There's something special about the three John Deere 9960 cotton pickers owned by the Russells of Marianna, Ark. The 10-year-old harvesters, along with a lineup of mostly John Deere 60-Series tractors and even a couple of home-made hooded sprayers, keep overhead and production costs low for the family farmers.

This budget-conscious approach helped Chad Russell break into farming and stay in business during the hard times which have been a part of agriculture since the mid-1990s.

The Russells — Chad, his father, Jimmy, and brother, Kurt — farm around 3,000 acres, including 2,000 acres of cotton, 300 acres of milo and 700 acres of soybeans.

Chad returned to the farming operation after graduating from Arkansas State University in 1996 with a degree in agricultural business and economics. In 1999 he started farming on his own, although all three members of the family work both farms as one.

"We don't have a lot of overhead," said Russell, when asked how the family farm is making ends meet. "We're doing it the cheapest way we can. We do all our repair work ourselves."

After cutting stalks after harvest, the Russells run a Paratill on heavy ground as needed. "We bed it up in the fall and stale-seedbed it," Russell said. "We also do some no-till the heavy ground, planting back on the old beds. We filled in a few pivot ruts last fall, burned down in the spring and planted."

The decision on whether to Paratill or no-till will depend on how the root system had developed that year. In addition, if the field "is looking kind of rough, I may just re-bed it and leave it until spring."

Lighter ground is Paratilled and then re-bedded in the spring after burndown. "That gives us a fresher bed to work with."

The Russells burndown with Roundup and 2,4–D as early as they can, usually in March. "We've found that the 2,4–D is necessary for the cutleaf evening primrose," Russell said.

At planting, on lighter ground "we'll drag it off with a Do-al in front of the planter," the producer said. "We might roll some of the heavier ground or drag it off earlier and let a rain settle it. Sometimes, we get into trouble dragging heavy ground right in front of the planter."

The Russells start planting the last week in April, running three eight-row planters. Temik will go in-furrow for thrips and a pyrethroid will go down in a band behind the presswheel for cutworms.

"We can plant pretty fast when we get going, so starting a later helps us avoid a little weather on the front end," Russell said. "But this year, we had better weather when we started than we did a month later."

Cotton varieties include 1,400 acres of Paymaster PM 1218 BR, 450 acres of Sure-Grow SG 215 BG/RR and 60 acres of DP 555 BG/RR, a new variety expected to raise the bar on cotton yield potential. Paymaster PM 1199 RR, is planted as a refuge. Much of the cotton is raised for seed.

Russell tries to get out his first over-the-top Roundup shot as cotton is emerging with the second shot going out right at the fourth-leaf.

The Russell's in-furrow Temik treatment didn't work as well this year because of a month-long cold snap in May. The thrips pressure was intense, the producer said. "We either mixed Orthene, Bidrin or Monitor with our Roundup applications in most cases. Sometimes we had to make a special trip."

After squaring this season, Russell's cotton scout Paul Wilson reported heavy plant bug pressure, which Russell took care of with two shots of Centric about 10 days apart. "We put that out with our hooded sprayer when we were going under the cotton with Roundup. We have piggyback tanks with a nozzle over the row. We do a lot of our insecticide and Pix applications with the rig."

Russell will run the hooded sprayer an average of three times during the season. "We like to keep the cotton clean," he said. "Our big problem is pigweed. Give them a week and they'll be taller than the cotton."

One of the hooded sprayers is a factory model and the other two were built in the Russell's shop, at quite a cost savings and another reduction in overhead.

A layby application of Roundup and Direx went down around the first week in July. "We like to get that done before we start irrigating, but we couldn't do it this year."

About 90 percent of the cotton is irrigated, with 650 acres under center pivot. The rest is furrow-irrigated down alternate middles with flexible pipe. The Russells watered cotton five times this season, but would have irrigated much more if not for a wet July.

Worm pressure was quiet that month, too, but the Russells made one application of Bidrin for stinkbugs. On some acreage they went with a pyrethroid "to help pick up some bollworms."

Russell's Pix program is always on a field-by-field basis. The program across most acreage this season was two early applications at 4 and 6 ounces (banded rate). "We came back with a 12-ounce rate broadcast, followed by a 16-ounce rate. The DP 555 got another 16-ounce rate."

The DP 555 BG/RR "is a tall plant," Russell said. "We're trying to stay on it with Pix. It's a full-season variety, so we'll have to decide after this year if it's going to fit this far north. But we're really interested in its yield potential."

Normally, the Russells terminate their insecticide applications at 350 to 400 heat units after cutout. "But we may need to run the stinkbugs out one more time," Russell said. "It seems they can damage a little bigger boll than a boll weevil or a worm."

At defoliation, the Russells usually go with a two-step program with Def and Prep. "We'll start picking around the middle of September." Yields average 950 pounds across the farm and have been as high 1,200 pounds.

In 2001, however, nearly 75 percent of Russell's PM 1218 BR fell into the discount range for high micronaire. "It's a pretty serious problem," he said. "A lot of it has to do with the year. But the 1218 outyields everything that we've compared it to, which offsets or equalizes the micronaire discount."

This year, Russell plans to use the Hal Lewis method of defoliation timing to address the mike problem. The program requires running micronaire on samples of cotton taken from the field. The grower then consults a chart which gives him a range of defoliation windows — in percent open bolls. The purpose of the method is to help the grower achieve the highest possible yield without incurring a mike discount.

The Russells spend the winter in their shop getting the aging tractors, sprayers and their cotton pickers ready for another year. Russell's father, Jimmy, "has the mechanical mind of the group," Russell says.

"I've heard a lot lately about farmers putting off buying equipment the last few years trying to survive," Chad said. "But we've pretty much always farmed this way, going with the older stuff. So it's something we're used to."

The Russells will also put their heads together this winter and consider going from an eight-row to a 12-row configuration. "It seems like the eight-row equipment has gotten so cheap now, so it's going to be a hard decision," Russell said. "But it would free me up from being on the tractor every day. That way I could help out with making decisions and managing the farm. And it would help my dad, too."

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com.