on the Whitley's 3,000-acre cotton operation at Black Oak, Ark.
“We're blessed with a good family that understands, that helps out,” Bishop said. “Sometimes you have to go to work when you don't want to, when you'd rather be with your family. It helps when your wife understands it's Saturday afternoon and you need to be working.”
“They love what they do,” added Danny Dunigan, who consults for the Whitleys with his brother, Eddie. “They put their heart in that soil. Farming is their life. That's why they are successful.”
The Whitleys, who are third- and fourth-generation producers on the farm, get started on their next cotton crop as soon as they can after harvest. They cut stalks, subsoil, hip up and plant wheat in the middles.
Wheat provides protection against blowing sand, a consistent problem in the region. The Whitleys go with a light rate of wheat because they also furrow irrigate the middles. “We need the wheat, but only until the cotton gets big enough (to fend off the blowing sand).”
In early March, they take out winter weeds with 2,4-D or Clarity. A week before planting, they kill the wheat, run a Do-all and plant. They put out dry fertilizer preplant, and sidedress liquid nitrogen after the cotton is up in May.
Their primary variety this year is Stoneville ST4892BR. A small amount is Deltapine DP 444 BG/RR and FiberMax FM 960. ST4793R is their refuge cotton.
Until a few years ago, the Whitleys did not raise much Bt cotton, noted consultant Eddie Dunigan. “Two years ago, everybody around here got caught with their pants down with tobacco budworms. We had never had them before. Then last year, we had fall armyworms.”
The Whitleys and their consultants were able to avoid significant damage from budworms with Tracer, although it was a more costly crop than they had budgeted.
At planting this year, the Whitleys went in-furrow with Ridomil and Quadris, Baythroid for cutworms and 4.5 pounds of Temik. So far, they have been impressed with how the Temik has performed compared to a seed-applied product used on a small acreage. “Usually, we can tell right to the row where the Temik was used and where we had a seed treatment,” Bishop said.
To their first over-the-top Roundup application they add Bidrin to keep down thrips. After 10 days, they make a second over-the-top Roundup application, using two 6700 John Deere High Boys. “We can spray everything in three days,” Bishop said.
After that, they make hooded applications of Roundup and use Direx in the middles on some problem fields.
The Whitleys meet with the Dunigans mid-morning on Mondays, after the consultants have had a chance to observe a few fields. “We can get to running on a few things, then we get the full report,” Bishop said. “Anytime I'm about to cross a field, we get a game plan on what other applications need to go out.”
For example, if the Dunigans are finding enough winged aphids in the cotton to cause concern, “we'll add some Trimax to the Roundup,” Eddie said. “That saves a trip over the field.”
The Dunigans say there appears to be some yield enhancement from preventive applications of Trimax as well. But the real benefit is avoiding serious trouble with aphids.
“We've had them in the past, didn't think we needed to treat them, then the next thing we knew, we had lots and lots of them,” Eddie said. “It's hard to play catch up with aphids.”
When the plant starts getting some size on it, “we try to get a little plant growth regulator in the plant,” Whitley said. “Right before it laps, we hit it with a pint of PGR.”
Keeping the plant size down means the Whitleys will harvest seven to 10 days earlier, according to the Dunigans. “That can make a big difference,” Danny says. “Wet weather can cost you half a bale to three-fourths of a bale.”
All of the Whitley cotton is irrigated, except for a few small fields. They have one center pivot; the rest is furrow-irrigated. Irrigation begins around first bloom, according to Bishop. “We try to not let the plant stress at all. The better the crop is growing, the less weather is going to work on it. That's what we try to do all year long.”
Timing is crucial in any irrigation schedule, according to Bishop. “If it's time to water on a Friday, I don't want to wait until Monday to get a good schedule going. You do it when it comes time to do it and don't worry about it.”
The Whitleys expect to make at least one pyrethroid application for bollworms on Bt cotton each year. “Our primary worm has always been the bollworm,” Eddie said. But spider mites have become a bigger problem recently.
One insect the Whitleys have not seen much recently is the boll weevil. The region is in its first full year of eradication, after a diapause program in the fall of 2003 and a lot of controversy over its value in the years before that. Noted Bishop, “Everybody is entitled to his own opinion. But it does work well for our operation.”
Another key is piggybacking foliar feeding with their applications and adding boron to the nitrogen right before bloom. They make up to three trips for foliar feeding.
Whitley will go with a two-step defoliation program, with hopes of harvesting around Sept. 10. “We go with a boll opener, Super Boll or Prep, and DEF to knock the top canopy out. Seven to 10 days later we put out a heavier shot of boll opener and DEF.”
At this point in the season, the Whitleys' cotton crop, which went in early, has missed a lot of the excess rain that has fallen on parts of the Mid-South. In fact, many of their fields could use some rain. The crop is about 10 to 14 days earlier than last year, too, according to the Dunigans.
Last year, the Whitleys' cotton yielded 1,125 pounds of lint across the farm. “We're usually pleased with 1,000 pounds plus,” Bishop said. “Last year, some farms picked over 1,300 pounds.”
The Dunigans point out that the Whitleys' consistently good yields can be attributed in large part to their approach — going for big yields and never letting the crop stress.
“At the end of the year, I don't want to look back and say that on some weekend, I should have been working,” Bishop said. “I think about my grandpa (Lawrence Bishop, for whom Bishop was named). He used to be the hardest worker around. At the end of the day, I want to think that my grandpa would be proud.”