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Grower shows wheat/beans can provide cotton-like revenue

For Brownsville, Tenn., farmer Richard Jameson, farming is a balance of risk, opportunity and the possession of a good sense of humor.

There is a perfect example of this approach in his double crop of wheat and soybeans. Opportunity comes with strong, consistent wheat yields and very attractive wheat prices over the next three years. The risk is the lower yield potential of late-planted soybeans.

The humor surely comes from the perplexing combination of doing what he loves to do and the incredible cost of doing it. “Farming would be the most fascinating occupation anybody could ever have — if you could make a living doing it,” said Jameson, with only a hint of a smile.

Jameson, who also produces cotton, corn and full-season soybeans, does his best to make the economics work by diversifying his crop mix, and therefore spreading his risks. Part of this crop mix flexibility comes from owning much of his land. Many cotton producers in the area are tied to a gin through rental agreements, or are simply geared up for cotton only. Jameson has one combine for picking all three of his grain crops and his cotton is custom harvested.

Wheat and double-crop soybeans are a great choice for Jameson because when everything goes right, the gross revenues are comparable to cotton. His plan is to intensely manage the wheat to get the yield he wants, pay attention to the wheat markets for pricing opportunities, then no-till his double-crop beans.

Jameson's produces about 780 acres of seed wheat for Hurt Seed Co., located in nearby Halls, Tenn. Each year, he'll meet with the company and choose the varieties he wants to plant from a list of a dozen. Selections will be based on disease package, yield and test weight. He'll also compare those varieties with top varieties from official tests in Tennessee and surrounding states, to see how they match up.

The seedbed of choice for Jameson's wheat one that follows cotton. “That has the least amount of residue on the soil surface from the harvested crop. It's the easiest to no-till.”

He'll spread dry fertilizer, “then we'll go in with a burndown, usually a glyphosate product. We plant 1.5 million seeds per acre, or about 140 pounds an acre, with a John Deere 750 no-till drill and a John Deere 1590 no-till drill.” Seed is treated with a fungicide and Gaucho at Hurt Seed's facility.

“The Gaucho is to protect the wheat from aphids that vector in barley yellow dwarf. We had tried to scout wheat and spray when aphids reached threshold, but they are so hit and miss around the field that it's hard to do. So I figured if aphids are effectively transmitting the disease and they are out there in the field feeding on wheat, I'd rather have them feed on the wheat and then die.”

Wheat planting usually starts Oct. 10, planted only on well-drained ground. He'll put out a fall fertilizer application of 23-60-80 with 10 pounds of sulfur.

“After that, we really don't do much until early March. We'll top-dress the wheat if it's not too soft from winter rains, going with 80 units of ammonium nitrate with an air-flow truck. I have seen research indicating that you can get better results from ammonium nitrate than urea or 32 percent.”

Depending on disease pressure, Tilt or Quilt is applied “when the flag leaf is out and I start seeing a head emerge.” This season, Jameson applied Tilt because much of April had high temperatures and low humidity, and not a lot of disease pressure was prevalent.

The fungicide is put out in part because Jameson is producing wheat for seed, “and the fungicide enhances the quality of the seed.”

During the season, Jameson will go with Harmony at the labeled rate when the weather starts turning warm in March, for wild garlic and other winter weeds.

Jameson harvests with a John Deere 9760 combine with GPS and yield-mapping capability. “It was the biggest machine we had ever bought, but I wanted a machine that I could use to harvest all my grains, and hopefully I would not have to lease an additional combine.”

The yield monitor has helped Jameson identify low-yielding parts of his fields. Yield maps also showed him that placing filter strips along the borders between fields and ditches or streams is a cost-effective practice. “My yield monitor told me that those borders were also low-yielding areas, and I was losing money there, no matter what the crop. I put the filter strips in a 10-year program and they pay $100 to $135 an acre.”

Jameson harvests wheat in June, segregates the varieties, then stores them in bins for six-weeks. “We take the seed to Hurt Seed in August because they want to get a headstart on processing it. In turn, they let me use December futures to price my wheat. At some time in October, December futures goes 20-25 cents over in Memphis. So I can add that to my price, plus a 40-cent premium from Hurt. That's another way I can make wheat work.”

Wheat prices, long in the doldrums, have taken a turn for the upside recently, prompting Jameson to capture prices into 2008. “I've sold 70 percent of my '06 wheat at $3.75, 30 percent of my '07 wheat at $3.98 and 10 percent of my '08 wheat at $4.05. I caught it still going up. It got up to $4.41. It didn't have a basis, but that is a super price.”

Soybeans are the riskiest part of the double-crop venture, “but if you can make beans in the low- to mid-30s and sell them for $6 to $6.25, you can compete with cotton revenue. But you have to be geared up and possess the mentality that you're going to manage it. You're going to be busy with cotton in June.”

Jameson is worried that lately, no matter what the mix, crop returns are often in the single digits. “There is so much money coming through a farming operation, and so little sticks.

“What growers find themselves doing is trying to figure out how to save a nickel. We look at generic products and hope they'll work. But there are generic products which aren't as effective as the brands. I don't like spending the money, but if I have to, I will.”

The philosophy had produced a nice stand of wheat in early May. But now his sense of humor will get a real test. Cotton-growing season is under way.


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