It was “a no-brainer,” Johnny Little says of the five small-acreage center pivot systems he has on his rolling hill land farm on the western edge of Grenada County, Miss., just a few miles from where the flat Delta starts.

And likewise for the 90,000-bushel capacity grain storage bins he’s put up this spring.

Center pivots are a rarity on hill farms in this part of the state; the topography and well drilling depths are often prohibitive.

But three back-to-back drought years in a row, starting in 1998, coupled with the uncertainty of rains even in a “normal” year, led Little to start looking for options to help improve yield consistency.

“We were just lucky to find water at relatively shallow levels,” he says. “For two of the pivots, we were able to get water at about 45 feet, for two others, about 80 feet. For the fifth pivot, 3 miles away, we had to go to 400 feet and we had two dry holes before we found that water. We’re getting 400 to 600 gallons per minute from most of the wells.”

The pivots cover 150 acres, 120 acres, 80 acres, and two that water 60 acres each.

“I’ve been asked several times how we can justify the kind of investment a pivot takes to water such small acreages,” Little says. “If we took $100,000 and put it into a CD, the best we could hope for nowadays would be a 3 percent return on our money.

“But if we take that same $100,000 and put it into a center pivot that will allow us to make 180-bushel corn instead of 90 bushels, or 1,100 to 1,200 pounds of cotton instead of 800 to 900 — well, when you do the math, it’s a no-brainer.

“Investing in these pivots has made a lot of difference in our yields and has helped us to stay afloat.”

Same deal with the three shiny new GSI grain bins, Little says.

“They will be a great asset to our marketing program. I’ll be able to get more for the corn by holding it beyond harvest, and won’t even have to haul it unless I want to.

“FSA’s got a great program, where they’ll help farmers finance 85 percent of the cost of storage at 2.8 percent interest. To me, that was another no-brainer.”

The first week of May, which started off with 2.6 inches of rain and followed with more gully-washers midweek, Little had all his corn and soybeans up and growing, but had cotton planting on hold until soils could dry out.

He has 275 acres of soybeans this year, all Group IV Pioneer and Dyna-Gro Roundup Ready varieties that were planted April 21-23.

“That’s down from 500 acres last year. We’re trying some different varieties; last year, we had a lot of damage and rotten beans from weather coming off hurricanes.

“Our best yields last year were under irrigation, 62 bushels. That was the first time we’d had any beans under the pivots. In ‘normal’ years, dryland beans average 35 to 40 bushels. Some of our soils won’t grow decent cotton, so that’s where we put beans. We have quite a mixture of soils, ranging from quite good to not so good.

“We’ll have 570 acres of cotton this year; of that, 160 will be irrigated. My father, John “Buddy” Little, started growing cotton in 1950, and cotton is what got us where we are today. I’d love to have nothing but a cotton/corn rotation, but all our land just isn’t suited to it.”

This year, he’s planting Stoneville ST5458 Flex, FiberMax 1740B2F (“which is supposed to be a barn burner”), and Deltapine 0924B2RF.

“Average dryland yield will usually run 800 to 900 pounds per acre,” he says, “while irrigated cotton averages 1,100 to 1,200 pounds.

“Until last year, we were 80 percent cotton, 20 percent corn and soybeans. This year, we’ll be 60 percent grains and 40 percent cotton. It has been a decision dictated by markets and demand — we’re just trying to do what we can to survive.”

With the GM cotton varieties, Little says, “We don’t have to do much in the way of insect control. The biggest problem is plant bugs in cotton; we’ve had to spray for them. We used to have to do a lot of spraying for boll weevils, but the weevil eradication program has taken care of that for us.”

He has 622 acres of corn this year, some DeKalb 6971 and some Pioneer 33N58. Of that, 300 acres is under irrigation.

“We’ll average 170 bushels on the irrigated corn, and about 100 on the dryland.”

He applied 0-30-100 fertilizer on soybean land this year. “We normally don’t do this on land we rotate with corn, but we thought a little fertility boost was needed this time around.

“On cotton and corn, we’ll apply 20-30-100, followed by 100 units of N-Sol.

“We normally do everything no-till or minimum till, but it had been five years since any tillage, so we did a lot of breaking this year. The hillside around my shop used to be covered with all kinds of tillage equipment, but no-till and minimum-till have allowed us to get rid of a lot of it — not to mention the cost savings in fewer trips across the field.

“We apply burndown about a month before planting, and after beans and cotton are up to a stand that’s pretty much it unless we need to come in with a shot of Roundup. When corn’s at 12 inches, we’ll apply Roundup and Atrazine.”

The majority of the work on the farm falls to Little and his “right hand,” Josh Coffman, “and if we need additional labor at harvest or other times, there are some local people I can call on.”

Little’s father is now 86 and no longer active in the farming operation, but Johnny says, “He’s the reason I’m here today; he instilled in me a love for the land and growing things. Our family has been in the Holcomb area forever, going back to my great-grandfather; we have a real connection to this land.

“I was driving a tractor when I was 11 or 12, and started farming for myself in 1979 — my crops that year were 60 acres of soybeans and 110 acres of corn.

“In the ’80s, when land rents went sky high, we had to cut back some, but then over the years we’ve gradually built back up to where we are now. It’s an awfully stressful business, with all we have to deal with nowadays and the steep financial exposure, but farming’s in my blood — I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”

Little says his daughters and sons-in-law have no interest in farming, so he and his wife and farm partner, Patrice, “will keep at it as long as we can.”

Looking back on the years, he says one regret is not buying more land.

“We didn’t own any land for a long time, we just rented, and now I desperately wish we’d bought more when the opportunities came along.

“Daddy and I together worked one place for 45 years, and could’ve more than paid for it with all the rent over that time. Then, I had to give it up when the owner decided he wanted to put it in trees.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com