Ron Holthouse and Travis Senter II accomplish a lot more together than they could alone.
Holthouse, 61, and Senter, 41, and Travis Senter Sr., 61, farm some 4,500 acres together near Osceola, Ark., and insist that the arrangement offers advantages with crop management, labor, and input purchases.
Each farms additional acreage (6,000 to 7,000 acres each) on his own and finds the cooperative effort extends beyond the partnership fields. Cooperation improves efficiency for each operation.
They see advantages with sharing equipment, on-farm storage, and bulk purchase of inputs. Sharing labor also streamlines production, especially at planting and harvest, when time means money.
They both plant cotton, corn, soybeans and rice. Together, they have just more than 1 million bushels of on-farm grain storage capacity. The Senter farm includes a small cotton gin.
Senter explains how the joint venture began. A few years back, someone offered him a big farm. It was in close proximity to both the Holthouse and Senter operations.
"If I took it on by myself, I would have needed a lot more equipment to manage it," Senter says. "I talked with Ron and we decided that by farming it together we could manage without adding new equipment."
"The Senters and Holthouses are pretty much joined at the hip," Holthouse says.
Balancing the partnership plus working individual acreage makes scheduling a high priority. "Travis puts his computer skills to work," Holthouse says. "We have to keep track of where everything is to make certain each operation is planted and harvested on time."
Technology, Senter explains, keeps track of each piece of equipment. "We group text each morning," he says, "so everyone knows what everyone else is doing and we know what has been accomplished and what is left to do."
"Travis can look at the computer and determine what's completed, what still needs to be done, the speed of the machines, and yields coming in," Holthouse says.
Senter says he gets a lot of data every day from equipment monitors. "We use that data to help us manage. I can see how much fuel we use in a day, for instance."
"We can also determine what to charge for any custom work we do," Holthouse says. "We determine how much it costs to pick a pound of cotton."
He says he and Senter each have strengths and weaknesses, so they balance out. "Travis is more aggressive with planting and I am more aggressive with harvest," he says.
Efficiency is crucial
"Efficiency is the key. We work together, sharing equipment and labor to save time and energy. If one of us gets in a jam, the other helps out."
They may start harvest or planting separately, but as they move through the process they come together to finish on time.
Purchasing power improves with the joint venture, too. "We buy chemical and fertilizer in bulk and get better prices," Senter says.
Through the cotton gin, he's become a wholesale fertilizer dealer, a big advantage since the area lost a farmer co-op recently. "Losing the co-op opened up a new world," Holthouse says. "We can buy wholesale, take our trucks to Memphis to pick it up and save $40 a ton. We also save with convenience and time."
They save on equipment, too. "We a get better deals on equipment if we buy as one unit," Holthouse says.
Trade pickers every year
Between them, they have three John Deere round-bale cotton pickers and trade every year. They keep pickers for only four months and save on interest, insurance, and maintenance.
"By trading every year, we avoid a lot of maintenance," Holthouse says. "The cost of repairs is astronomical," Senter adds.
They say trading harvest equipment every year makes sense, financially. They also benefit from updated technology and the convenience of less downtime with repairs. They trade sprayers and planters every other year.
They contend that once they get a planter set up, they want to use it another year. "At planting time, we need the planter ready to go now," Senter says.
"The window of opportunity to plant seems to have gotten narrower the last few years," Holthouse says.
They bought their latest planter, a John Deere high-speed ExactEmerge, for corn but say it's a big plus for cotton, too. "We can speed up planting and still get more consistent emergence. We each bought one," Holthouse says."
They also cooperate with land-leveling equipment and labor. "We precision level to improve irrigation efficiency," Holthouse says. "We do not have an acre of the farm that we don't water, so we have been aggressive with precision leveling. Working together, we get it done quicker."
They say they lay some 75 miles of poly pipe for irrigation every year.
Senter's gin, which, he says, is the smallest one in the county, "offers options possibly not available at larger gins."
Holthouse explains that large gins might not take time to sluff off the top of a wet bale. "We can take that bale to the gin here and pull the wet parts off and save part of that cotton."
"We use John Deere Harvest ID and Google Maps to locate where all the wet bales are and we get to them quickly," Senter adds.
Grain bins offer another harvest advantage. "We have bins in multiple locations," Holthouse says. During grain harvest, drivers move the grain to the nearest bin and get back to the field.
Those bins are marketing tools as well. Holthouse says basis along the Mississippi River used to be a big advantage but the last two years they've seen a reversal with basis points often at negative 60 or 70 cents.
"It's the worst I've ever seen, "Senter says.
Holding grain in storage offers opportunities to take advantage of changing basis.
"We've held grain and watched basis improve to negative 10 cents and made an extra 60 cents on our grain," Holthouse says.
The bins add harvest convenience, too. They don't have to wait at elevators to unload.
They sell cotton through Staplcotn and rice 50/50 through a co-op and individual sales.
The Senters and Holthouses cooperating on this large-scale undertaking smacks a bit of irony. At one time, the families did not get along. "They competed with each other," Senter says.
Now, Ron Holthouse and Travis' father are good friends, and though 20 years separate the partners, they have found that working together makes each operation stronger.
It's all about efficiency, they say.