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Tradition less of a factor in planting decisions

The Johnson family farm in Tunica, Miss., has typically been centered around cotton, says Patrick Johnson, who manages the farm’s operations south of Tunica. But these days, planting decisions are based less on tradition and more on market behavior and input costs.

Johnson farms with his father Pat Johnson; uncle Mickey Johnson; Mickey’s son Michael; and Buddy Allen, a cousin-in-law. The farm produces rice, cotton, wheat, soybeans, grain sorghum and corn.

“We have the equipment to produce cotton, and it’s always been our primary crop,” Patrick said. “We’re not growing as much as we used to, but we’re ready to bring that acreage back up if we can find a way to do it.”

The latter has become more and more difficult in light of rising grain prices and steady to lower cotton prices. “Like most of the other growers in this area, we’re trying to stay flexible,” Johnson said. “It’s taken some time to do that. We’ve been biased toward cotton for such a long time.”

High corn prices pushed the farm into a corn/cotton rotation in 2007. Even though corn prices moved higher prior to planting this season, the farm kept its corn acres about the same as last year, while reducing cotton acres. Rice acres also dropped due to a wet spring.

After harvest, the Johnsons will shred cotton stalks, then run a Paratill over most of the farm’s acreage. “We’re not no-till, but we don’t tear everything down either,” Johnson said. “We go over ground with a middle buster in the fall or early spring to reshape the beds. We’ll run a harrow over the bed to smooth it out to start planting.”

The farm uses auto-steer technology on tractors for planting and rowing up. The farm also applies some variable-rate fertilizer, “which we hope will be a benefit, the way that fertilizer prices are going. We also do some yield mapping.”

The Johnsons will put out potash and phosphate in the fall. Weeds are burned down in mid- to late February. “For years, we had been using just glyphosate,” Johnson said. “But because of resistant marestail, we burn down with glyphosate and Clarity. One of our concerns is that we are seeing glyphosate-resistant pigweed here as well.”

The farm will burn down again at planting, going with glyphosate and a pyrethroid for control of cutworms. “The key for us is to start clean.”

The Johnsons plant all Roundup Ready Flex/Bollgard II varieties from Delta and Pine Land and Stoneville. As a seed producer for D&PL “we were able to grow Flex varieties for a couple of years before we went all Flex in 2007.”

Johnson says that Flex varieties “are easier for us to manage, and the varieties are yielding well, too.”

When asked how Bollgard II performs, Johnson said he’s pleased with the technology. “Original Bollgard worked very well for us, too. Being on the north end of the Delta, we don’t get quite as much pressure as growers farther south. Occasionally, we did have to make oversprays on original Bollgard cotton.”

This season, a tough planting season kept the planters in the field until around May 20, “which is a little later than we’d like.” A seed treatment of Cruiser will hold thrips down most of the time, according to Johnson. “Occasionally, we may have to come back with a foliar application. We like the seed treatments for safety and convenience.” Nitrogen is knifed in after the cotton is up.

In-season, most of the cotton will have two over-the-top applications of glyphosate. One of those applications will include Dual for residual control. “We’ve been able to do a pretty good job of weed control. If you spread your applications out too far, though, you can get some weeds like coffeebean that can get some size on them. The point is that even with the Flex system, you have to be sure to time your applications right, and catch everything when it’s small.”

Plant bugs have been serious pests in the past, although Johnson says that pressure hasn’t seemed as intense this year. “We’ve been able to control them with Centric, Bidrin and Orthene. The best-case scenario, we would spray two times; worst-case, five times.”

Growers in the area have been much more careful about where they place cotton relative to corn this season, noted Johnson. Many times, the proximity of cotton to corn is a factor in plant bug infestations in cotton. “We’re spacing those fields out a lot more.”

The farm is also starting to see a higher incidence of spider mites in dryland cotton.

Consultants Winston Earnheart and Tim Sanders scout cotton for insects and disease and for timing on plant growth regulators on irrigated cotton. The consultants scout for other crops besides cotton, now that prices of those commodities have shot up.

The farm is irrigated using a combination of center pivot and furrow. “We have found that the place for cotton is on our best non-irrigated ground,” Johnson said. “It’s great soil and has a history of doing well. We’re still about two-thirds irrigated.”

At defoliation, the Johnsons shoot for a one-trip defoliation program using Def, Prep and Dropp in various mixtures relative to temperature and time of the year.

The Johnsons harvest with John Deere six-row cotton harvesters. “We’ve just about eliminated scrapping. I don’t know if it’s varieties or our defoliation, we just weren’t getting enough cotton on that second pick to justify the wear and tear on the machines and the fuel costs.”

Cotton is ginned at Three Way Gin and Tunica Gin, both in Tunica.

When asked what worries him the most about cotton’s future, Johnson said, “High input costs.”

“That’s not as big a problem in these grain crops where commodity prices have kept up with the higher costs. The market for cotton is a little soft right now. Looking out into the future for cotton, we’re competing in a global market. The big question is can we get a price for U.S. grown cotton that will make it economically viable.”

One factor that has helped make Johnson more aware of the world dynamics affecting cotton production was his participation in the Cotton Leadership Class in 2006. The program is supported by a grant to The Cotton Foundation by DuPont Crop Protection.

“The class opened my eyes to a lot of things in the industry that I would never have seen from farmer’s perspective,” said Johnson, who has been back on the farm for 13 years after finishing his education.

“You meet people and hear their side of the story and you understand a lot more about it. There are other interests that have to be taken into account to keep the whole industry healthy. One of the best things about it has been the friends I’ve made in the class.”


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