“From the time I could walk, following my father around on his cattle ranch, until I came back from college, farming was a part of my life,” says Walter Field.
But his venture into row crop farming in 2012, he laughingly says, “was like being thrown to the wolves.”
Walter, 29, the eighth generation on the family’s sprawling 8,000-acre timber/hunting/cattle operation in Noxubee County, Miss., says, “I had no row crop experience, I had no equipment, no equity. But with the high commodity prices in that period, I felt there was an opportunity to get into row crops, and I started almost from scratch.”
A friendship with another landowner, Leland Irby, who also was interested in row crops, bloomed into a partnership. That first year, they planted 600 acres.
Stay current on what’s happening in Mid-South agriculture: Subscribe to Delta Farm Press Daily
Walter says his interest in row crops was piqued when he was still in school at Mississippi State University, where he earned a degree in agricultural engineering, technology, and business.
“Our neighbors, Tanner Farms, a multi-thousand-acre cattle operation, had been farming some of our land, which had been grown up in thickets and needed a lot of clearing. It was very productive land that had been in cotton decades ago, when that was the chief crop here.
“When the Tanners no longer needed all of the land, and with high crop prices, we thought, ‘Why not farm it ourselves?’ That led to my partnership with Leland, and we’ve just gone from there.
“For that first year’s crops, my father let me use one of his tractors, and Leland and I bought a planter, hipper, sprayer, nitrogen applicator, and a grain cart. I financed the sprayer through the FSA Young Farmers program and used FSA financing for my first grain bin. Leland bought our combine and corn head and I bought a soybean head.
“I first planted winter wheat, which was then double-cropped to soybeans, and then planted corn and full-season beans.
“There were a lot of times that season I was on a tractor all night,” he says. “It wasn’t easy, but yields turned out well and we were able to get good prices for the crops.
“As I’ve gained experience, and we’ve added equipment and facilities, every year has been a little easier,” says Walter, “but I certainly couldn’t have accomplished it without Leland as my partner, and the help of family and friends.
“Area farmers, some of whom I went to school with, have been generous in sharing their experience and advice — the Skinners; Robert Earnest, my Helena sales rep,; and the Huerkamps, have all been a big help, among others. I was constantly on the phone with them, and they were always willing to help.”
Steady increases in land, equipment
Each year has seen an expansion in acreage and additions to their equipment/facilities lineup.
“We increased to 1,150 acres in 2013,” Walter says. “In 2014, we increased to 1,950 acres, and this year we’ll have 2,300 acres of corn, soybeans, and cotton. We’ve not grown wheat since the first year, although I planted some this winter on some hill ground for a cover crop to control erosion, but it won’t be harvested.”
Of the current farmland, Walter says, “800 acres is family land that I rent; 1,260 acres is land that Leland owns, and the rest is rented from another landlord. Almost all the family land is creek bottom or river bottom land. A lot of it hadn’t been farmed since the 1980s, and a considerable amount clearing was required — treelines and hedgerows that had to be removed to make large, open fields.”
In the fairly steep hills in the area where the family’s Calyx Star Ranch is located, “You’d never know, from driving through the area, where all you see are hills and trees, that there are row crops here. But the bottom land adjacent to creeks and the Noxubee River is highly productive.”
Noxubee County has long been an agricultural county; in the early 1900s, it was the No. 1 cotton county in Mississippi, and it still ranks among the top crop production areas in the state, with consistently high cotton yields.
“We’ve done what we could thus far, as we could afford it, to improve the land and get it in good shape for crops,” Walter says. “We’ve added more land where it made economic sense, but I think we’re now about where we want to be in terms of size — although if a piece of land became available that would fit well with our operation, we would consider adding it.”
Longer term, he says, probably in 2016, “We’re looking the possibility of dropping soybeans and moving to a cotton/corn rotation — ideally, a 50/50 split. We’ve got to do some work on the details, but I think we’ll drop soybeans because of intense deer pressure, which cuts into yields each year on some of our farms. We would have already tried some limited cotton acres, but we weren’t able to arrange for harvesting. So, we’ll be looking at buying a picker.
“We’re continuing to do drainage work, and clearing out old hedgerows and treelines to get in position to add center pivots that will be fed from reservoirs. On Leland’s land, there is a 180-acre lake that can be used for irrigation, and I’ve done surveying and clearing for a 20-acre lake where I hope to add a pivot in 2016. The Noxubee River, which flows through the area, is also a potential source of water for irrigation.”
As little debt as possible
Each year has seen the addition or upgrading of equipment, Walter says.
“We now have three John Deere tractors, an 8260R, an 8410, and an 8320R; two 12-row planters, two 12-row hippers, and two 12-row nitrogen applicators; a John Deere combine with an 8-row corn head; a 35-foot MacDon soybean head; two 500-bushel grain carts; and two Sunflower 30-foot disks. I bought an old 5-1/2 ton Army truck and hopper trailer that we use for hauling grain, and I just traded up to a John Deere 4730 sprayer.
“We started with pretty much no storage, and now have seven bins with 130,000 bushels of storage. Some have StirAtors and heaters, and two have an Intelliair bin management and monitoring system, with sensors that monitor temperature and humidity and can be controlled remotely via the Internet.
“In all this,” Walter says, “my goal has been to have as little debt as possible.”
In their first crop year, 2012, the 170 acres of wheat averaged 46 bushels; soybeans, including double-crop, averaged 43 bushels; and corn averaged 128 bushels.
“Prices that year were by far the best since I started farming,” he says. “But as crop prices have gone down in subsequent years, yields have gone up, so we’ve been able to come out OK.”
In 2013, corn averaged 160 bushels and soybeans 38-40 bushels. In 2014, corn averaged 170 bushels and soybeans 38-40 bushels. On some fields, bean yields were as high as 52 bushels, but on others only 30 because of deer pressure. “It’s a struggle to make up that kind of loss,” Walter says, “and that’s why we’re looking at switching to a corn/cotton rotation.
“Because of close proximity to large poultry operations, he has used chicken litter in his fertility program. “I apply 2 tons per acre ahead of corn. I’ve had excellent results, and I believe some of our yield increases are attributable to use of litter. For soybeans, I’ll apply some dry potash.”
In the last two years with extremely wet springs, bottom land soils dried a bit more slowly, and corn was planted late April and early May, and soybeans in May. In a normal year, he says, planting would be a week or two earlier.
“Most of our corn is sold to Peco Foods, a large poultry operation in Alabama,” Walter says. “There isn’t enough corn produced in this area to come anywhere near meeting the demand by poultry companies; as a result, our corn basis is one of the best in the country. A lot of our soybeans go to Cargill; the rest is sold through various brokers.”
He says he’s had no significant weed problems, and no documented resistance. “Yellow nutsedge is a pain to deal with, but we’re able to get decent control.”
Corn varieties in 2014 were Dekalb 6469, 6208, 6757; Pioneer 1319R and 33N58; and Terral 28R10. “For 2015, I’ll stick with the top four from that group — the three Dekalbs and the Pioneer 1319R.
“We have a lot of limestone in this area, which can result in high pH soils and sometimes iron chlorosis, so we want soybeans that can do well in those soils. Terral 56R63 has done really well, as have Progeny 5610 and 5711.
“I started soil testing in the fall of 2011, and have done some sampling every year since then. I’ve used Helena Chemical Company’s service that uses a Veris rig for zone sampling. It generates maps that show crop fertility needs for various locations in a field. In the next two years, I expect to have this mapping completed for all our fields.
Their John Deere combine has a Deere yield monitor, Walter says, “But we also have a Precision Planting 20/20 Yield Sense monitor that captures and analyzes data by management zones. With their FieldView app on my iPad, I can see plant population, seed spacing, variety, yield, and other data superimposed on an aerial view of the field. Their 20/20 SeedSense system was a no-brainer for the planter — it provides precise seed placement under varying field conditions. We’ve tried to keep up with developments in technology and precision ag.”
It’s probably 15-18 miles between the farthest points on the farms, Walter says, “but a lot of the fields are adjacent, and we have shops in two locations, so it works well in terms of equipment logistics. And with our newer 12-row planters that fold up, movement between fields is no problem.”
He hired his first fulltime employee in July 2014, “and a few times I’ve used some of Dad’s labor to help in a crunch.”
Family has long farming history
Although Walter is a relative newcomer to the world of row crops, his family’s history here traces back to the 1820s, and his and wife Dawn’s daughter, Grace, born last August, is the ninth generation on the land.
“Our ancestors came here from Virginia in the 1820s,” he says. “At one time, there were 53 families on the place — now there are just 14. There was a cotton gin, a post office (Calyx) and general store combination, which my father, Robert, now uses for his office, and two family cemeteries. Cotton was grown here until the mid-1960s, and the gin operated until the mid-1950s.”
There was a period of 30 years or so when there was no male heir, he says, and the family quit farming and rented the land.
“Dad has a degree in chemical engineering and worked in the oil industry at Port Arthur, Texas, until 1973, when he came back here and got back in the cattle business. The farm’s No. 1 business today is timber, primarily pine trees; No. 2 is deer hunting leases on about 5,500 acres, a significant source of income, and managed turkey hunts; and No. 3 is cattle.
“This will be my seventh year of conducting guided turkey hunts — we have repeat clients from all over: Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. We have a lake house where they can stay while they’re here. Our timber land is excellent turkey habitat, and we manage the timber with controlled burns and other practices to keep down undergrowth and promote not only optimum tree growth, but also habitat that produces a consistently good population of turkeys.”
Walter also oversees the deer hunting leases and timber management and marketing.
“I’m looking forward to the future,” he says, “and continuing to grow – not necessarily in size, but in terms of productivity and becoming more efficient with the acres we farm.”