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High yields must offset high costs

With cotton costing so much to produce these days, consistently high yields are not a luxury for the Stuckey family of northeast Arkansas — they're a necessity.

“There are not a lot of ways we can cut costs, other than operate as efficiently as possible and don't make any more trips through the field than we have to,” said Sam Stuckey, who farms with his brother, Fred, and sister, Baylus East. “We spend money on cotton to have a bumper crop. If we don't get it, we're really exposed.”

The Stuckeys put their trust in doing things right and on time. “Hopefully, everything we do raises yield or prevents a loss,” Stuckey said. “This year, we didn't blow a budget anywhere on cotton.”

The Stuckeys raise 2,650 acres of cotton, almost 3,000 acres of soybeans, about 900 acres of rice, 500 acres of corn and 600 acres of wheat.

Consultant Chuck Farr handles the scouting duties on the family operation's Clarkedale, Ark., farm, which Sam manages, while Danny Moore scouts for the Lepanto, Ark., farm, which Fred manages.

“It complements our farming operation to have opinions from two reliable consultants,” Stuckey said.

After harvest, the Stuckeys cut stalks and do light field work where needed. In March, they burn down cotton fields with glyphosate plus either Clarity or 2,4-D for broadleaf weeds. Occasionally, they run a Paratill where there is compaction.

A second burndown with Touchdown or Roundup cleans up fields and gets them ready for planting.

Most cotton is planted on stale beds, according to Stuckey. The minimum-till approach is a rare opportunity to cut costs. “Where we have uniform rows — no narrow rows — we plant right on top of the old row without any tillage. We may have to work rows that have been rutted.”

Fertilizer, a standard 0-30-60 mix with a pound of boron, is applied in late March to early April. After planting and a couple of weeks prior to first bloom, the Stuckeys make two nitrogen applications, for a total of 110 to 120 pounds, using modified 12-row cultivator rigs.

Seed is treated with Cruiser, and Quadris and Ridomil is applied in-furrow at planting. Varieties at the two farm locations (Clarkedale and Lepanto) are PM 1218 BG/RR, ST 4892 BR, ST 4793 R, DP 444 BG/RR, ST 5599 BR, ST 4646 B2R, and ST 5242 BR. ST 5599 BR went on about 280 acres with root-knot nematodes.

Stuckey's in-season herbicide program begins with an over-the-top application of Touchdown, followed by an application of Sequence — both made before the fifth true leaf.

The Stuckeys built broadcast hoods for applying Sequence when conditions are too windy. “We made the hoods out of black corrugated culvert cut in half,” Stuckey said. “But we prefer not to use the rigs because it's a slower operation.

“Sequence gave us some residual help against palmer pigweeds. On some fields last year, we missed a timely fifth-leaf shot of glyphosate, and the pigweeds grew up.”

On some fields in Lepanto, Fred Stuckey applied Sequence first, followed by Touchdown. “That approach worked out a little bit better,” Sam said. “We had fewer pigweeds where we had the residual down early.”

The Stuckeys cultivate cotton fields that are furrow-irrigated, running a sweep through at least one time to clean out furrows.

They layby with Suprend on most acres. “Fields we couldn't get to happened to be furrow-irrigated acres, so we cultivated them with a broad sweep.”

Their fields are about 75 percent irrigated, They use several methods to get water to the crop — center pivot, down the furrow and flood. “We use rollout pipe to reach some corners of center pivot-irrigated fields. Sometimes it's not necessarily a model of efficiency,” Stuckey said.

No thrips sprays were required this year on most fields. As many as five applications with Centric, Bidrin and Orthene were made for plant bugs. The higher number of applications on cotton were made where corn was an adjacent crop.

Plant bugs were a much bigger problem in 2003 than they were in 2004, but Stuckey isn't sure why. “Maybe we did a better job of getting everything burned down early. We didn't have as many weeds on the turnrows, so there weren't as many places for them to come out of.”

One application was made for bollworms across most acreage, according to Stuckey. Two applications of mepichlor were made. “We applied 7 to 8 ounces over the row and later we broadcast 16 ounces.”

A cooler August may have provided fewer heat units than the crops needed, “but favorable weather in September helped mature the crop.”

On the other hand, the coolness might have cost another plant bug application. “Usually, when we get to 350 heat units after NAWF 5, we quit spending money,” Stuckey said. “Right before the cool spell hit, we were at 350 and clean. A week later, we were only a little above 350 and we had some bugs. We made one more application to cover ourselves.”

Getting leaves off and picking a mature crop go a long way toward producing a quality crop, according to Stuckey. They defoliate by air with Def, Dropp and ethephon. “We may have to touch up some spots with a ground application.”

Like many cotton producers in the north Delta, the Stuckeys' 2004 harvest was interrupted by rainy weather, which at the time of this writing still kept pickers in the shed. Prior to the halt, the Stuckeys were a little more than 50 percent harvested. Yields were “exceptional” for the farm — around 1,000 pounds on nearly every field.

The Stuckeys were taking the rainy weather in stride. “We thought we were two weeks ahead, then the next thing we knew we were two weeks behind. But it's part of farming.”


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