Des Arc, Ark., farmer Davis Bell is hearing the background noise. He's not sure of what's coming, but he wants to be ready.
“Farming is changing,” Bell said. “My son was talking about a 2,000-acre farm he saw that was owned by one person. It was all precision-leveled and a lot of it was on zero grade. Irrigating was just a matter of turning wells on and off.”
Bell would like to spend less time irrigating these days. And not just for the sake of the business. “It also goes toward keeping your sanity. When I get to the point where the farm can't run without me, I need to find another occupation. I have to have a life. My family has to have a father. But right now, the labor is what's killing me.”
How labor problems and the shift to more of a global market will affect U.S. agriculture in years to come, Bell isn't sure. But he does feel a greater responsibility to make sure the farm remains profitable amidst the change.
“If the trend is moving more toward zero-grade rice, I have to figure out how that is going to affect me today, in five years from now and how it's going to affect my sons and grandsons 40 or 50 years from now,” he said.
While Bell will weigh any decisions on change carefully, he won't be looking to overhaul his rice, corn and soybean rotation — although he may tweak it a bit.
The rotation “has allowed the use a lot of different chemicals, so I don't get a buildup of chemicals,” said Bell, who is raising 750 acres of rice, 850 acres of soybeans and 450 acres of corn, along with winter wheat this year. “And I don't have a buildup of pests or diseases since I'm not running two to three years of the same crop.”
In addition “soybeans and rice really benefit from the corn in the rotation. I know I'm building up some tilth in the soil from the corn. I don't have that tightness or hardness in the soils.”
The rotation does add to Bell's labor worries however. “Having rice in the rotation is what causes me to have to till the ground, said Bell, who furrow irrigates his corn and soybeans.
But he's tweaking those tillage practices too, reducing trips as much as possible. One recent change began as an experiment.
“Two years ago, I planted no-till corn on my soybean beds with a regular planter on two fields,” Bell said. “One field was the second best corn field I had. The other one, I didn't get the seed deep enough and the birds got it.”
This year, he bought no-till coulters for this planter and went with almost 300 acres of no-till corn. “So while one of my employees was planting my corn crop, I had my other two men preparing rice ground. Normally, I would have had all three of them preparing the ground and planting corn. So it freed up two men.
“If I could do that on all my corn and soybeans, it would take very little equipment. But rice is still going to take a lot of labor and equipment.”
After corn harvest, Bell will work down his stubble once or twice so it will deteriorate over the winter. “In the spring if conditions are right, I will disk the ground one time. If there's not too much residue after that, I'll run the land plane over it and I'm ready to plant rice.”
At planting “I can come in right behind the land plane with a no-till drill. The drill has given me a lot of flexibility. I can plant into any situation.”
Bell will put out Command on as much rice ground as possible, just before rice emerges. Because of his ability to rotate chemicals and keep problem weeds from gaining a foothold, this may be his only herbicide application in rice.
“I may come back and spray one time with propanil for escapes. If not, I flush to keep the Command activated.”
Bell's pre-plant P and K rates will depend on soil tests. “After the rice gets big enough and I've got my grass under control, then I'll come in with my pre-flood nitrogen, put a light flood on it and I'm ready to go.”
Bell will drain the flood to let the ground dry out, but only for a short period of time. “We flood back up and make our mid-season nitrogen application. We'll walk the fields and check for disease. This year, it looks like stink bugs are going to be a problem.”
Bell also raises seed for Stratton Seed Co., in Stuttgart, including Clearfield CL 121, a rice line resistant to Newpath herbicide. “I like what I see with the Clearfield. It's not as high yielding, but it's not bred for that. It's bred for red rice control. I've heard my neighbors say that if you have a serious red rice problem, you'll lose 30 bushels to 50 bushels to the acre.”
Bell didn't do so bad with Clearfield last year, averaging 154 bushels per acres. He also likes what he sees with Newpath.
“Newpath is just like any other residual herbicide, you need to keep the ground moist or wet. The one thing I like about it is even if you let the ground get a little dry and you get a little bit of grass at one leaf, it will reach back and get it if you flush across.
“I think their stewardship program is excellent,” Bell said of the program to prevent outcrossing of red rice and herbicide-resistant commercial lines.
“I'm very proud of BASF for really emphasizing it. It goes along with what we need to be doing as farmers anyway. There are a lot of people out there who think that farmers are not good environmentalists. That's not true. We are the best environmentalists there are.”
While Bell does not plan on changing his rotation philosophy, he's considering splitting his rotation up, perhaps going with a corn/soybean rotation on some ground.
In the meantime, Bell keeps one eye on new developments in the industry. “For me to remain profitable, I've got to see where the industry is going. I don't want to necessarily be ahead of the industry. I don't feel like I'm that type of person who is always trying new things.
“But by the same token, I can't wait until everybody else is doing something before I do it. Then, you're just a little bit behind. You have to find out about new things. I have to be open-minded.”
Producer finds little time to use marketing skills
Des Arc, Ark., farmer Davis Bell believes that U.S. farmers are still leaving lots of money on the table by not taking advantage of marketing opportunities. But who has time to keep up with the markets anymore?
“When I got into the futures market in the 1980s, you didn't hear anyone talking about global markets,” Bell said. “You saw supply and demand numbers from another country, but it really didn't make a whole lot of sense.”
Bell pointed to his DTN monitor in his farm office. “Those prices right there are trading on global news. I realize we're trading on weather in the United States, but in the back of those traders minds is how many beans are left in Brazil and how much Argentina is going to deliver.”
Bell marketed his own crops for years, becoming quite adept at it. But he recently turned over the responsibility over to Sparks Companies, which had formed a small producer organization.
“It has definitely freed up my worry and concern and lets me concentrate on production,” Bell said. “We didn't pick the top on everything, but we got some real good prices. I'm trying to be average or a little above.”
Bell knows he has a lot at stake.
“I'll raise 275,000 bushels of crops this year. If the market moves 10 cents a bushel in one day, that's $27,500 in one day. That can get to you, especially if the market makes a 30-cent or 40-cent move.”
Bell also believes his corn, wheat, rice and soybean crop mix is a natural hedge against falling prices most of the time. “The diversity of my crops has benefited me tremendously. I have four crops to market. Everything has been down the last three or four years, but normally, you'll only have one that will be extremely low and the others will end up making up for it.”