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Seed selection is the top priority of their 3-pronged approach

John Hart John_Hart_Farm_Press_Clint_Robbie_Umphlett-1.jpg
For Robbie Umphlett, right, and son Clint Umphlett, variety selection is priority No. 1 for success, followed closely by a good fertility program and then effective pest management.
If you don't have the right varieties, you aren't going to make it.

For Robbie and Clint Umphlett, success on the farm begins with good seed.

Certainly, the importance of planting good seed is known by all farmers. Everyone knows that to produce a high-yielding crop, you need to plant good seed. But for Robbie Umphlett, his wife Susan and son Clint Umphlett, who farm cotton, soybeans and wheat in Gates County, N.C., and Suffolk County, Va., selecting the right seed pretty much drives everything they do. It is the key to their success.

Robbie and Clint agree that selecting the right varieties is priority No. 1. For the Umphletts, priority No. 2 is the right fertility program. After that, taking care of pests is the priority. This three-pronged approach of seed selection, fertility and pest management has worked well for Robbie, 60, for his entire farming career. And it is an approach son Clint, 30, has taken to heart as a partner in the family farm.

“If you don’t have the right varieties, you’re not going to make it,” Robbie says in a succinct summary of his farming philosophy.

Adds Clint, “Variety is half the game.”

Returns divdends

Both Clint and Robbie emphasize that spending more on seed returns dividends. Sure, seed is more expensive these days, but they stress the better genetics of modern varieties makes the investment worthwhile in better yields. They say this is true for both cotton and soybean seed. The family plants Deltapine cotton seed and Asgrow soybean seed across their farm.

Aiming for yield potential is far more important than planting the less expensive seed. “You have to work  for yield. Your goal is to get your yield up. You plant what works, what yields,’ Robbie says.

“If you’re bargain pricing on seed, you are lost before you start. If you’re thinking I’m going to save $10 on this bag of seed when the  more expensive bag of seed will produce 100 pounds more cotton, you won’t win,”  he adds.

The Umphletts turn to the North Carolina State University’s Official Variety Test to guide them in their decisions and they also test varieties on their farm. The family produces seed wheat and seed soybeans for Cherry Farms Seed Company in Columbia, N.C., which Robbie says allows them to check out varieties before they are commercially available.

In 2020, the family planted Asgrow XtendFlex soybeans for seed production for Cherry Farms. The new technology is now commercially available to other farmers. In addition, the Umphletts have grown Bollgard 2 cotton varieties when they first became commercially available. Last year, they switched to Bollgard 3 and plan to do likewise this year.

“We like the Bollgard system. We like the Roundup Ready System. We like Xtendflex. We like the bug control and we like the weed control,” Robbie says.

Simplified herbicide program

Both father and son say they like the system because it simplifies their herbicide program and still offers excellent protection. They say Palmer amaranth and ragweed haven’t been a problem for them because they are able to start clean by using dicamba.

“We start with dicamba and Roundup early then we come back with Liberty for a second pass. And if we need it, we will come back a third time and spot spray a little dicamba and Roundup. That’s about it,” says Clint, who does most of the spraying for the farm.

Adds Robbie, “We don’t use a lot of residuals like a lot of people do. This past year the land was so cold, and we were wet early on. We wanted the crop to grow. We didn’t want to stunt the crop early on, so we didn’t use residuals. We start off clean. We burn down with dicamba and Roundup. We don’t use PREs, but we do come back with Dual or Warrant if we need to.”

For insect control in both soybeans and cotton, scouting is a must. The family scouts their soybeans themselves, but for cotton, they have turned to professional consultant Webster Harrell to do their scouting since 1995.

 “If Webster goes scouting today, and he finds something, he calls us, and we go to spraying right then. We usually finish spraying by the time he finishes scouting,” Robbie says.

Adamant about fertility

Indeed, the family does emphasize variety selection for achieving top yields. But they are just as adamant about their fertility program. They use both commercial fertilizer and chicken litter. Most of the chicken litter they use comes from the 12 chicken houses the family operates in Gates County.

They take soil samples every year to determine their fertility needs. They’ll apply lime if it’s needed and always use starter fertilizer in soybeans, wheat and cotton. They like to apply micronutrients such as zinc and manganese at planting. Tissue sampling is critical.

Their cotton gets all its phosphorous needs from the chicken litter. If they have enough chicken litter, they’ll also apply it to their soybeans in addition to their cotton. For nitrogen in cotton, they make an application at planting and then come back with split applications.

What is interesting, is the family uses a Y-Drop to apply fertilizer to their cotton. Bayer agronomist Rick Strecker, who works closely with the Umphletts, notes that no other cotton farmers he knows of in North Carolina do that, but he says they make it work.

“When cotton first starts squaring, instead of putting nitrogen all over the land, it goes right on the stalks with drop nozzles. It puts it right where it is needed. It just dribbles it down,” Robbie points out.

Last year was a challenging weather year with cool and wet weather at planting and cool and wet weather also delaying the cotton harvest. Yields were down from their average because it was so wet, but they still were not too off the mark.

The family’s systematic approach does work with a five-year average yield of 1,100 to 1,500 pounds per acre in cotton and a five-year average of 50 to 60 bushels per acre on soybeans. The Umphletts are hoping to push up their average on both crops this year.

Robbie Umphlett has gained a strong reputation as an efficient and productive farmer. He was the 2005 Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award winner for the Southeast. The family got out of peanuts in 2008 because the crop didn’t cash flow as well as cotton and soybeans.

Hands-on approach

Both Clint and Robbie stress a hands-on approach.

“I enjoy watching crops grow. I look at them a lot. I look at every foot of land we farm at least two or three times a week. I like to see what changes and what doesn’t change. We’re in the fields a lot,” Robbie says.

Adds Clint, “I’ve really been a farmer my whole life. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Clint is the fourth generation of Umphletts to farm in Gates County. Robbie began working on the farm when he was 18 years old with his dad Leon Umphlett and uncle Randolph Umphlett. The farm began in 1935 with Leon and Randolph’s father, Mills Umphlett.

In addition to the farm and their chicken operation, Clay Hill Poultry, the family owns timberland and custom cuts timber through Middle Swamp Logging. Damien Spence runs the poultry operation while Robbie’s stepson, Ben Spence, runs the logging operation.

Robbie’s wife Susan is integral to the operation. She handles all payroll and bookkeeping for all the family businesses. “We couldn’t do it without her,” Robbie says.

For the 2021 crop year, the family has already booked their cotton and soybean seed. They plan to plant an equal amount of both crops, depending on prices. One thing is certain, they are hoping for cooperative weather throughout the growing season this year. Because it was so wet, 2020 was one of the most challenging years they’ve ever seen in getting the crop in.

“What we really need is for the good prices to hold. We really could use a good year,” Robbie says.

That certainly is one desire all farmers have in 2021.

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