Halls, Tenn., cotton producers Steve, Jackie and Austin Fincher will have no tanks, insecticide hoppers or seed bags to deal with when they begin planting this spring.
Their lean and mean approach to cotton production means that the Finchers will spend less than 10 minutes loading seed, versus at least a half an hour if they had to deal with in-furrow or residual products and 50-pound seed bags.
That amounts to an extra hour to two hours of planting each day, equivalent to about 75 more acres, according to the Finchers.
The family operation knows there is some risk associated with planting cotton this way. But the benefits of being able to plant faster with less equipment outweigh those risks — at least they have so far.
The Finchers began their move to this system with Roundup Ready cotton in the late 1990s. Going with a 100 percent postemergence weed control program allowed the producers to forego their residual herbicide application and the tanks that went along with them.
All that was left were tanks and/or hoppers for intensive in-furrow, at-planting applications.
Advancements in seed treatments and the ability of their local retailer to precision-apply those treatments took care of that. And going with seed-applied treatments not only eliminated the insecticide hopper on the Finchers' planters, but allowed them to go with larger 3-bushel seed hoppers.
The result is a leaner, faster planting operation. “There are no water trailers, and you don't need a lot of help,” Steve said.
Local seed treatments
Two years ago, one of the Fincher's seed and chemical suppliers, Helena Chemical Co.'s Alamo, Tenn., retail outlet, bought a new Gustafson Weigh Pan commercial treater and began offering “just-in-time” seed treatment options to growers. “It's a very accurate system,” said Chip Greene, the outlet's branch manager.
“Samples are pulled to insure that the proper active ingredient is going on the seed. No matter what the seed size, it's going to put so many ounces of solution of insecticide or fungicide per 100 pounds of seed.”
In addition, “treater operators are trained and certified, and three or four people constantly check and recheck what we're doing.”
Such precision used to be entirely the domain of seed companies, but custom seed treatment machinery has moved downstream within the last two to three years, noted Lee Rivenbark with Bayer CropScience/Fibermax.
Rivenbark stresses that the process must be done correctly to avoid problems. “When seed goes into a treater and then comes back into the bag or a bulk system, the seed supplier becomes concerned from a quality control standpoint. In fact, many seed companies will not stand behind seed purity standards once the containers have been opened and treated by third parties.
“But a lot of retailers are doing a very good job of precisely applying treatments to seed, particularly fungicides. That brings a lot of value to the cotton grower.”
It's also made inventory management a lot easier for Greene. “We can just pull in a variety of cotton seed and then at any given point, the farmer can decide what he wants. I don't have the warehouse space to pull in all the various treatments we could have.”
On the downside, seed treating is labor intensive, according to Greene. “It's a lot more work and there are lot more hours involved.” But “just in time” delivery has helped the Finchers. “Used to, we had to book the seed way back in January and the seed company would treat the seed,” Steve said. “Now (early April) we haven't decided what we're going to put on the seed yet.”
Helena sales representative Daniel Riley says a 24-hour turnaround is possible, “as long as we have the chemicals on hand.”
According to Mike McFatrich, product manager for Gustafson, there have been two significant upgrades in seed treatment application technology equipment since 1999.
“Both upgrades have increased the consistency, uniformity and precision of application. Our most recent equipment, the Gustafson Logic Controlled Proportioning System, is not only precise in application, but also can provide a log of what was applied to the seed and at what rates for the grower.”
This precision is necessary due to the small amounts of chemical that are now applied to the seed, according to McFatrich.
Some of the treatments available to the Finchers include insecticides like Gaucho, Cruiser and Orthene and fungicides like Helena Preferred and Helena Preferred Protege. Biologicals such as Kodiak and plant growth regulators can also be applied as seed treatments.
If it's cold and wet at planting, “we usually go with the Cadillac treatment, Protege,” Steve Fincher says. “As we get into the season when disease and insects aren't as bad, then we get into the Helena Preferred.”
The Finchers were concerned that as they pulled away from in-furrow fungicides, they were going to sacrifice production. “But our last two crops have been the best two crops we've ever had. We also had good growing conditions during the season.”
Part of the reason for the success of this approach, according to Greene, is that “seed treatments are performing almost as well as in-furrow fungicides and insecticides in an average environment.”
But he added a bit of caution: “If you're under severe adverse conditions, heavy thrips pressure or heavy seedling disease, it's hard to beat a full rate of a good in-furrow product.”
Greene noted that west Tennessee growers “are getting good thrips control with seed treatments like Gaucho and Cruiser and an overtreatment of Orthene.”
But he also stressed that growers who farm in situations where there are reniform nematodes should consider the fact that an in-furrow insecticide like Temik does have activity on that pest.
The last piece of the puzzle is the recent development of bulk-seed handling systems. Seed boxes that hold as much as 2,000 pounds of seed allow the grower or treater to eliminate re-bagging of seed.
When the Finchers first began custom-treating seed several years ago, the treater re-bagged their seed for a small fee. Last year, they purchased two Friesen 220 seed tenders, which handle about 80 bags of seed each. “The seed tender has a plastic auger with a 5.5-horsepower Honda engine. One man can fill a 12-row planter with it,” Steve Fincher said.
The seed comes to the dealer as two-way treated seed. “They'll add Orthene and Cruiser or Gaucho, plus Protégé or Delta Coat. “They'll bring it out here. We'll pull the seed tender up, and we're ready to plant.
“We were afraid that when we went to this that we might have to raise our seed rate because we might have more seedling disease,” Steve added. “We have some cold ground, but it didn't happen. We're running 8 to 9 pounds of seed and holding a stand.”
Crockett County, Tenn., cotton producer Lynn Mount hasn't noticed any adverse effects from eliminating his in-furrow products and going with all seed treatments. “Last year, we had a lot of cotton replanted in this area. We had about 1,700 acres and had to replant only 6 acres and that was because water stayed on it for two days.”
On the other hand, Mount isn't exactly sure why he had to do so little replanting. “One thing was we just barely put our seed in the ground. It didn't have to struggle as much to get out.”
Mount, who uses a seed tender manufactured by CrustBuster Speed King, says he believes that chemicals applied by the retailer, “are fresher. On some of it last year, it was treated one day and we planted it the next day.” Mount plans on treating all his cottonseed with Gaucho and Orthene this season, as well as a fungicide and a plant growth regulator.
“It's going to save time, be convenient and it's safer.”
Even smaller farmers can go lean and mean, according to Mike Powell, proprietary products manager for Helena. The company markets a tender called the Helena Seed Box that allows growers to handle bulk seed without investing in the larger capacity, more expensive tenders.”
The smaller tenders do require users to carry seed via 5-gallon buckets from the tender to the planter box. The cost for the use of the gravity-fed box is not as much as the cost of re-bagging the seed, which is proving to be a good incentive for going bulk. “We haven't had one customer who went to bulk seed go back to 50-pound bags,” Powell said.
Helena begins treating cottonseed about 30 days prior to planting and will finish around the end of May, according to Powell.
According to Bobby Hendrix, district sales manager for Gustafson, cotton producers who have gone to the lean and mean planting system “are saving money and still getting the protection they need, plus they're saving on time and labor at planting. That's what's driving the bus on these decisions.”