L.D. Vaughn says he has two good reasons for growing corn this year, one expected and one just developing. The planned reason he planted corn is for control of red rice. The second reason — potentially higher prices for corn — wasn't in preseason plans, but Vaughn isn't going to turn any extra cash away.
Vaughn works about 2,000 acres with his wife and son outside Searcy, Ark. “I was born here 60 years ago and haven't been away for more than two weeks at a time for my entire life. I don't know much, but I know my land,” says Vaughn with a smile.
In addition to the 250 acres of corn Vaughn planted this year, he'll farm 700 acres of rice, 300 acres of wheat, 1,000 acres of soybeans, tend a fishpond, work 100 mama cows and look after 400 acres of pine trees.
“We've got just about everything but money!” he says.
Water availability in the area is bad and always has been, says Vaughn. Wells produce a “dribble.” To help with irrigation, Vaughn utilizes two reservoirs — 24 acres and 17 acres at about 18 feet deep.
Around 80 percent of Vaughn's land is precision-leveled at two-tenths every 100 feet. He and his son have been working on leveling land for the past decade.
“We've just about got it whipped. We do all the dirt work ourselves and hire out very little. Doing good dirt work takes time and that's something we just don't have enough of.”
Red rice is a problem that vexes rice growers throughout the Delta and Vaughn is no exception. To combat the weed he turned to something more and more farmers are adopting: crop rotation with corn.
“Anyone who raises rice has red rice. I've gone with corn to help for two years now. I've done it before, but when aflatoxin hit corn bad a few years ago, I cut back. But the red rice got so bad again, we had to do something and corn was it.”
Vaughn goes with a three-year rotation of corn, rice and soybeans. The rotation is working well so far.
“One year of corn seems to get rid of red rice. See, with corn, you get that red rice twice in a year: once in the spring with atrazine and once in the fall. When you're through harvesting, you can work the ground and let the red rice come up. It doesn't have time to grow seed before the cold knocks it out.”
Besides helping with red rice, Delta corn producers could benefit financially from prolonged rains hitting the Midwest. In the eastern part of the Corn Belt, reports are that farmers haven't been able to get into fields since Easter or before.
Of course, the Delta isn't immune to flood waters — once the Mississippi River hits flood stage, crops on the riverside of the levee will be underwater. Profiting off others' misery isn't appealing, but the possibility remains.
Even the later planting of many Delta cornfields may play to farmers' advantage. In many areas of Arkansas, it was mid-April before soil temperatures hit 55 degrees, safe enough to plant corn. Many growers fretted that it was getting too late when, in actuality, soil temperatures had never gotten high enough to plant.
“You shouldn't plant by date, but by soil temperature,” says William Johnson, Arkansas Extension corn specialist. “We've got farmers who plan to plant Bt corn up through June 1. That's not a bad idea. Last year, research in the state showed that May 15 corn out-yielded April 15 corn.”
Vaughn tries to take advantage of local opportunities to market his crop. The huge influx of poultry operations in the area is one way he does that.
“I market my corn at a local co-op for feed. That's where my grain bins come in (Vaughn has a handful of bins that store about 70,000 bushels). I'm able to store corn and sell it as demand comes. By doing that, I'm getting CBOT prices plus a premium. The co-op even picks up the corn.”
The “chicken business” is booming, says Vaughn. As a result, area corn acreage has increased.
With well over a billion birds in the state, it was only a matter of time before farmers started looking at corn seriously, says Johnson. Over their lifetime, the birds eat between 5 pounds and 8 pounds of feed. That translates to a lot of business for corn farmers. Just to supply the Arkansas poultry industry at current average yields, it would take 1.2 million to 1.3 million acres of corn, says Johnson. “We're wide open to the corn-growing possibilities.”
One problem in taking advantage of chickens' need to feed is lack of on-farm bin space in the state. The poultry industry doesn't use grain bins, preferring instead to use parked rail cars.
“If the state could ever get tax breaks or something for both farmers and the poultry industry, we could grow a lot more corn,” says Johnson.
That wouldn't just be good for the collective bottom line, but also for many of the state's soils. That's especially true of rice and soybean soils that often have a dearth of organic matter.
“Corn gives a lot back to the soil with organic matter and nutrients. If you fertilize corn properly, when it comes time to rotate soybeans or rice, very little needs to be done. Rice behind corn needs some nitrogen and soybeans will often just use what corn leaves behind. It's an awesome rotation,” says Johnson.