In a time when cotton has been relegated to back seat status for most Mississippi producers, Coley Little Bailey Jr., and his father, Coley, still grow just one crop: cotton.

This year, they’ve got 2,700 acres on three farms in Yalobusha and Grenada counties in the north central area of the state.

“We’ve grown grains in the past,” says Coley Jr., “but as everything related to crop production became more expensive, Dad felt it was just too risky to grow dryland corn and soybeans in the hills where we farm. Cotton has the genetic ability to do better under adverse conditions.

“When we were growing grains, there were years when we’d make only 80 bushels of corn and 20 bushels of soybeans, but the cotton would pull through with 1,000 pounds or better.

“We’ve just felt that if we were going to have a chance at hitting a home run in dryland hill farming, it would be with cotton. We still believe that.”

“When everybody jumped into corn a few years ago, we elected to stay all cotton. We didn’t have any combines, grain trucks, or storage facilities, which would’ve required a substantial investment, and we feel more comfortable with cotton. We’ve got two 6-row pickers, boll buggies, module builders, and all the support equipment for cotton.

“Our landlords have all been very cooperative in agreeing that year-in, year-out cotton is the best option on their land.”

Of the land they farm, 2,000 acres are rented, the rest owned; 1,500 acres are near the Grenada, Miss., airport and industrial park, where the Baileys have farm headquarters; a 150-acre farm is 5 miles away; and the balance is 12 miles away, near Coffeeville in Yalobusha County.

Coley Jr., who is 37, and has an ag economics degree from Mississippi State University, is the third generation farmer on his father’s side of the family, the fifth on his mother’s side.

“It’s all I’ve ever done,” he says. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else. I grew up in a farming environment, with my father and grandfather. When my grandfather retired, we bought part of his share of the farming operation; when he died, we bought the rest. Now, it’s a 50/50 operation with my father and me.”

With five other area farmers, they also own Yalobusha Gin, located between Coffeeville and Oakland.

“Our group bought the gin in 1992,” says Coley Jr. “It was a co-op gin, with 30 shareholders, and had got to the point that only one of them was still growing cotton. They ginned 2,700 bales in 1991; the next year, we ginned 14,000.

This year, we expect to gin cotton from 7,500 acres, up from 6,000 last year. The most we’ve ever ginned was 25,000 bales from 14,000 acres.

“Exceptionally good cottonseed prices last year were an added bonus for the gin operation, and they’re holding up well this year.”

Despite a rocky start in this year’s cold, wet spring, he says, “The cotton’s doing well and we think we have a chance for a good crop — there aren’t that many years when we’ve got enough moisture mid-August to finish the crop; usually we’re begging for a rain. We’re also hoping the big reduction in acres this year will bring stronger prices.”

Coley Jr. says, “We’ve planted Deltapine 555 since the day it came out, and it has performed really well for us. We have had really good relationships with their field reps, Woody Woodson and Rod Spinks, and last year we planted 12-acre plots for three of their Class of 2009 varieties, 0920, 0924, and 0935.

“Results were outstanding — we harvested 3 bales per acre from the 0920 and 0924 plots and 3.33 bales per acre on the 0935. That compares to 2.2 bales per acre for the 555 on the rest of the farms.

“This year, we have 75 percent of our acres in 0949, 20 percent in 0935, and about 300 acres that we can furrow irrigate are in 0924. We’re really excited about the performance of these new varieties.

“We have 18-acre test plots this year for three of their Class of 2010 varieties, and they’re all looking quite good.”

“Two-thirds of our crop was planted April 24-29. Then it started raining April 30 and we weren’t able to get back in the fields to finish planting until May 21. In the interim, we got 19 inches of rain, and colder than normal temperatures.

“With the cold, wet soils, just to be safe, we used a full rate of Uniform fungicide in-furrow, and now I’m glad we did, because I think it saved us. Our consultant, Ty Edwards, who also is our gin manager, couldn’t believe how well it grew off under the conditions we had.

“We went through some boll shed during the heavy July rains (9 inches from the 14th through the 31st) and cloudy weather, and got an aerial applicator to help us catch up with spraying.”

A key component of their cotton program, says Coley Jr., is frequent scouting.

“Several years ago, at a meeting, a grower was talking about how he had his cotton checked three days a week. ‘It costs a bit more,’ he said, ‘but I know more about what’s going on with the crop and, if there’s a problem developing, I can act more quickly.’

“That made an impression on me, and we’ve done it ever since. It gives us peace of mind to know our consultant is out there every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, from planting to defoliation, staying on top of what’s happening in the crop. If he finds anything, we can get on it immediately. Our dealer can have chemicals here within 10 minutes or so and we can have the Hi-Boy rolling in a short while.

“Conversely, by monitoring the crop so closely, we often are able to delay or hold off on an application, which saves money.”

Both Coley Jr. and his father are pilots and have a Super Cub airplane they use to do aerial checks of the farms.

“Dad has been flying for many years and has owned several planes. In my last year at Mississippi State, I started flying lessons, and my graduation present was the training necessary to get my pilot’s license in 1994. Since then, I’ve added an instrument rating.

“In addition to the Super Cub, we have a Mooney, which we use for travel. Dad, who also serves as chairman of the Grenada Economic Development Association and has other business interests, flies extensively all over the U.S., and has even been to Alaska.”

With the Bt/Flex cotton varieties, and the elimination of the boll weevil through the eradication program, they don’t have that many insect problems, he says.

“This year, it has been mainly plant bugs, and they’ve been picking up as corn fields dry down. We’ll spray for them maybe three times a year; fortunately, we don’t have the problem with them that many Delta growers have. We’ve seen quite a few bollworm moths, but thus far we haven’t hit the threshold for overspraying.”

The Baileys have been supporters of Mississippi’s boll weevil eradication program, and says Coley Jr., “A lot of people wouldn’t be in the cotton business today if it weren’t for the success of the eradication program.

“In the years when we had to fight the weevil, we’d spray 18 to 24 times a season. With Mississippi declared weevil-free, the $3 per acre assessment we pay now is a real bargain.

“It has been an extremely well-run program, and the producers and organizations and agencies that have been involved in it are certainly due praise for all they’ve done to eliminate this pest.”

The crop is going to be somewhat later than normal this year, Coley Jr. says, due to the cold, wet spring and delayed planting. We normally will start picking around Sept. 15; this time, I’m expecting it’ll be the end of September or early October.

“We usually have plenty of cotton picking power with our own machines, but this year we’ll get some help from John Grant, a family friend who does custom harvesting. He’s done harvest work for us since 1978 (from 1978-1990, we didn’t even own a picker) and we know we can depend on him. We’ll also harvest some for a neighbor, so we’ll end up picking about 3,500 acres total.

“All our marketing is handled by Staplcotn at Greenwood, Miss. We have confidence in them to get the best price available, and that frees us up to concentrate all our efforts on producing the best crop possible.”

Something unique in the Bailey operation took two years of working with environmental agencies and the huge AbitibiBowater paper mill at Grenada, Miss., to bring to fruition.

“We worked out an agreement with them to take leftover ash from their paper production process ash and apply it to our farmland. This covers all our fertility needs except nitrogen.

“We apply three tons of ash per acre with a chicken litter spreader, which gives us the equivalent of 1 ton of lime, 120 units of potash, and 50 units of phosphates.

“When the picker leaves the field, we start applying the ash. We bought a truck, spreader, and front-end loader to facilitate the process. We’re stockpiling ash now for the fall/winter season.

“We soil sample every year and can supplement with commercial fertilizer, if we need to — but thus far, the ash has been adequate. We still use 130 units of 32 percent N-Sol for nitrogen requirements.

“It has been a win/win situation for the paper mill and for us, and it really has been a blessing in weathering high fertilizer prices.

“We had to get the Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency to come in and test soils and do other testing, and the paperwork took two years, but 7,500 tons of ash per year that was just going into landfills is now providing fertility for our crops.”

In recognition of his contributions to the state’s agriculture, Coley Jr. was named recipient of the Farm Bureau Young Farmer of Year achievement award in 2002. He has served as chairman of Farm Bureau’s Cotton Committee for four years and is president of Yalobusha County Farm Bureau. He and his wife, Jody, have two children, a son, Cole, and a daughter, Mackenzie.

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com