For Michael “Mikey” Taylor and his father, Mike, peanuts have added a new dimension to cropping on their 6,500 acre Long Lake Plantation at Helena, Ark.

“Our first peanut crop was in 2011, when we planted 500 acres,” says Mikey. “We’d been hearing quite a bit about peanuts and my father knew some farmers who were growing them, so we became interested in the crop from a diversification and rotation standpoint.

“Our consultant, Ed Whatley, with Whatley Ag Service at Clarksdale, Miss., got us in contact with Brian Atkins with Birdsong Peanuts, and we contracted to grow for them last year.”

A national shortage of peanuts last year, due to severe drought in the Texas production region, drove prices as high as $1,000 per ton.

“I don’t think many growers actually got that kind of price,” Mikey says. “At the start of the season, when people were already planting, contracts were only in the $600 per ton range. We didn’t get $1,000 for our peanuts, but we got a good average price that we were happy with.

“We ended with a 4,200-pound yield average, and we were very pleased with that, given it was our first experience with the crop and that the national average was about 3,300 pounds. We’ve already booked a good portion of this year’s crop, but right now no contracts are being offered; everyone’s waiting to see how the season’s going to shape up and what kind of production the industry may be looking at.”

This year, the Taylors have almost doubled their plantings, to 900 acres. They are growing GA 06, the variety Birdsong specifies for its contract growers.

“About 75 percent of our peanuts are under center pivots,” Mikey says. “We made five circles with the pivots last year, applying about six-tenths of an inch of water each time. Some of those applications were to water in residual herbicides or following a fungicide application. But even though we had a lot of dry weather last year, there wasn’t a significant yield difference between the irrigated and non-irrigated fields. Peanuts seem to have a better tolerance for dry conditions than other crops. Right now [last week in June], we’re on our second circle for this year.”

Since peanuts perform better in sandier soils, he says, “We have to pick the fields where we’ll plant them — probably only about 50 percent of our acreage is suitable for the crop.

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“Last year, we started planting May 1, but this year, with the warm spring and a favorable weather outlook, we started April 21 and were finished May 1.

“This year, 60 percent of our peanut acreage is behind corn and 40 percent behind soybeans. As far as practical, we’ll try and follow peanuts with corn. We last grew cotton in 2006; after that, we grew only soybeans and corn.

“We started growing corn in 1996, and it has been a good crop for us. In 2007, we added storage bins with 330,000 bushels of capacity, which has been a significant improvement to our harvesting efficiency and our marketing.”

The Taylors purchased a peanut digger and two combines last year, all used, from a grower at Greenwood, Miss., and this year they bought another two used combines.

“Being new to peanuts, we didn’t want to invest a lot of money in new equipment,” Mikey says, “but we wanted to have enough harvest capacity to get the crop out of the field quickly — at that time of year you never know whether a hurricane will bring a lot of rain, or you’ll have a situation like 2009, when it rained for weeks on end.

“We’re probably a little heavy on equipment power, but because harvest is so critical with peanuts, we wanted to build in as much of a safety factor as possible.”

Minimal disease problems

Diseases are not as much a problem on soils where peanuts haven’t been grown before, he notes.

“We don’t have to make nearly as many fungicide applications here as they do in southeast states where peanuts have been grown for decades. About the only problem we had last year was some white mold, but we still only made about four or five fungicide applications.

“Our first application this year was Tilt and Bravo, and from here on out we’ll follow our consultant’s recommendations as to when to spray and what to apply.

“We use an agricultural liquid fertilzer, which we get from my father-in-law, Chris Kale, at Farmers Supply at Marvell, Ark.  It’s very plant-safe, and is a blend of boron, calcium, and potash. We made two foliar applications last season. It provides an extremely fast response — the day following application we could already see a change in the color of the plants.”

For weed control, Mikey says, “We apply 3 ounces of Valor and 1 pint of Dual behind the planter, then come back with 1.5 pints of Storm and 1 pint of Blazer plus 1 pint of Dual. After that, we’ll make an application of 4 ounces of Cadre and 1 pint of 2,4-DB, and that pretty much takes care of our weed control for the season.

“We applied some Belt last year for worms, but generally, insects were not a problem.”

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In addition to their own consultant, he says Birdsong Peanuts’ consultants, Alan Blaine and Mitt Wardlaw, “are always available, too, when we need advice about disease, pest, or other problems.

“The Birdsong folks have been wonderful to work with. When we were harvesting, we never had to wait on a trailer, or stop and wait on anything. If we had a problem, they were there to help, or if we needed a part, they’d send it back with the next trailer. All our parts and chemicals came through MS Peanuts at Aberdeen, Miss.

“When we were ready to start digging last year, Brian Atkins, their buying point manager at Prairie, Miss., came over and worked with us to be sure things went smoothly and that everything was on schedule.”

While peanuts have thus far been a good fit in their cropping program, Mikey says, “I don’t see us expanding beyond our current acreage; we’re pretty much at our maximum from the standpoint of suitable land, and we don’t want to have to buy any more equipment. But if the price continues at a level that shows us a profit, we’ll probably continue at our 900-acre level.”

Because their soils are subject to washing and sandblasting from spring winds, he says, since the mid-1990s cover crops have been a key part of their farming operation.

“We’ll have a cover on 60 percent to 70 percent of our acreage,” Mikey says. “We plant a mixture of cereal rye, at 15 pounds per acre, and winter radishes, at 4 pounds per acre. These are usually seeded right behind the corn combine.

“The radishes can be as much as three feet in length, with huge underground tubers. Their roots can go down 60 inches or more, which helps facilitate water penetration into the soil. About March 1, we’ll burn down the cover with 2 ounces of Valor, plus Touchdown and 2,4-D.

“Ours is basically a minimum-till operation; we try to do as little tillage as possible, mostly strip-till subsoiling. After burndown, the radishes and rye decompose pretty rapidly, adding organic matter to the soil.”

Mikey’s great-grandfather, Earl Wells, started farming here in 1938, and “our family has been farming here ever since,” he says.

“I grew up in farming, and it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. Now, being able to farm with my father is very rewarding. My wife, Laura, and I live here on the farm with our two children, Merrie Leigh and Wells. I’m hoping it will one day mean as much to them as it does to me.”

And he says, as the season moves forward, “We’re just hoping for a dry harvest season — which is always critical for peanuts.”