“Over the last few years, I've had a gut feeling that there's a future in corn,” says Mike Brown, who farms substantial acreage on the well-known Pickens Farm south of Dumas, Ark. “They're growing so much cotton in China that I thought there might be a better mix than what we were growing.”
Cotton farmers in Mississippi helped push Brown towards corn.
“There are some really good cotton farmers around Leland, Miss. They have the best cotton soils around and they own gins. But some of the farmers around there haven't grown cotton in years.
“I go to a lot of Mississippi Extension meetings in the winter. I talk to a lot of Mississippi farmers and they tell me that's happening. And that's sad because I really like driving around west Mississippi looking at their cotton. They grow beautiful crops over there.”
Has Brown seen yield increases in cotton after corn?
“I have. It seems to me yields are higher the second and third year after corn. Sometimes the first year out of corn, with all the residual fertilizer in the soil, my cotton gets a little too rank. It's a little harder to handle.”
Brown began growing corn four years ago. Cotton yields in some fields were falling back and data he'd seen from corn/cotton rotations “really stoked our curiosity.”
One of the benefits Brown has seen in cotton behind corn is a lessening of pressure to irrigate. The fields he had in corn last year “are the last ones I lay in water. They will hold up an extra week. That gives me more time to lay pipe — and we put out a bunch of pipe on this farm.”
On the land Brown works with his assistant manager, Greg Smith, there are over 45 pumps running.
“With that many pumps, we run out of time. Any time we can stretch it a little, it really helps. Being able to get an extra week like we can behind the corn helps take some pressure off.”
Now in mid-July, some of Brown's corn is being watered for the last time. But the pumps won't be shut off, just redirected to soybeans.
Brown has been farming Pickens Farm fields for 25 years.
“I farm 3,300 acres of cotton, 700 of corn, 1,100-plus acres of beans and 500 acres of rice. That's pretty consistent — give or take a few acres.”
While corn may be relatively new to the operation, it isn't a crop Brown is wholly unfamiliar with. When growing up in Clay County, he raised corn and silage with his father. When he decided to try corn again, he asked for input from his brother.
“For the agronomic end of it, I pretty much knew what to do. But I'll talk to anyone who might be able to give solid advice. I'm not afraid to ask questions.”
The Extension Service is good for answering such questions.
“I hooked up with the (Arkansas Extension) corn research verification program through (Desha County Extension agents) Steve Kelley and Wes Kirkpatrick. The program wanted a field in this area and I guess we fit the bill.”
This is the seventh growing season for the state's corn and grain sorghum verification program. Including this season, 38 fields in 29 counties have been a part.
“This year started out well,” said Jeremy Ross, corn and grain sorghum research verification program coordinator. “It was warm during early planting and the crop came up well. Then, in mid-May there was a cold spell that slowed the crop. Overall, though, it's been a fairly good year.”
For his verification field, Brown planted Pioneer 31G96 on March 15. It was the last corn field he planted. “Most of our corn was planted around March 7.”
Verification fields are visited weekly and Extension works with farmers on all aspects of agronomy. That includes everything from soil sampling, to fertilizer recommendations, hybrid selection and, if needed, insecticides at planting. Then, during the season, Extension recommends when to apply side-dress fertilizer and a late-season pre-tassel application.
“Those late-season fertilizer applications seem to be helping verification fields,” said Ross. “But the big thing this year is simply timely irrigation. This year has been dry. Last year, most verification fields had between four and seven irrigations. This year, by season's end, irrigations will be as many as eight or 10.
“That's common across most verification fields. There have been some pockets in Clay County with a bit more rain. But the majority of the fields have required more irrigation than in the last few years.”
There's also a corn fungicide test in Brown's verification field. Two years ago, quite a bit of southern rust and foliar diseases hit corn. In response, last year “we put out quite a few corn fungicide plots,” said Jason Kelley, Arkansas Extension corn specialist. “That's continuing this year. That's one of the questions Brown had: will applying a foliar fungicide pay for itself? We're trying to determine that. Currently, there's hardly any disease out there. That means any benefit from a fungicide is questionable.”
Brown is a big fan of the verification program. “I really like it. I take the data from all the farms scattered around the state and see which varieties do better in certain areas and how things work. If you just see data from a single research station, you don't get a sense of the variety being put through its paces in different environments and operations. When you find a variety that excels on 10 farms, it's solid and one worth checking out. If a farmer has the same kind of soil as I have and he's got a few varieties that show up nicely in the program, I'm going to be interested.”
Across the board, Brown believes he has “the prettiest crop I've had in early July in a long time. Even so, I'm afraid we'll lose it. It's getting too hard to keep water on it. Without some rain, it'll tip.”
Every Monday morning Brown begins watering corn. He gets through Thursday night and has kept up that routine since the crop was a little over knee-high.
Right now, he's watering some corn for the seventh time, some for the eighth. The frequent irrigation has consequences.
“The entire farm is furrow irrigated and every one of the middles (38-inch rows) is watered. By now, our quarter-mile rows run water through in three hours, or so. The water can't soak in — the ground is baked so hard that the water rolls over it.
“We do a lot of irrigating. We've been surface irrigating for a long time — pumping out of bayous, out of ditches. We also use wells.”
Here, on the edge of Arkansas' parched Grand Prairie regions, wells are falling off dramatically.
“I don't want to, but we're drilling more wells. That's because there used to be a big, reliable canal that runs along the east side of the farm. We used to get a lot of water from that. But now there are more and more farmers drawing from it.”
The way farms are set up now, there's less runoff. Put that with the higher price of fuel and farmers “are really watching water closely and conserving what they can. Fact is we're in trouble with water.”
Brown went with all Roundup Ready corn this year.
“To help with resistance management, I try not to use any (glyphosate) on it. But with all the Roundup Ready cotton around, I feel it's necessary to help with any drift potential.”
Kelley says Brown's approach is catching on around the state. “People can grow conventional, non-Roundup Ready corn. But you run the risk of your neighbor drifting on you or a hired hand spraying the wrong field.
“Especially in south Arkansas, a very high percentage of the corn is Roundup Ready. In some areas, essentially 100 percent is. The farther north you travel, the more that percentage drops.”
Happy with how his crops look, Brown is nonetheless concerned at how expensive they've been to grow.
“Fuel costs are just sucking profits away from farmers. I honestly don't know how much longer farmers can hang on. I can't tell you how many farmers are in trouble. Here it is in July and look at the number of farm sales still going on. That's a clear indication something is horribly wrong.
“Diesel pumps go through 2.5 gallons of diesel per hour — say 50 gallons per day. Multiply that by 40 or 50 pumps and you'll understand what farmers are up against. And that doesn't include the cost of power unit repairs which are inevitable because you're running them so hard. And I'm not exaggerating the situation.
“Go to a farmer meeting and look things over. Farmers aren't getting younger. How many farmers do you know that don't want their sons farming? They know what's heading our way and that's just sad.”