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With technology on a seed: North Texas corn farmer simplifies dryland operation

Ronnie Lumpkins spent the best part of an afternoon in late October in his Fannin County, Texas, farm office — contemplating.

Lumpkins was wondering about the changes he made in corn production in 2002, trying to figure out how to duplicate 137 bushel dryland corn. He also averaged 72 bushels of wheat per acre. But he didn't make as many changes in his wheat program.

“If we had just changed one thing in corn, the planning process would be much easier,” Lumpkins says. “Nearly everything we did last year could have helped; we made a number of changes.”

One change he will not repeat is planting corn on fallow ground. “In 2000, a wet spring kept us from planting as much corn as we wanted, so we let a lot of ground lay out. I'm certain that helped corn yields. We had better planting conditions in 2002.”

In the past two years, Lumpkins has changed varieties, switched to reduced tillage, altered fertilizer placement and changed insect control strategies. He likes to think he's capitalizing on “technology on a seed” to improve pest and weed control and simplify his 4,000-acre row-crop operation.

“We run a pretty even split with corn and wheat,” he says. “We can harvest all the corn ourselves and may get a little help with wheat, so we're not cutting in July. The 50/50 mix works well with our equipment.”

Reduced tillage keeps some machinery in the shed longer and labor out of the fields more than conventional systems did.

“We're planting 100 percent Roundup Ready corn,” he says. “Last year was our first experience with Roundup Ready and the system worked perfectly. We plant in wheat residue and plow just enough to work out the ruts from harvest.”

Lumpkins says wheat harvest weather creates some obstacles for reduced tillage systems. “It never dries out enough, so we have to combine wheat in wet conditions, and that puts a lot of ruts in the fields. We have to do some tillage to smooth it out.”

He says corn ground is normally pretty clean by planting time but expects to need some winter weed control this year because of a wet fall. “We'll see a lot of Roundup sprayed in this area over the next two to three months,” he says. He's also concerned that fields without some sort of residue or winter cover will erode badly.

Lumpkins says the unlimited window of opportunity to spray Roundup over Roundup Ready corn simplifies the operation. “We can apply well into the growing season without injury to corn,” he says.

“I'd like to take care of weeds in one pass. Last season, I made two applications one pint of Roundup UltraMax. Next spring, I hope to make one trip with a point-and-a-half. I'll wait until the corn gets eight to 10 inches tall.

“I don't think I'll lose any yield by waiting that long. and then the corn will develop a canopy and I'll be through with weed control. I never cultivate.”

Insect control also will be on the seed this year. Lumpkins will plant NC+ hybrids with a Prescribe seed treatment. He says only a handful of seed companies offer the treated seed and he's found NC+ to be the most customer-friendly.

“The first time I tried seed treatment, I bought corn from NC+ and another company. We had to order early to get adequate seed to plant our acreage. That was the year spring rain kept us from planting all our acreage. NC+ did not have any kind of return policy, but they came and got the seed I couldn't get in the ground and didn't even charge a restocking fee.”

The other company would not take back any seed and Lumpkins was stuck with it. “I gave seed corn to some of my neighbors,” he says.

In 2002 he used only NC+ and will do the same again this year. “They probably took back $40,000 worth of seed,” he says. “That meant something to me, and I'd be hard-pressed to change now.”

He says Prescribe seed treatment also filled a gap for North Texas farmers. “We always have to treat for chinch bugs in this area,” Lumpkins says. “That's not a common problem for much of the corn-growing area, but we always have a problem.”

Jim Swart, an Extension integrated pest management specialist at Texas A&M-Commerce, says test plots on Lumpkins' farm indicate a significant yield improvement with Prescribe treated seed, with 118 bushels-per-acre yield, compared to a check plot with just 67 bushels. A Poncho plot averaged 125 bushels.

Poncho may be available to corn producers for the 2004 crop, Swart says. “The advantage of Poncho is its activity on corn rootworm,” he says. “We don't see much difference in chinch bug control.”

Lumpkins says rootworms are of little concern. “We rarely plant corn behind corn, so we don't see that many rootworms in this area, but we always treat for chinch bugs.”

Until Prescribe was available, Lumpkins used Counter. “Counter is a good product,” he says, “but Prescribe, as a seed treatment, is easier to handle.”

For one thing, he doesn't need a “lock-and-load” unit on his planter. “We saved about $6,000 on a new one we bought lat year,” he says.

A reliable seed treatment, Lumpkins says, “is something we wanted for a long time. We don't have a lot of help at planting time, so the simplicity is a big advantage.”

He says the combination of seed treatment and Roundup Ready technology, has simplified his worn/wheat system significantly.

“I don't use anything but Roundup for weeds and only Prescribe for insects. With a new 90-foot boom sprayer, I can cover 500 to 600 acres in a day.”

He uses that John Deere spray rig for custom work and says some of his customers deal with significantly more complex treatments.

“One day I had to apply six different chemicals for one customer,” he says. “He had several fields with different weed problems, and we had to change materials for each one.”

Lumpkins says less is better for his operation. “I think my corn is healthier because I use fewer chemicals on it,” he says. “With conventional systems, we can cut herbicide rates to limit plant injury, but control is less effective.”

He says his system “saves time, labor, fuel and crop chemicals.”

Rotation remains a crucial part of the program, however. Lumpkins says keeping rootworm populations at low levels shows one advantage, but he's also convinced that long-term rotation will extend effective life of the Roundup Ready system.

“Eventually, we're likely to run into some resistant weeds,” he says. “Rotation will help take care of those and extend the life of our herbicides.”

He recalls one field he rented a few years ago that had a shattercane infestation. “That weed can be a big problem in milo, and when we rotate into wheat, we still have problems when we go back to milo. But by rotating to corn and using Roundup, we can take shattercane out.”

Lumpkins is also pondering the possibility of changing his fertilization program this year. He thinks in-furrow fertilization at planting may inhibit root growth.

“I'm thinking about broadcasting fertilizer and cultivating it in. I'd also like to examine the possibility of getting fertilizer six inches to eight inches deep to help the root system. I'm not sure how to do it yet because we get so much rain in the fall and winter.

“I need a good dry period from Thanksgiving until Christmas to get the fertilizer in.

“I also may cut acreage in the future, concentrate on 1,000 to 1,200 acres and make better use of our resources. If I can cut back, increase per-acre yield by 20 percent, I could improve profitability. We have been getting bigger with bigger tractors and more equipment.”

Smaller and simpler, he says, may be better. And technology on a seed, he says, will be a key to a simpler operation.

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