The several thousand acres of Tennessee land that the Sneed brothers farm has seen more than its share of consistent crop rotation through the years.
What started over 30 years ago as a small farm just outside Millington, Tenn. — through dedication and a shared family value of hard work — is today a sustainable farming operation that includes cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat.
“We have always relied on, believed in, and seen the agronomic benefits of following our cotton ground with soybeans, corn and/or wheat,” says Ray Sneed, a technically savvy producer who has been farming since the late 1970s with his brothers, Barry, Terry, and Marvin. The last brother, Marcelless, Jr., joined the operation in 1992 after returning from the armed services — making it a truly unified Sneed Brothers Farms.
Only 20 percent of their land has supplemental water from center pivot irrigation. They use it wisely, and rely on their years of experience, as well as advice from two crop consultants.
They use tile, as in some Midwest farm operations, to obtain proper drainage on low ground that wasn’t being effectively drained by land leveling or ditching.
Believers in diversity
Diversity, in more than one aspect across the farm, has always been important to the Sneeds. From the multiple corn and soybean varieties they choose, to their judicious use of pre-plant and post-directed herbicides, they’ve seen firsthand — and clearly remember — the casualties to farm products from over-reliance on one product type.
“I have always tried to approach farming from the mindset of multiple-use products, various tank mixes when appropriate, and always learning from each season. because each crop year is so different, thanks in no small part to Mother Nature.”
The Sneeds have also seen the result of what some residual herbicides can do to subsequent crops.
“We were using Scepter back in the ‘80s to fight pigweed,” Ray says. “But we didn’t realize the consequences of its residual carryover until one year we changed the row direction of our cotton. One particular day, we saw a specific spot in the field that was less vigorous and noticeably shorter in the 38-inch row” (back then, 38-inch rows were the norm).
They switched to Roundup the next growing season, and today 15-inch and 30-inch rows are the standard for Sneed Farms.
“We can make 15-inch or 30-inch rows now with the same planter,” Ray says. “We can lock out every other row on the planter and make it more user-friendly, as far as giving us more planting manageability across all of our crops.”
He also gleans ideas from other farming operations — even from soybean and corn farmers up in the northern growing regions of the U.S., and has more than once transplanted ideas to their farm. He uses wheat as a cover crop for many of their soybean fields, taking advantage of the water-retention capability of the previous year’s wheat stubble.
“We’ve taken ideas that we’ve seen work in others areas and made them work for us. We went from using maturity group 5 soybeans to 2.8s to shorten our growing season — which is what many farmers up north have to do.” Now, they are also double-cropping soybeans.
Taking advantage of market changes
Because of their reliance through the years on crop rotation on most of their land, when the price of grains skyrocketed two years ago, they were in a good position to ramp up their grain acreage and reduce their historical cash crop, cotton, by several hundred acres.
“Our father always grew cotton,” Ray remembers, “and my brothers and I have always grown it. I don’t see that changing — except maybe in the numbers of acres we dedicate to it each year.”
He keeps an eye on the world cotton market and fully understands the implications and impact that China, and more recently India, have on world carryover and the resulting fluctuations in price.
“Most farmers know the world has become smaller, insofar as how U.S. ag policies (as well as the ag policies in other countries) directly affect the planting intentions of many farm operators,” Ray says.
He knows that’s an ongoing, and very serious, consideration when it comes time to place seed orders each year.
Pigweed a major challenge
Asked which hurdles he considers the farm’s toughest challenges to clear each year, he didn’t have to think very long about what’s No. 1.
“Pigweed,” he says. “It has gotten out of hand in so many places, and West Tennessee is no different.”
The Sneeds still rely on some of the older products, such as Dual, Sencor, Prowl, Treflan and Cotoran to help control Palmer amaranth.
“It’s the most troublesome problem we have right now,” says Terry Sneed, who was a basketball player for Millington High School Class of 1980. He says competition from pigweed is much tougher than his old basketball rivals.
“We have hoe crews, but they have to be vigilant and thorough. You have to get the entire weed — roots and all — and sometimes we even hand spray herbicide where the pigweed was growing to keep any seeds we can’t see from sprouting.”
Problems with traffic
Another hurdle the brothers have to deal with more and more is traffic on area roads. They roll out their equipment early in the morning and roll it back in late in the day.
“Traffic can be a nightmare, and more importantly, it can be dangerous,” Terry says. “Most people in this area understand the necessity of agriculture, but often there’ll be someone who’s late or in a hurry, and they come blasting by you.”
The brothers wonder if some drivers ever consider just how much a tractor weighs compared to a car. “It’s amazing at times,” Terry says, shaking his head in disbelief at the actions of some drivers.
With a field of early soybeans already harvested and corn starting to dry down, Ray says as he winces while looking up at a searing late summer sun. “It’s shaping up to be a decent year for us — if Mother Nature will cooperate just a little longer.”