In late April of 2013, Scott Flowers planted 2,700 acres of cotton, watched it bust the crust, and then packed his shotguns and headed north to bag a few turkeys in Iowa. He was coming off a fine cotton year — 2.8 bales per acre, and had good reason to hope his fields might bring a similar yield again. With a single phone call, his expectations crashed and the season threatened to unravel.

Mattson Farms, Mattson, Miss., a partnership of Steve Cooke and brothers Scott and Graydon Flowers, had been hit with a late frost and sustained rain — and the cotton was left reeling. “Graydon called me while I was hunting and said, ‘It looks like we’re going to have to replant all of this crop.’”

It wasn’t a call Graydon wanted to make. “It was tough news for me to spread around. Anybody farming wants to get off to a good start and it’s so important to any crop, but especially cotton. I’d say we had to replant close to 85 percent of our crop. We thought we were in trouble and believed we’d lost the potential of a month earlier.”

“Out of 2,700 total acres, we replanted about 2,200 acres. Starting May 11 we began to replant and that means our cotton crop was basically planted from the middle of May to June 1,” Scott says. “I’m talking about a late crop and at that point I was of thinking the yield potential would be down 200 pounds.”

 

For photos of Mattson's crew, see Mattson Farms hits banner cotton yields

 

Planting so late should have carried dire consequences for Mattson Farms in a normal year — maybe even dropping yields 20 percent to 30 percent. But 2013 was far from normal for Delta farmers, and by October’s defoliation, the Mattson cotton fields were a thick white with no visible separation between initial and replanted acreage.

But Scott knew a cotton field can deceive: Looking across a sea of fiber and predicting the return is a dangerous tack. The gleam of a heavy white sheen is deceptive and can dash hopes, or it can play into a producer’s favor and cover banner yields, but either way, the bales-per-acre number beneath the white blanket stays hidden until the pickers roll.

 

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Expectation is often an edgy waiting game at harvest; hope is permissible, assumption is not. Assumption is a luxury that farmers can ill afford, and for Scott, watching over the Mattson acreage, the harvest wait was excruciating. At best he hoped for a similar yield to the 2.8 average of 2012, but when the pickers fanned out across the fields — Scott was shocked. “We didn’t know anything until we picked the first field and it came on at 3.5-plus bales. Then we picked a spot that had never even made 2.5 bales and it made 3.5 bales. Next we had a field come in with the first 4-bale cotton we’ve ever had. We knew it was a solid crop, but you can never predict anything like we’ve seen.

Fortune and hard work

“I went into harvest hoping for a year like 2012. I had no idea it would be like this and it’s hard to even believe it now. You just keep counting over and over, and asking: ‘Did the fields really produce at this yield?’ I couldn’t see doing better than the 2.8 in 2012; maybe matching it, but not passing it.”

For Graydon, who puts tremendous daily toil into the Mattson cotton fields, the yields were a windfall. “I think this might be a once in a lifetime yield on cotton for us. I knew it was a pretty good crop when we began defoliating, but until we started picking and ginning, I didn’t know how great it actually was turning out. It’s very difficult to look at a cotton field and know what is out there. We had fields that looked like they wouldn’t be productive, fields that looked like they might be in trouble, but they picked at around 3 bales.”

Sitting in the Mattson farm office after a harvest that averaged 3.5 bales per acre, Scott and crop consultant Rob Lewis are still in a state of near-disbelief as they break down the season and attribute the heavy yields to a host of factors, but weather in particular. Scott didn’t see his crops heat-stressed even a single time during a gentle summer of mild temperatures: “The difference between this year and last year was out of our hands, and we were blessed with our weather.”

 

For photos of Mattson's crew, see Mattson Farms hits banner cotton yields

 

Weather is an easy answer, but how Mattson Farms dealt with opportune weather is far more complicated. And luck was certainly at play, but hard work and preparation go a long way toward fostering luck and good fortune. “Everything lined up and fell into place: Fertility, irrigation, rotation, weather, insect control, and even luck have resulted in a huge crop,” says Lewis. “Mattson Farms made 2.8 bales per acre in 2012 and I bet if you had asked Scott in the spring, ‘Would you take 2.8 bales again in 2013?’ he would have taken it to the bank. But now it’s 3.5 and it’s absolutely unbelievable.”

Crop rotation after corn and peanuts has paid consistent cotton dividends and the numbers tell a tale: The highest yielding fields — 3.5-plus bales — were in corn or peanuts in 2012, but areas that weren’t rotated and were in cotton in successive years averaged just over 3 bales. In addition to the rotation cycle, Mattson Farms is on a strict fertility program with potash and phosphate; fertility levels are sampled every three years. “My dad [Harry Flowers] was using the fertility program before I even started 10 years ago. Our fertility levels are solid and we don’t skimp.”

 

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Despite the late planting of the 2013 cotton crop, there was very little shed and the fields weren’t hit by the typical chain of heat, stress and maybe a big rain. Fruit didn’t blanket the ground and the bolls were thick; it was uniform cotton with no skips.

Aggressive weed fight

On top of balanced fertility and little shed, Mattson had a fine water year, in part due to excellent irrigation work. In a standard weather year, no matter how sharp the crew, heat sucks away a tremendous amount of moisture and some field sections are neglected — but not so in 2013. “This year the weather bought us time. We try not to spread our guys too thin and they work hard on irrigation, but usually we can’t get around quick enough. You could get out in the fields and every area looked the same because milder temperatures helped retain moisture and in turn made our irrigation more efficient.”

 

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The Mattson fields were high in soil balance and moisture — but significantly low in weeds and possibly the cleanest Scott has seen in his 10 years of sharing the helm. Aggression wins battles in weed wars and beginning the growing season clean — with pre-emerge action and a mix of chemistries — is vital. “I believe Roundup-resistant weeds are making us better farmers because we had gotten so complacent and it was too easy to spray Roundup. Now we’re very aggressive and don’t play around with pigweeds, or other weeds, and it’s working. If you’ll go ahead and kill them at planting with a pre-emerge like Gramoxone and then put another pre-emerge out, you’ll have a huge advantage.

“Starting clean and maintaining good weed control means you have to spend more money, but when you ride around the fields you won’t see hardly anything sticking up above the cotton and it makes a tremendous difference. When I first started I was trying to save so much money and we let some weed escapes go which is not that bad in the short-term since you can hit them the next year. But the reality is, if you let pigweed get a hold on your land, it makes so much seed that you can’t afford not to be aggressive.”

 

For photos of Mattson's crew, see Mattson Farms hits banner cotton yields

 

Weeds weren’t the only crop-killer missing from the Mattson fields; insects were also low in number. A good deal of Mattson cotton rubs against corn, and plant bugs usually march into cotton through the corn corridors. As a measure of plant bug compensation, Mattson uses a five-day insecticide spraying program for a month and a half during the growing season and hits plant bugs hard — not whole fields, just the corridors extending from corn into cotton at a distance of approximately 100 to 200 feet.

Battling bugs

“What I’ve seen for the past four or five years since we’ve done that is a big difference. You used to stand on a cotton-corn border and the cotton would look very thin, but now the visible difference is gone — attributable to the sprays. And logically, the sprays knock down the numbers of plant bugs that make it out into the center of your cotton fields too.”

Just five years back, the cotton-corn borders were noticeably thin and meager, but that contrast is gone — a testament to targeted insecticide sprays. A producer can do everything correct, but if plant bug control is off, the yields can be severely affected. “That’s where Rob Lewis comes in; he watches and scouts our fields for insects and does a great job. Insects can be your biggest enemy because you can miss two or three sprays and lose a bale per acre easily.”

 

For photos of Mattson's crew, see Mattson Farms hits banner cotton yields

 

The light insect year, right up until harvest, kept Scott on edge. There were no switches above the cotton; no evidence of bug damage and no portent of yield loss. He hoped a good crop was coming — but how good? “I was telling Scott, ‘I can’t find any bugs out there,’ and he was so nervous and got out there with a sweep net himself. I was trying to convince him and convince myself at the same time,” says Lewis.

And it wasn’t just cotton. Lewis couldn’t find insects in any of the Mattson crops, but the lack of damage was most significant for the cotton acreage. “If you never sprayed beans or corn the bugs can hurt you, but you can still make a good crop. However, with cotton, if you don’t spray and fight plant bugs, you will not be making a good crop — period.”

 

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Mattson’s 2,700 acres of cotton were split between five varieties: Deltapine 0912 and 1321; Phytogen 499; and Stoneville 4946 and 5288. “Every single one of those varieties has yield way up there,” says Scott. “You couldn’t pick a ‘best’ variety this year; all have gotten close to 4 bales at some location on our farm.” Depending on price and rotation, Mattson will probably plant between 2,700 and 3,500 acres of cotton when the 2014 planting season rolls around.

A fine Mattson team

Scott makes it clear that despite weather and other factors lining up, Mattson Farms is indebted to a fine crew of hard workers — top to bottom. Cooke brings a wealth of farming and management experience, and the Flowers brothers carry farming knowledge gleaned under the watchful eye of father Harry.

“We’re just lucky to have the people on this farm that we do and they are what makes this a good operation. Our managers and workers are excellent and it plays out in a team effort. John Swilley manages the farm in Tunica and it’s in good hands. Down here, Joe Thomas is the head manager and working with him, we’ve got Peewee Gordon and Jessie Readus. Rob Lewis is our crop consultant and stays on top of insect control.

“All of these guys are so sharp and take care of things. All our managers, the guys actually in the field, are really, really good and we’re lucky to have them. I look at it a little like a football team; everyone has to be good and they are.”

Mattson is an extensive operation with approximately 9,500 acres under cultivation, and in 2013 (in addition to cotton) planted 2,300 acres of corn; 1,500 acres of wheat that all went into soybeans; 2,100 additional acres of soybeans; and 300 acres of peanuts. “The smooth operation at Mattson has been passed down,” says Lewis. “When Harry, Scott’s dad, was running the place it was built around solid, good people — and that still continues.”

It’s been a banner cotton year, but Scott says he doesn’t know if he’ll ever see such high yields again. “I don’t know if I’ll ever have a crop like this again. You can’t look at a white field and be sure of the yield. You can hope — but you never really know until the picking begins.”

 

For photos of Mattson's crew, see Mattson Farms hits banner cotton yields

 

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