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Is wider better, farmer pondering question

McClanahan farms 1,300 acres of cotton, 300 acres of soybeans and 160 acres of wheat on hills and bottom ground in west Tennessee. He went to a wider configuration to address the lack of available labor in the region. But he’s run into a few problems.

The conversion itself wasn’t too costly. He traded a year-old 8-row planter, and an old 8-row bedder for a new Case 1200, 12-row vacuum planter and a re-built 12-row bedder and added a 12-row, Redball hooded sprayer for about $36,000.

Other equipment includes two, four-row John Deere 9965 pickers and a six-row Paratill. McClanahan kept an 8-row high-clearance sprayer and an 8-row hooded sprayer.

The producer had difficulty transporting his equipment down narrow county roads even with 8-row equipment. With 12-rows, his routes to fields have become even more circuitous and sometimes, controversial.

For example, his effort to get the county to widen one road exemplified the fact that farmers just aren’t getting any respect these days. After the road was widened and six-inches of gravel put down, a local newspaper ran an article lambasting the county for spending too much time and money on it while neglecting more populated areas. “They think that a farmer doesn’t need a road,” McClanahan said.

Urban sprawl from nearby Memphis has had other impacts on McClanahan. In 1999, the producer was renting one field through a local real estate agent, who had subdivided the property for residential sales. During the middle of the season, the agent sold a five-acre lot right in the middle of the field.

In a gesture that exemplified the divide between farmers and the public, the real estate agent first offered to reimburse McClanahan only for the rent. The producer had to quickly remind him that he had around $350 per acre invested in the crop.

Fortunately, they reached an agreement for the purchaser to pay McClanahan for his inputs and the producer bushogged the cotton. Ironically, the land was left untouched until after harvest. Today, a big, brick house stands in the middle of the lot and the surrounding field lays fallow. Unfortunately, the real estate agent is reluctant to rent any for-sale cropland to McClanahan.

Loss of land to subdivisions has also resulted in more than the usual number of irregular-shaped fields, further complicating McClanahan’s conversion to 12-row equipment.

“If I had rectangular fields, it would come out even. On my no-till land, I lost 80 acres out of 480 acres around the ends. I was able to get a lot closer to the ends with the 8-row. It cost you in fertilizer and chemicals.”

On one field, he paid for fertilizer on 113 acres and only planted 78 acres. “It wasn’t just due to the ends. There were a lot of terraces on the field too and they were built to accommodate 8-row equipment.”

McClanahan is far from giving up on wider equipment, however. When he does get a big rig moving in a field, “I can eat up some land in a hurry. I like that part. The most I’ve ever planted with an 8-row planter is 175 acres a day. I’ve planted 300 or better with the 12-row. But that’s on some of my bigger fields.”

After cutting the stalks in the fall, McClanahan will run a Paratill on the bottom ground and if it’s dry enough, he’ll run it on the hill ground. “I didn’t do it on the hill ground last year, even though it was dry. We didn’t have any compaction because of the dry weather. The way you get compaction is when you run over your ground when it’s wet.”

The producer will sow about a half-bushel of wheat per acre on his hill ground to protect against erosion, and then burn it down with Roundup about two weeks prior to planting. Prior to planting, or just after, he’ll put out his nitrogen, phosphate and potash.

Last year, McClanahan raised Roundup Ready/Bt cotton on 80 percent of his cotton and 20 percent in non-Bt, Roundup Ready varieties. “This year, I went to 95 percent Roundup Ready/Bt and five percent refuge. The Bt cotton was a definite plus in 2000, because of worm problems from boll weevil eradication sprays. I spent over $100 an acre on insect control on my refuge cotton in 2000.”

The producer plants Paymaster PM 1218 BG/RR on the hills and Deltapine DP 451 B/RR on the bottoms.

McClanahan will plant into the killed wheat and go with an over-the-top application of Roundup as soon as he can, this year at the three-leaf stage. “A lot of people wanted to wait until the 4-leaf stage and now, it looks like they’re not going to get it done.”

McClanahan’s seed is treated with Orthene and System 3, plus an in-furrow fungicide, Rovral. No residual herbicides are applied.

On bottom ground, McClanahan will run a mulch-finisher harrow and a Do-allin the spring. He’ll put out all his phosphate and potash fertilizer and 15 percent of his nitrogen and re-bed. He’ll sidedress the rest of his nitrogen between squaring and first bloom.

Before planting, he’ll run the Do-all again to knock the top off the beds. “This year, I bedded it up pretty early and too many weeds had come up. So two days before planting, I spot sprayed it with Roundup.”

He’ll try for a second over-the-top application of Roundup before it gets to the five-leaf stage, “but I’m afraid with the (rainy) weather this year, I’m going to have to go with the hooded sprayer. If I don’t get on it within the next two days, the cotton’s going to be too large.”

Another complication for Roundup application timing this year is the variation in cotton plant age within fields, caused by extremely dry weather for the first three to four weeks after planting.

After cotton is too large for over-the-top applications of Roundup, McClanahan will spray Roundup under the hood and in a directed spray. At lay-by, he’ll go with Roundup and Karmex. “A lot depends on the weather and the weeds. If I don’t have grass, I can probably get by without the Roundup.”

At this point, McClanahan still has mixed feelings about the advantages of going wider. “I think the picker drivers are going to like it because they have a wider turnrow and don’t have to slow down as much. But I’m going to see how it works out this fall.”

One thing that’s not going to change is the quantity and quality of the local work force. “Used to be, workers would come up and knock on your door wanting work,” said McClanahan, who has one full-time hand. “Now you can’t find anybody. Also people are making more money these days and they want more time to spend it.”

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