Cotton is still king on the Brantley farm near England, Ark. Dow Brantley is adamant about that. After all, cotton pays for a lot of overhead, and once it's in your blood, it's there to stay.
But in 2004, Brantley allocated 20 percent of his cotton acreage to an early soybean production system (ESPS) to take advantage of high soybean prices and to minimize some of the risk associated with cotton.
The shift paid off with soybean yields of a little over 70 bushels sold in time to collect a dollar premium for August delivery.
The success of the shift to beans is not a threat to the future of cotton for the farm, stressed Dow, who farms with his father, Laudies, and brother, Russell.
“We're going to keep our acres close to the same. If cotton prices stay where they are, we might back off some more. We'll replace it with some more of those early soybeans. But we're cotton farmers first. We have to take care of our crop and be here when it needs us.”
The Brantleys farm 2,600 acres of cotton, 1,100 acres of rice, 1,000 acres of corn and 1,500 acres of soybeans. In 2004, they decided to take about 400 acres of good cotton ground and put a little in corn and the rest in Group 4 soybeans.
“We were staring at cotton prices last fall that made it up to 70 cents, then we watched them fall on a daily basis to where they are today,” Brantley said.
Meanwhile, soybean prices were around $8 a bushel, which was new territory for the young farmer. “This is my fifth crop, and until this year I had never seen soybeans over $6. Going with soybeans was an opportunity to make as much profit per acre with less risk. That was the big reason.”
The Brantleys had been watching their neighbors make big yields on ESPS, developed by retired soybean agronomist Larry Heatherly, USDA's Agricultural Research Service at Stoneville, Miss. “We thought we could take some of the knowledge they and the Extension Service had and try it. We did extremely well.”
The Brantleys aimed for a 60-bushel yield with ESPS on the cotton ground. “With a decent price of around $8, that would be better than growing cotton this year. Lo and behold, we did a little better than that.”
The early crop averaged 73 bushels per acre, according to Brantley. “The highest-yielding field was around 82 bushels. We harvested on a Sunday afternoon and couldn't believe what we had. We had touched 70 bushels before, but on very small acres.”
The cotton ground going to early beans had 150 pounds of 0-18-36 put out in the fall. The Brantleys burned down with glyphosate and 2,4-D. They go with a no-till approach to soybeans, rice and cotton, “which allows us to push our equipment across more acreages.”
Cotton soil is disturbed only in the fall, when furrows are cleaned out for irrigation purposes. In rice and soybeans, “if we can get in the field at harvest without making a rut, we run a true, no-till system.”
The last week in March, three rows were drilled into old cotton beds with a John Deere 1890 drill. “We didn't plant in the middles because we heard that early beans make shorter plants and make more beans lower to the ground than we were used to. We thought we might have trouble harvesting beans in lower positions planted in the middles. We planted around 55 pounds to the acre.”
Early-planted varieties were DK 4763RR, Armor 47-G7 and Morsoy RT4480. “The Delta King variety led the pack in yield.” Later-planted varieties included Asgrow 5501 and Armor 49-P9, which were planted on flat ground.
After emergence, they applied a pound of glyphosate over-the-top followed by another pound of glyphosate two to three weeks later, applied with a John Deere 4710.
Quadris was applied for the first time this year. “I sprayed the whole farm, so I don't have a check. But that might be where those 10 extra bushels came from. Disease pressure was heavy.”
Early beans “were blessed with rainfall, and we watered only one time. The rest of our beans were watered two to three times.” The Brantleys furrow-irrigate everywhere except low-lying, buckshot rice ground, which is border-irrigated.
“Stink bugs are our No. 1 pest, but pressure was light this year,” Brantley said. “We sprayed our early beans for stink bugs when we sprayed Quadris, even though we weren't at threshold levels.”
The light insect year and ample rainfall meant boosted early beans. “Our input costs were low. And we had almost perfect growing conditions for early soybeans.”
Beans were harvested with a John Deere 9760.
The Brantleys' late Group 4s were harvested in mid-September and averaged 62 to 63 bushels per acre. Harvest of the Group 5 crop was still under way in late October, and averages were coming in around 50 bushels, according to Brantley. “We are having an extremely good soybean crop.”
Expanding acres of the ESPS did cross the Brantleys' minds, given the yield differences across maturities. “But we can't go to too many August beans because we have corn and rice we need to get out. Can we go to a Sept. 15 harvest and grow a late Group 4? You bet. We'll grow a few Group 5s next year, but we won't grow many.”
Cotton will remain in the mix because of its tradition and its ability to pay overhead, even though an operation with more soybeans could reduce labor, according to Brantley.
“We want to be cotton farmers. We like to grow cotton. You always talk about what a family farm is. A farm family includes my family, but our work crew out here have families, too.”
In addition, “We have two cotton harvesters which have to have a certain amount of cotton go through them, so we can back off cotton only so far.” In addition, the Brantleys are members of a local gin which will process a little over 30,000 bales this year.
Brantley took a brief detour before returning to the family farming operation prior to the 2000 crop. He graduated from the University of Arkansas with an agricultural business degree and moved to Washington, D.C. He worked for two years at the Farm Service Agency as a legislative liaison between FSA and Congress, on issues pertaining to the agency.
“I woke up one day and said, ‘I'm going home.’ I love Washington, but when I lived nine miles from work and it took 45 minutes to get there, I realized it was time to go home.”
The Washington experience “was very beneficial to me on the farm and in working with our local FSA office. I'm not saying I know something that nobody else knows, but I do understand the programs somewhat.”
Brantley is also participating in the Rice Leadership Program, administered through the Rice Foundation. “I have one more class in February, and I've loved every minute of it.”
Brantley's wife, Amy, also worked in Washington, D.C., as a aide for Rep. Marion Berry before she returned to Arkansas in August 2000. They were married the following March. She now works as a fundraiser for Children's Hospital in Little Rock.