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Peanuts gaining momentum in cotton rotation

Georgia and Alabama peanut producers are probably not trembling in their boots at the thought of Mississippi planting 20,000 acres to peanuts in 2005. Growers in those Southeast states harvested 750,000 acres and 223,000 acres of peanuts, respectively, this year, producing 2.66 million pounds.

But the Magnolia State does have something the Southeast does not apparently have much of – fresh ground. “One of our advantages is that we are new to peanuts and a lot of our ground was virgin ground for peanuts,” said Mike Howell, Extension area agronomist, based in Covington County, Miss.

This season, fresh ground produced average yields in Mississippi of around 4,000 pounds per acre, over 1,000 pounds higher than the national average. Alabama and Georgia’s average yields for 2005 were 2,500 pounds per acre and 3,000 pounds per acre, respectively.

Mississippi peanut acreage has been on the rise since 2002, when Mississippi planted 2,000 acres to 3,000 acres in peanuts. The 2002 farm bill removed the quota system and allowed growers to choose how many acres of peanuts they wanted to plant. Howell expects the growth in peanut acres to continue, with Mississippi increasing to 30,000 acres to 40,000 acres in 2006.

Joc Carpenter, who farms in Port Gibson, and his peanut production manager, Lonnie Gibson, tried 400 acres of peanuts in 2004 as a rotational partner for cotton. It worked well enough that they planted 800 acres in 2005.

While 2005 yields came in at a little under 2 tons per acre, production costs were a little higher than expected, mainly due to higher fuel costs for shipping peanuts to a buying point in Wilmer, Ala. “For peanuts to stay long term, we can’t continue to spend the money to ship the peanuts there,” Fortner said. “Fuel prices may never go back to where they were.”

Howell continues to receive calls this fall from growers asking about peanuts in a cotton rotation. “We’re putting together some budget numbers together to help in that decision.”

The budget numbers indicate a breakeven yield for Mississippi producers for 2006 of about 1.5 tons of peanuts. Therefore, a 2-ton yield would produce 1,000 pounds in profits. With a loan price of $355 per ton, the return would be about $177.50 per acre.

Those returns are close to what cotton producers receive, noted Howell, “maybe a little better. But we’re looking at peanuts over corn for the rotational benefit with cotton.”

The biggest benefit comes in lower fertilizer costs, noted Howell. “Since peanuts are a legume, producers will not have to put out nitrogen fertilizer. If it’s in a good fertilization program, in other words you’re fertilizing your cotton like you need to, we’re not recommending any fertilizer for the peanuts.

“We can get by with really low levels of phosphorus and potash,” Howell explained. “We may have to add some calcium, and we’re been putting out about a pound of boron per acre.”

A fungicide program is essential to combat peanut diseases, Howell noted. “Also 2,4-D is going to be used a lot in peanuts. If you’re going to be in a cotton/peanut rotation, you’re going to have to learn to control drift of 2,4-D beside cotton.”

Howell says harvesting costs for peanuts are a little lower than cotton harvesting costs. In addition, Howell did not see a big benefit from irrigating peanuts this year. “In fact, irrigating may hurt us.”

Howell suggests that growers carefully weigh a move to peanuts as a rotational partner. “We recommend that they don’t start with over 400 acres, which is about what we can harvest per harvester during one growing season. We can harvest about 25 acres a day if everything is working right.”

In addition, peanuts and cotton are going to be ready at the same time. “You have to have enough labor to get both crops out of the field at the same time, or they both will suffer.”

Fortner and Carpenter used two crews to make sure this was accomplished. “But making the peanuts is only half the battle,” Fortner said. “You’ve got to get them out of the ground and into the trailer. On one farm, we caught a rain before Hurricane Rita, then Rita dumped rain on us, then a week after Rita, we got another 2 inches of rain.

“We felt like the man walking around with a cloud over his head. It seemed like it wasn’t raining anywhere but on that farm. When we finally harvested, on the last 100 acres of so, we were losing a significant amount of peanuts. They were in the ground too long.”

Overall, harvest of the 2005 Mississippi peanut crop went well, according to Howell. “A few producers had trouble. It turned off dry, and they couldn’t get the diggers in the ground, and some had some equipment trouble, but for the most part, everybody is happy.”

Howell noted that Mississippi peanut producers could continue to enjoy high yields as long as they keep ground fresh. Rotate peanuts, “at least once every two years.”

Fortner and Carpenter plan to cut back to about 600 acres of peanuts in 2006. “With two combines and 600 acres, everything runs a little smoother. And it’s really important to be able to run out there and get those peanuts out of the ground.”

Currently, USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service does not list Mississippi as a major peanut-producing state. The state will not receive this designation until it produces more than 10,000 tons annually for three years. This year, it passed the threshold.

Howell says most of the peanuts produced in Mississippi went to the buying point in Wilmer. He noted that a new buying point is up and running in Aguilla, Miss. “And I’ve been getting calls from people wanting to put in an additional buying point in the south Delta. Whether or not that goes in will depend on acreage in the coming years.”

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