EDITOR’S NOTE: This season, Glendora, Miss., cotton producer Ricky Belk will make variable-rate applications of plant growth regulator and defoliants on 750 acres of highly variable cotton ground. He hopes the effort will gain him more uniform crop maturity and cut costs. He’s agreed to give Delta Farm Press his time and access to his farm as the season progresses. After harvest, Belk promises to tell us exactly what he thinks about variable-rate applications. In this article, Belk explains his reasons for trying this emerging technology.

Admittedly, Ricky Belk wouldn’t know a megabyte from a mouse pad when it comes to navigating the Internet.

“I’m not a computer person at all,” says the Glendora, Miss., cotton producer.” If I get on a computer, I can usually find what I want, but most of the time I have to ask my kids, ‘what is this?’”

Belk’s lack of computer wizardry didn’t stop him from enrolling 750 cotton acres in a service which generates prescription maps for variable-rate applications through a Web-based interface. The prescription maps take the form of digital information that is loaded directly into farm machine applicators. The provider of the service, InTime, Inc., is based in Cleveland, Miss.

In the beginning, the service didn’t appeal too much to the tall, easy-going farmer, whose shop and Adron Farms office sit just off Hwy. 49 South. “I always felt like it was more for your office-type guys.”

There are several explanations for taking such a leap of faith for Belk, who doesn’t even have a computer in his farm office.

The farm that Belk selected for variable-rate applications is close to the Tallahatchie River and runs the gamut of soil types. “The ridge land is super cotton ground and the bottom land is awful cotton ground, and it’s all on the same row and changes 15 times from one end of the row to the other.

“In the past, we’ve put out plant growth regulator based on the needs of the good spots in the field even though 20 percent to 50 percent of the field may not be like that one spot. So we believe we’ve been putting too much plant growth regulator in those areas. We’re unable to maximize what we can do with that particular stalk.

“My thoughts going in are that we might grow a more consistent crop with variable-rate technology. I don’t know that we will make the good cotton any better. But I think we can make the bad cotton better, or not as bad.”

Belk is certain that InTime, founded by Perthshire, Miss., cotton producer Kenneth Hood, was created for just that purpose. “It’s all about making crops and saving money. That’s the bottom line. I may not make as big a crop, but if I make more money, that’s fine.”

Two years of good cotton crops in a row provided Belk with the right frame of mind for the trying the new technology. “After bad years, I always think that next year is going to be better. After good years, you think that you can’t keep it up forever. With all this talk about government payments being cut, we all better figure out how we can do things quicker, better and cheaper.”

Still, when variable-rate tasks were divvied out this spring, Belk managed to maintain a safe distance from the computer. The farm will take care of the variable-rate spraying, while his consultants — scout Billy Bryant and agronomist Andy Moore — will scout and write prescriptions. InTime will consult and provide scout maps for Bryant and Moore and prescription maps for Belk’s drivers.

Around bloom, Belk will order his first crop biomass image from InTime. The day after an airplane shoots the image with an infrared camera, a geo-referenced scout map will be generated and made available to Bryant and Moore on the InTime Web site.

The scout map will delineate seven management zones within Belk’s fields. Bryant and Moore will use the scout map to evaluate and write a prescription for each of the zones. Using an iPAQ equipped with GPS, “he can walk right to that zone and see what it needs,” Belk said.

“All the scout map is doing is giving you a visual image from the day before of exactly what condition your cotton is in on a scale of one to seven,” said InTime sales representative Alan Whitman. “And you’re able to identify where each particular condition is located in the field.”

The technology has value to consultants, too, according to Whitman. “The scout doesn’t necessarily have to look at all the Zone Ones, because all Zone Ones are usually fairly consistent in their characteristics. He can look at Zone One, then go straight to Zone Two. That’s what interests the consultants because they can do their scouting so much quicker.”

After the rate for each zone is determined, the consultant or grower accesses the InTime Web site again and generates a prescription map which is loaded directly into the farm’s application equipment.

Belk’s objective is to have InTime shoot four total images this year. “Our first two images will be for variable-rate application of plant growth regulators. “We’re going to start the program a little later than most people because we raise skip-row cotton. Pix applications in skip-row aren’t nearly as crucial as Pix in solid cotton. The third shot, we may be looking at a foliar feed. The last shot will be for defoliation.”

Belk’s equipment purchases for variable-rate applications include a new Case 3310 Patriot set up for variable-rate applications. The sprayer will be equipped with VariTarget VTN nozzle tips from AGCO, which can put out between 5 gallons and 40 gallons per acre. The spring-loaded tips “are a whole new technology. We haven’t used them yet, but I’ve been told they are the tip to use.”

Belk opted for a top-of-the-line controller, a Raven Viper Precision Application System, which also provides as-applied mapping and spray reports. “This thing even has the capability to show you what gravel road you’re driving on.”

If rains keep him out of the field, he’s made arrangements with Sturdivant Brothers Flying in Glendora to hire out aerial variable-rate applications.

Belk will make a year-end evaluation of the program based on how uniformly mature the crop is at harvest and how traditionally bad spots in the fields perform.

“We know that when we get to a certain place in the field, the cotton always falls off. If we can achieve not having to scrap any cotton by having a more consistent maturity in the field, I’ll be happy with the program. It’s real bad management to run over 200 acres scrapping to get about 70 acres worth of cotton. Also if I don’t have to scrap, I can cut the stalks and get it ready for corn the next year.”

Belk, who also has ventures in land-leveling and custom applications, doesn’t expect that he’ll need to be a computer guru by the end of the season, either. “I’m going to leave the computer work to Billy and Andy. I don’t know if I’m too hard-headed to become a computer person.”

Belk stresses that a variable-rate application program — for all its high tech buzz — is still a crop plan, and thus is subject to change as the season progresses. “Mother Nature is dealing us a hand and we’re just playing it out. I could end up with 10 images at the end of the season, or only three.”

But the good thing is that each image gives the producer a peek at what Mother Nature has dealt him a couple of weeks before he sees it with the naked eye. That’s enough to make even the most hard-headed producer take notice.

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com