When it came to deciding whether or not to spend $120,000 to install a center pivot in an area where the systems are a rarity, “We had to do some serious thinking,” says John Grant, who farms hill land in north central Mississippi.

Drilling wells in the area is an expensive — and often futile — proposition, given the depths required to try and get adequate water to run an irrigation system.

Grant and his son, Kenneth, who farms with him, had a go at drilling a well on a field where they planned to grow corn in 2008, but called it quits when they got to 600 feet and still couldn’t get sufficient water to run a center pivot.

They weren’t ready to give up on irrigation, though.

“Bogue Creek runs along one edge of the field,” says John. “You can walk across it in most places and not get too wet, and just to look at it, you wouldn’t think there’s enough water flow to support a quarter-mile center pivot. But, it doesn’t go dry in the summer, and when we checked the flow, it averaged 3,000 gallons per minute. The pivot would require only 1,000 gallons per minute.

“We worked with the Big D folks at Greenwood, Miss., to design a Valley system that would pump water from the creek, uphill through an underground line, to the pivot.

“We had to pay the electric company $9,600 to run a line to power the pump in the creek and the pivot, but when we looked at operating costs, electricity was much less than diesel.

“We ran the system 16 days last year, and we’ve already used it several times this season. It takes 36 hours to make a full circle on 167 acres, putting down a half-inch of water.”

When harvest time came, says John, any reservations they may have had about the irrigation investment vanished.

“We averaged 195 bushels on the field, and the yield monitor on the combine was showing some spots with 230 bushels. On areas outside the pivot, we averaged 54 bushels. With the price we got for our corn, we figure we recouped half the cost of the system in just one year.

“If corn prices hold this year, and we’ve already got a lot of it booked, we’ll likely make back the rest of what it cost us. As soon as we get this pivot paid for, we’ll look at putting in another.”

John and Kenneth, who live in and near the small town of Duck Hill, Miss., have 20-plus farms in Montgomery, Carroll, and Grenada counties — some only 10 acres to 12 acres and stretching 20 miles north to south. All the land they farm is rented.

“We had 1,000 acres of cotton last year,” John says, “but I lost three farms with a total of 800 acres that I’d been renting for 26 years, so this year we only have 540 acres in cotton, and 1,250 acres in corn. We’d have had 550 acres of cotton, but the deer ate up about 10 acres; I replanted, and they ruined about 90 percent of that, so I just plowed it up.

“With the soybean price outlook last year, we planted some twin-row beans, but had a lot of rot and the deer did so much damage, we ended up averaging only 12 bushels. I said then I wouldn’t grow any more soybeans.”

Another investment that’s paid off for the Grants is the on-farm storage they’ve added — four GSI bins that have 120,000 bushels of capacity.

“We put up two in 2007 and two more in 2008,” John says, “and they’ve been well worth the money. Our combine can cut 10-12 truckloads of corn a day; if we didn’t have storage, we couldn’t move it all out of the field. It’s 40 miles to the Greenwood, Miss., elevator, and you can sit there for hours waiting to unload.

“Now that we have storage, we can do as much with two trucks as we could with 12 when we were going back and forth to the elevator. We can cut a lot of acres in a day’s time.

“We harvested 142,000 bushels of corn last year, and after we filled our bins we had to move the rest to the elevator.

We start cutting at about 17 percent moisture. We’ve got blowers in the bins, but no dryers.

“We like corn; it’s easy to work, and a fast crop to produce. The hardest part is getting it out of the field, but we’ve got enough equipment to keep everything going at a good speed.”

This year, says Kenneth, “We planted most of our corn land to Pioneer 31P42, a Bt stacked-gene variety. On about 200 acres of really tough ground, we planted Pioneer 31G71, which was our main variety last year. We’ve also got test plots for 11 Pioneer varieties, looking at drought tolerance.”

John and wife Diana’s other son, Scott, is a Pioneer representative, “So, of course we plant Pioneer varieties,” John laughs. “But, they’re really good varieties, with excellent yield potential, and they perform well for us.” They started planting April 1, between rains. “We wanted to start in March,” Kenneth says, “but it rained almost constantly for three weeks.

“The high temperatures in late June this year have affected pollination — you can really tell the difference in ears that were pollinated before we started irrigating and those that pollinated afterward.”

Most all of their fields are minimum-till, with one 40-acre field that’s completely no-till.

“We started last year applying poultry litter to our fields, at 2 tons per acre,” Kenneth says. “We incorporate it with one-trip plowing — Mississippi State University tests show results are better with incorporation, since it’s such light material. Except for N-Sol, that’s it for our fertility program. We’re getting 20 percent to 25 percent carryover from one year to the next with the poultry litter, so this year we cut back to 1 ton per acre. We soil test all our fields to be sure we’re getting adequate fertility.

“We’ve talked to a number of farmers who are into their third or fourth year of applying poultry litter, and we’ve heard nothing bad about it. With farming as expensive as it is now, particularly when nitrogen fertilizer went sky-high, we’ve got to do everything we can to hold the line on costs.”

John says they bought a $72,000 stainless steel trailer specifically to haul the poultry litter. “We’ve hauled over 4,000 tons so far this year for our farms and for others in the area who want it spread on pastures and hay fields.”

All their cotton is Stoneville 5458, a flex variety. “We chose it because of its yield potential,” Kenneth says. “We started planting May 23. We’ve got enough spray equipment that we can handle that much acreage in a day.”

The Grants have averaged 800-1,000 pounds per acre, dryland, for the last several years. They rotate fields between cotton and corn each year.

“With Bt and Roundup Ready technology, we really don’t have any significant insect or weed problems,” John says. “Our biggest problem has been volunteer corn in our cotton — we hoe most of it out, but we also do some spraying with Select.”

They have an extensive lineup of equipment: bulldozers, trackhoes, scrapers, two 6-row pickers, one 4-row, and a 4-row brush stripper, 12-row planting and tillage equipment, seven tractors, module builders, and combines.

John does his own dozer work — “I did all the earthmoving and prep work for the center pivot” — and lends a hand with various projects in the community that require heavy equipment.

“We’ve got a lot of trucks, and we’ll haul anything anywhere, from poultry litter to sand and gravel, you name it.”

Even though they don’t own the land they farm, “We always do everything we can to build up and take care of the land,” John says. “We treat it like our own. We carry out conservation measures and follow erosion control guidelines. When we lose a farm, as we did this year when one was sold, we leave it in better shape than when we got it.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com