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2010 Southwest Winner, Rusty Strickland

Fungicides, a three-year rotation schedule, nitrogen fertilization and a soil-applied insecticide are investments that pay off with profitable peanut yields, says Collingsworth County, Texas, producer Rusty Strickland.

Strickland, who farms at Wellington, averaged 5,800 pounds per acre last year on 385 acres of irrigated peanuts, a yield that helped him earn the 2010 Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award for the Southwest region. He also averaged better than $600 a ton for his crop — a $500 per ton contract plus a premium for grade to improve overall efficiency.

He says he’s fortunate to farm in the northernmost peanut production area in Texas, some 150 miles north and slightly east of Lubbock. Farmers typically plant from 14,000 to 18,000 acres of peanuts in the area around Wellington, according to Farm Service Agency reports.

“We don’t have as much disease pressure here as they do farther south,” Strickland says. “But a fungicide program is still important.” He may not need as much as farmers farther south in Texas or in southwest Oklahoma, but he attributes consistently high yields and good grades to keeping plants as disease-free as possible.

“I usually apply Abound fungicide around July 10. If conditions are extremely dry, I may wait a month, around Aug. 15, and then apply more Sept. 1 and Sept. 15. I may add one more applications at the end of September if we get into a disease situation. We can get rain in October and lose a lot of peanuts. It just pays dividends to use fungicides — better grades pay for treatments.”

He rotates chemistry to limit potential for resistance, and also uses Headline and Provost. “If I have leafspot, I’ll use Tilt to stop it.” He says any of the other three fungicides will help protect against leafspot but Tilt “stops what’s already going.”

Fungicides are crucial for his operation, Strickland says, but “rotation is the main disease prevention strategy; I don’t think we can get maximum yields without a good rotation. I want a field to be out of peanuts for at least two years. We plant a lot of wheat, some cotton, corn and milo, and peanuts have done well behind a wheat-milo combination.”

In that system, he harvests wheat, plants milo in the stubble, harvests the grain in the fall and then plants peanuts the following spring. He likes the organic matter that accumulates from the wheat and milo residue.

“We can plant corn in this area after wheat harvest. New hybrids help — we planted a 100-day hybrid last year that responded like an 80-day hybrid.”

His rotation also helps with weed control. He has one pivot circle in cotton for the third straight year to take care of nutsedge, his worst weed problem in peanuts. With heavy infestation, he uses Basagran and Dual in July. The treatment is expensive, he says, and he prefers not to use any herbicide over-the-top in peanuts.

“But, this program takes nutsedge out and keeps it out until we can dig the peanuts.”

Reduced-till cotton gives him more options. He uses higher rates of Roundup and Staple with a hooded sprayer to control larger nutsedge plants. “We let them get to 6 to 8 inches so we have more leaf area; at that stage, we can spray it and hurt it.”

His typical peanut weed control program includes Prowl pre-plant and Valor behind the planter. “We can hoe if we need to, but generally, that herbicide combination works well.”

Multiple crop options also work into Strickland’s tillage system. He’s doing as much reduced-till production as possible, but still has some conventional fields.

“Strip-till is the way to go,” he says. “But if we have a weed outbreak, we don’t have the option to plow. Also, every field is different — we may have some options to plow in reduced-tillage areas, but we stir up the ground, bring up weed seed and disturb the herbicide. We also lose moisture when we plow.”

He says he and his stepfather, Tommy Coleman, prefer not to break ground any more than necessary. “On windy days, we can lose a crop in a few minutes; wind cuts it to pieces and may cause burn from static electricity. Reduced-tillage is the way to go.”

He’s using a “one-tripper” unit to prepare a strip-till bed. It cuts stubble, rips into the soil, applies nitrogen and closes the slit. A small basket at the back levels the bed out.

“We plant behind that, so it’s one pass and then we plant. That’s all we need in stubble ground.

I like a small bed, about 1 to 2 inches higher than the surface, to shed water and prevent water from puddling around the plant.”

He says the capacity to plant several crops improves his tillage and rotation options. He’s in an unusual situation this year and will have no peanuts on his fields, although Coleman, with whom he shares labor and equipment, does have peanuts.

Last year’s planting schedule meant cutting peanut acreage or shortening the interval. “We planted a lot of peanuts last year,” Strickland says, “and cotton prices were up this spring, so we put a few more acres into cotton.”

Next year, he’ll go back to a typical three-year peanut rotation. “This just gives me one more year out of peanuts,” he says. “The longer we can stretch the interval, the better.”

Some producers say peanuts, a legume, may not need nitrogen fertilizer, but Strickland disagrees. “I apply about 100 units of anhydrous, pre-plant.” He also applies about 20 units of nitrogen, 110 to 120 units of phosphorus, 140 units of potassium and 20 units of sulfur with a coulter set 7 inches to each side of the row. Those amounts vary according to soil tests.

He may cut back on preplant nitrogen to 50 units and side-dress the rest after plants begin to produce nodules. “I think we need some nitrogen on the peanuts, but timing has to be right so the plant fixes nitrogen.” He says adequate nutrition makes a big difference in yield and grade.

Irrigation timing is also important. He irrigated all but 80 acres of peanuts last year. He averaged 1,800 pounds per acre on dryland but invested much less in them. Irrigation timing and amounts vary with each system and each season; some wells will supply more water than others, so he adjusts timing accordingly.

“With plenty of water I like to apply 1 inch each time,” he says. “With less — 7/10 inch to 8/10 inch — I try to water every four to five days. In some fields that’s easier to do than in others.”

With wells capable of applying just 6/10 inch at a time, he applied water in three days. “We made 5,400 pounds under that circle.” He says timely rains also helped, “and the field had been out of peanuts for two years.”

He says irrigation at pegging time is critical. “We want to keep the soil wet to keep the ground softer, cooler and to provide humidity for the plant.”

Producing peanuts in a dry climate is his biggest challenge.

“This year, we got a lot of winter and spring rains, but it can turn hot and dry and stay warm at night and that hurts peanuts. We can’t be 12 hours late watering peanuts, which means we can’t afford an irrigation system breakdown. If that happens, we lose yield.”

A water district helps monitor and conserve moisture. “The water table has dropped only 2 feet in the last two years but we don’t have as much as we did 10 years ago. Wells are getting weaker.”

In some cases, he cuts down to half circles on peanuts and other crops to stretch water resources.

He’s also looking at peanut seeding rates to rein in other costs. “We’ve typically planted 5 seed per foot of row,” he says. “We thought that was best for irrigation, but we cut ‘way back on our cotton seeding rate and tested that option on peanuts. With 1 seed per 2 7/8 inches, we made 5,400 pounds per acre.”

He says 4 seed per foot of row with good water should make 5,000 pounds of peanuts per acre. “We can use less seed — we don’t need a big population to get the same yield.”

Global positioning system technology also improves efficiency, Strickland says. “We save money with swath control on the sprayer; it’s accurate.” GPS on peanut diggers increases harvest efficiency. “We know we can stay right on the row.”

He’s also convinced that Temik pays off for both peanuts and cotton. “I apply 3.5 pounds of Temik at planting for nematode and early-season insect control. It gives peanuts a good start, and I won’t plant an acre of irrigated cotton without it.” He uses Lift inoculant.

Strickland says Florunner 458 has been his best variety and seems to be the most adaptable for the area. A few farmers have grown Spanish peanuts on contract, but runner peanuts are the dominant type.

He likes to plant in early May and harvest in early October. “I don’t want to get caught by a freeze. I usually let the peanuts field dry to 14 percent to 15 percent and may blow some air on them at the shelling point. That seems to help grades.”

Strickland sets a target peanut yield of 5,000 pounds per acre each year, “But I always hope to make better than that.”

He credits his family — wife Alison and sons Blake and Caleb — for supporting him as he builds his operation. “I couldn’t do it without their support,” he says.

And he credits Coleman for helping him get started and swapping equipment and labor. He recalls going to the fields with Coleman as a third grader and “wanting to be involved in the farm.”

After earning a degree in agronomy from Texas Tech University, farming was what “helped me grow up.”

He’s also getting involved in his industry, currently serving on the board of Panhandle Peanut Growers.

Strickland is carrying on a long tradition. Coleman’s family moved into the area and began farming in the late 1800s, and Coleman has grown peanuts since the 1970s. Strickland grew his first peanut crop in 2002 and looks forward to adding peanuts back into his production scheme in 2011.

“We’ll be more diversified next year,” he says.

The Farm Press Peanut Profitability Awards are based on production efficiency, honoring growers who produce the highest yields at the lowest cost per acre. Awards are presented to growers from the Lower Southeast Region, including Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Mississippi; the Upper Southeast Region, including Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina; and the Southwest Region, including Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

TAGS: Peanuts
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