Port Gibson, Miss., cotton producers Lonnie Fortner and Joc Carpenter had to make two major adjustments when they planted 400 acres to peanuts in 2004. First they had to break out of a cotton producer's mindset to plant fast and ask questions later. And they turned their primary focus from insect control to an intensive, in-season disease management program.

The first year, peanut yields averaged 4,600 pounds an acre, about 600 pounds more than their most optimistic expectation. This year, Fortner and Carpenter have upped peanut acres to 800 acres, although they believe that over time their rotation program will require about 600 acres of the crop.

The decision to shift some acreage to peanuts came as the producers looked for a rotational crop to replace corn.

“The only way we've been able to increase our cotton yields is to rotate with corn, and it's just tough making any money with it,” said Carpenter, who farms about 2,000 acres of cotton and 600 acres of corn.

When they decided to make a go of peanuts, they purchased three pieces of equipment to get rolling — a digger, a six-row pull-type combine, and a grain cart. They already had everything else, including planters and spray rigs, in their cotton operation.

“Until last year, none of us had seen a peanut combine, but some good friends, Joe Morgan, Hattiesburg, Miss., and Van Hensarling, Richton, Miss., are two of the bigger peanut producers in the state,” Carpenter said. “Van came here four or five times when we were planting peanuts or digging peanuts and setting the combine. He was a big help.”

They hired Hensarling's consultant, Trey Bullock, to handle scouting and spray recommendations.

According to Fortner, who manages peanut production for Carpenter, “The biggest adjustment between cotton and peanuts is that as cotton farmers, we want to plant everything quickly. In peanuts, we can't dig them all at once, so we have to space out planting. It's hard to get in that mindset. And when it comes time to harvest, we don't just run out and get through quickly. It's slow.”

In fact, employees drew straws on who drove the cotton picker and the combine at harvest. The loser plodded through the field at about two miles an hour, according to Fortner. “One reason for the slow speed is that with our silt loam soil, we tend to grow a little dirtier peanut. Going slower gives you a little more time to get the dirt off.”

After cutting cotton stalks on future peanut fields, Fortner established a wheat cover crop. In early March, before the wheat took off, he applied Roundup with a pinhead square applicator on the top of the beds.

In April, he killed the rest of the wheat. Keeping the wheat root mass going in the middle longer “should help keep that middle somewhat looser and mellow, which should help get the pegs in the ground and help peanuts turn loose of dirt a little better when it comes time to dig them. Our thinking is that the redder soil tends to get harder in the summer, and we're concerned with the peanut peg getting into the ground.”

Fortner ran a six-row PATS strip-till rig, (Precision Application Tillage Systems) right in front of the planter to prepare the seedbed. The unit rips 12 inches deep, seals off the bed and rolls it flat for planting. The finished bed is about 12 inches wide.

The unit is also used in cotton fields and has replaced a minimum-till plow. “The minimum-till implement seemed to collapse the row, and we ended up re-hipping,” Carpenter said. The PATS rig “doesn't collapse the row and we can plant right behind it. Our thinking is we can get away from the other rig.”

While the optimal planting date for peanuts is May 1, Fortner pushed the date back to April 26-27, going with Georgia Green, a runner peanut.

In 2004, they applied Dual and Roundup immediately behind the planter. This year, they waited, applying Dual and Roundup five or six days later. “That helped us because last year we had to make two herbicide applications. This year, we only made one,” Fortner said.

An intense, expensive program to manage disease begins immediately, according to Fortner.

At planting, Fortner applied Lift, a liquid inoculant, Abound, a fungicide, and 7.5 pounds of Temik in-furrow. Temik is for control of thrips, the primary vector for the spread of tomato spotted wilt virus. “If something can jump on you like tomato spotted wilt virus, there's no sense in arguing over 2 pounds of Temik,” Fortner said.

“It's not a cheap crop to get going,” Fortner said. “If you have to have a fungicide for Rhizoctonia to get cotton out of the ground in April, you better not leave Abound out if you're planting peanuts there.”

The standard disease schedule is to apply Tilt/Bravo at 30 days, when peanuts start blooming, followed by Abound, at 60 days, Folicur, then Abound at 90 days, before wrapping up with Tilt/Bravo.

Their herbicide program this year includes a four-way tank mix of Storm, Gramoxone, 2,4-DB and Cadre, applied over-the-top. Storm contains Basagran, a safener for Gramoxone.

On some fields “we went with Cobra and Cadre for tall water hemp. It's our bugaboo down here.”

Harvest started Sept. 20, the Monday after Hurricane Ivan blew through the south Delta. One of the first lessons they learned was to harvest as quickly as possible after digging. “When we harvested the peanuts three to four days behind the digger, we didn't have any trouble,” Fortner said. “But when we waited nine to 10 days, they had really collapsed into that old row. We were having to pull up a lot more dirt to get them out of that hole.”

Carpenter said the farm “can make cotton-type money with a 2-ton peanut yield. Last year we signed a contract with a sheller for $45 a ton. We netted $400 a ton, $355 in the loan and a $45 contract. This year, there hasn't been a contract, so we're raising peanuts this year only for the loan.”

In 2004, peanuts were hauled to Wilmer, Ala. “Last year, we had $60 in freight costs,” Carpenter said. Crop inputs in peanuts were between $280 and $290 an acre.

According to Mike Howell, area agronomist at Mississippi State University, the state's peanut acreage grew from an estimated 10,000 acres in 2004 to 20,000 acres in 2005.

“Most of the new acres are going into the Delta part of the state and the southwest corner of the state. A lot of farmers in the Delta are evaluating 50 to 60 acres. If they do well, we may have 50,000 acres next year.”

There are two reasons for peanut expansion, according to Howell. “Peanuts are more profitable than anything else right now. That may change if we get a lot more acres. The quota system went away, too, which opened the door for a lot of Mississippi farmers to start growing peanuts. As long as we can keep it on some good, sandy soil, we're in good shape.”

Howell cautions growers “not to get too big, too quick. There is a real art to digging peanuts. They can't combine peanuts like they do soybeans or corn. When the wind quits blowing, it gets so dusty you can't see where you're going.”

Bullock agrees about a quick expansion. “One thing I'm afraid of is that we don't just go in and plant the heck out of them and think we're going to make 5,000 pounds when the harvesting capacity is not there. You need to plant what you can harvest with one combine and wait a week before planting the next group.

“And on peanut ground, if it rains during harvest, you need to be able to get back on that ground in a couple of days.”

Bullock said peanuts “do well from 5.8 to 6.5 pH, and they do well at a low fertility level. You just need lime and calcium. It's a low input crop from a fertilizer standpoint.”

Bullock said time will tell how peanuts fare in Mississippi. But his nine years of experience as a peanut consultant in Mississippi has taught him one important thing about the crop. “You have to be able to rotate. You can't grow peanuts back to back to back. The first couple of years, you could do that and get away with it, but you need to rotate from the start.”

Fortner agreed. “Peanuts really like fresh ground. We want to keep it that way.”


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com