If he had been speaking in a different venue, Johnny Hunter probably would have been getting a lot of amens during his presentation at the National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference in Tunica, Miss.
Hunter, who grows cotton, soybeans, corn, rice, wheat and popcorn on 2,500 acres in Essex, Mo., summed up the feelings of many producers with his wry comments about the costs of modern U.S. agriculture. He was one of more than 100 producers, Extension specialists, researchers, consultants and industry representatives speaking at the conference.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I spend all this money doing all these ‘necessary’ things that all these people are telling me to do,” he said, singling out Virginia producer David Hula as an exception. (Hula, also a speaker at the Southern Corn & Soybean Conference component of the event, produced a record yield of 454 bushels per acre for a National Corn Yield Contest entry in 2013.)
“I want my crops and my land to start paying their own way without constant needs for applications of this and that at $5 an acre,” he noted. “I feel like I have to baby these crops along constantly, especially cotton.”
Each time he gets a report from a consultant or field specialist, he says, it has a recommendation for him to apply another material – at $5 an acre.
“John, we have to apply such and such, and it’s only $5 an acre,” he said. “Then two weeks later, I get another recommendation for boron, and it’s only $5 an acre. Well, the next thing you know you’ve spent $50,000 on $5 an acre treatments.”
Hunter believes one of the best approaches for eliminating being nickled and dimed to death with such costs is to improve the health of his soil.
“While we have a highly productive soil, we have a highly degraded soil structure,” he said. “By improving our soil health and our soil structure, we hope to be able to reduce our inputs and reduce our overall costs in our crop production.”
Today, most farmers are extremely vulnerable to market swings and weather conditions. Hunter is hopeful that by improving soil health he can take some of those outside factors out of the mix. “Then we’re not so dependent on what the price of fertilizer may be or what the price of the chemicals are or how much crop insurance we can get. We can put a safety net under ourselves by improving our soils.
“And that’s really what we’re gearing up to try to do.”
To accomplish that objective, Hunter plans to use a diverse mix of cover crops and what he calls “almost no-till. The reason it’s almost no-till is that, as I said, we are furrow-irrigated so we have to make a trench for the water to go from the crown to the low end.
“We’ve come up with a really neat idea, and we have a prototype built that works just the way we want it to. It’s two disc blades and a plow and a packer wheel. What it allows us to do is to cut through the cover crop and leave a small trench but leave the rest of the cover crop and every other middle undisturbed.”
The cover crop residue will lower the soil temperature and reduce plant stress. At the same time, it will allow Hunter to capture the moisture from the infrequent summer rains that occur in the Mid-South. “They seem to come at an inch an hour, and they run right through your fields,” he said. “We want to be able to take some of this help from Mother Nature and put it to work for us.”