PORTLAND, Ark. -- A pesky rain is falling on open cotton and the harvesting help has gone home, but Bruce Bond isn’t overly concerned. After all, the harvest has gone well up to now, cotton is still hanging on the stalk, and for Bond, there’s not a better place to farm in the world.

Bond’s optimism is refreshing, especially when it’s so easy to get bogged down by cotton’s high-cost squeeze or a spell of bad weather. Bond’s upbeat approach to profitability, conservation and quality is why the Portland, Ark., cotton producer was named the 2005 High Cotton award winner for the Mid-South.

Bond, who farms 1,760 acres of cotton and 135 acres of soybeans, grew up on a row crop and cattle farm in northwest Arkansas, graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello. He has farmed on his own since 1977.

His college experience taught him two important things about cotton production. One, there are similarities between the focus of his college degree, forestry, and the cotton plants he raises. “Cotton is a woody plant. It’s like a small tree that we grow and manipulate. That’s why I enjoy it.”

Two, Bond is not afraid to try new things. “If I don’t know the answer to something, I’m going to look for it.”

Profitability in cotton production begins with variety selection, according to Bond. He runs an Ashley County cotton variety trial on his farm in cooperation with the Ashley County Extension Service, which gives him a firsthand look at how varieties perform. “I harvest the trial myself, and I write down what I like and dislike about different varieties. I use that information to select varieties for the next season.”

For Bond, yield is the primary driver of variety selection. His average yield from 2000-2003 was 1,135 pounds of lint per acre, compared to average yields for Ashley County of 951 pounds. This year, before rains put a stop to picking, no field had picked less than 1,500 pounds.

In 2004, Bond planted DP 555 BG/RR, DP 444 BG/RR, ST 5599 BR, FM 960 BR and ST4793 R. “I had some FiberMax varieties last year, and while they were not real good in the variety trials, they were good for me.” Bond planted one field of ST 4646 B2R, “which looks excellent.”

Maturity and quality are important factors, too, according to Bond. “I like the yield and the earliness of DP 444 BG/RR. It was the first cotton I picked. We could move our picking date up to Sept. 15 with more of the 444.

“DP 555 BG/RR is a real aggressive variety. It will take a licking and keep producing cotton. The ST 5599 BR is right there, too. It’s a lot more consistent yielder than its parent, LA 887. Big swings in yield can put you out of business,” said Bond, who gins his cotton at Portland Gin Co., in Portland.

Bond is aware of the cotton export market’s demand for high-quality cotton, one reason he’s looking at FM 960 BR. “If the yield is good, within 10 to 15 percent of DP 555 BG/RR, and the fiber quality is good, we will raise more of it. But the management is different. You have to be careful with plant growth regulators with FM 960 BR.”

To cut costs and widen his profit margin, Bond has cut back his seeding rate. “We’re pretty sure we’re going to get a stand, so we look for nine to 10 seeds every 3 feet. When we went to minimum-till, we started seeing better emergence of the seed. When we rip and hip in the fall, we have a firmer seedbed than if we disk three to four times and row it up in the spring.”

While Bt cotton has reduced control costs for heliothine pests, “now secondary pests — plant bugs and stink bugs — are eating our lunch,” Bond says. “I probably have $90 an acre in insecticide costs on Bt cotton. I think that’s too much, especially when I pay $32 right up front.

“Next year, I’d like to bump the non-Bt cotton acreage up a bit. I planted my refuge cotton on the worst ground I have, and one 23-acre field of it was some of the best cotton I picked this year.”

Bond is more impressed with the impact that the Roundup Ready system has had on his farm. “With the Roundup system, our cotton does not come up stunted. And we have some new herbicide products like Envoke, Sequence and Suprend. I used some Valor as a layby this year and have been very pleased with it.”

Wider equipment has also helped Bond reduce input costs. “Last year, I bought a transport load of diesel in February to do our spring work. That load of diesel took me to about the first of June. This year, we went to 12-row equipment, and we didn’t have to buy diesel until we started picking. We ran all year on that one load.”

In addition, Bond cultivates “only where we furrow-irrigate, and the rest of the time, we run the row hoods. That saves 4,000 to 5,000 gallons of diesel.”

In nominating his father for the award, Jason Bond, a rice agronomist at the LSU AgCenter’s Rice Research Station in Crowley, La., wrote, “He lives by the motto that he should leave the land in better condition than he found it. This creed reaches all facets of his operation from recycling to land-forming.”

Bond uses some form of minimum tillage on 100 percent of his operation. Most fields consist of silt loam soils which are low on organic matter and compact easily.

“We try to disturb the soil as little as possible,” Bond said. “We do a lot of work in the fall when we can. We follow ripper/hippers with a do-all and a planter. My fields haven’t had a disk in them in 10 in 12 years, except to smooth up the ruts or to disk down to land plane.”

Bond “flirted with no-till for several years. I’m disappointed in myself that I haven’t gone to no-till. But we certainly are making a lot fewer trips than we used to.”

Bond puts oil caught from power units and tractors in a holding tank for recycling.

Most of the rollout irrigation pipe Bond uses comes from Delta Plastic in Stuttgart, Ark., which has a recycling site near Bond. “We roll the pipe up and tie the ends. They come and pick it up. It’s been a good deal for us.”

Bond employs a tailwater recovery system which directs water to a large canal used as a reservoir to irrigate an additional 120 acres of cotton. He worked with landowners from Portland Gin Co. on an extensive network of underground pipe to reduce water use and deliver water to fields more efficiently than surface lines. Bond also relies on three center pivots for irrigation.

Bond is selective about pesticides used on the farm. “I always want to be safe. I don’t like for me or my guys to handle harsh chemicals. I work with them everyday. I’m not a turnrow farmer. I drive a tractor or a picker, too.”

Good defoliation is one key to producing quality cotton, said Bond, who usually goes with a two-step program of Finish and Def. “With Finish, I used a low rate the first time and a boll opening rate the second time. With Def, I used a high rate the first time and a low rate the second time.”

Good weed control is crucial for quality, too. “I don’t have the cleanest fields, but I do hate a weed,” said Bond, whose toughest weeds are morningglory and spiny amaranth.

Support people are also important to Bond. His crop consultant, Jim Jaggers, “has been working on my farm since he was 15 years old (as a scout). He’s excellent. He wants to make a good crop as much as I do.”

The head of his work crew, Alvaro Mondragon, is a proven leader as well, according to Bond. “Last year, my father, A. Bond, fell and broke his hip. He passed away in July during the middle of watering. Alvaro told me to take whatever time I needed. He said, ‘I’ll do my best.’ That’s all you can ask of anybody.”

Perhaps another reason Bond maintains a positive attitude is the volunteer missionary work he and his wife, Linda, perform in Guatemala. Bond will fly out of New Orleans Jan. 14 for his ninth trip to the country.

“So far, we helped build four churches down there. This year, we’re going with the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, working with one of its missionaries.

“Most of the guys who go are farmers,” Bond says. “Planning the trip can have a settling effect on the hectic pace of farming. It’s a good alternative for me.

“This year, we’re going to areas that don’t have a church and knock on doors and ask them if we can give them a Bible and if they want us to pray for them. Not that we have any hotline to Heaven, but just to show them that we care.”

On more than one occasion, Bond has seen Guatemalan farmers working their fields, and there is an almost instant connection with them. “I can see this one farmer in my mind’s eye. We went by one morning, he was hoeing corn; we came back by later that evening and he was still hoeing.

“I think of him when I’m roguing my fields, which I do sometimes. I’m chopping, he’s chopping, but I have a lot more opportunities than he does. I am just blessed to have been born in America and blessed to have a good father-in-law, Earl Pamplin (who helped Bond get his start in farming).”

Bond’s wife, Linda, is a retired schoolteacher and full-time grandmother. Bond’s daughter, Susan Book, is a pharmacist in Greenville, Miss. She and her husband, Melvin, have two children, Miranda, 7, and Makaila, 3, “who is going on 15.” Jason’s wife, Robin, who also has training in agriculture, began graduate work at the University of Arkansas while living in Fayetteville, and plans to continue graduate studies.

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com