For only the second time in 64 years, cotton is not a part of the crop mix this year on the John Engram farm near Vanduser, Mo. The first time, in 2002, a flood kept cotton off the farm for the first time in over 60 years. This spring, it was a rising soybean market, low cotton prices and good prospects for a 80-bushel soybean crop.
“I kept reading articles about China increasing its cotton acreage 18 percent and our textile industry phasing out,” said Engram, whose traditional crop mix is cotton, corn, beans and wheat.
“I also read articles about our staple length not being what the market wanted. There were some real red flags on cotton this year.”
Meanwhile, November beans “had bounced off $8 twice. When it didn't get through that resistance the second time, I felt November beans might be topping, so I started booking beans at $7.91. We booked 55 bushels per acre of beans in the high $7 range.”
He had talked the decision to go with soybeans over cotton with his father, John Engram Sr., now retired from the farm, and his consultant, Bill Emerine with Ag-One. “Without doing anything special with these beans, we had been in the mid-70s with twin-row planting. I asked Bill if we could increase that by 10 bushels per acre over the farm to the mid-80s.”
Emerine agreed that it was possible, if they managed the beans more intensely and used a fungicide. All Engram's acreage is irrigated.
Engram figured that even at 75 bushels, soybeans could make more money than two-bale cotton, his usual yield. “If I could get in the 80s, I could increase my income substantially over two-bale cotton.”
It worked. The first load of beans yielded 83 bushels and the second made 85 bushels. “I wasn't surprised, but I felt relieved because I had never made over 80 bushels on a field before.”
As harvest was winding down in early October, Engram's yields across 600 acres of soybeans was approaching 80 bushels per acre, compared to the low- to mid-70s last year.
Engram also hedged his decision. “When cotton got down to around 40 cents a pound, I bought December cotton calls. When the hurricane scare came up, I sold the calls. So we made a profit on the cotton crop we didn't raise. I didn't want to be out of the cotton market if it went to 80 cents a pound. The calls were a good insurance policy.”
As for next year, Engram will watch the markets again. Cotton could be in the mix, maybe not. It's not tradition that makes success, he says, “it's making the correct business decision.”
After corn or cotton harvest, Engram will cut stalks in the fall, fertilize according to soil tests and run a hipper. In the spring, he knocks the bed down with a do-all, making the bed wide enough for twin-row planting. “We try to use the same beds year after year. Some of our beds have been there 15 years.”
Engram went to the twin-row concept in 1993 in corn, then transferred the technology to cotton and soybeans a year later. He gradually increased acreage until his entire farm was in twin-row.
Twin row advantages include quicker canopy closure versus single-row beans and more sunlight interception, according to Engram. “You have half the number of plants in each row, so you have a larger stalk and bigger root mass.”
That's a big help to standability when beans are loaded top to bottom. He figures the configuration adds about 10 bushels per acre without increasing the seeding rate.
To plant, he uses a 16-row, 8-bed Monosem planter, which he is trading this fall for a 24-row, 12-bed unit.
Varieties, all Roundup Ready, were Crow 4417 R, a 4.4 maturity, and Crow 4815 R, a 4.8 maturity. After wheat, he went with a Crow 5410 R, a 5.4 maturity.
After beans emerged, Engram applied Roundup. “In some of the beans, the twin rows lapped so quickly that we sprayed just one time. We had a couple of trouble spots where we sprayed twice.”
Engram will take a leaf sample early and apply foliar feed piggybacked with any needed insect sprays and Quadris. “If we need a little extra Roundup for weeds, we'll add it to that step.”
Emerine had recommended Quadris on other farms and seen yield increases of up to 10 bushels per acre, “even when they didn't see much disease,” Engram said. “We thought that if this was the year to make 80 bushels, we'd use it. We do have two 10-acre plots where we didn't. We haven't cut them yet, so we'll get a chance to evaluate it.”
Engram's philosophy on insect control is to not lose any early-season foliage. “To make 50 bushels per acre, there are threshold levels where you can have 20 percent to 30 percent of leaves eaten. But if we were to get out of cotton, we really needed to increase the bean yields even more to make it worthwhile.”
Engram harvested with a Case 2188, using a GPS and yield monitor. The GPS is intriguing, he noted. “In one field we went up to 109 bushels on the yield monitor for 200 to 300 feet,” Engram said. “With the GPS unit on the combine, we can go to that part of the field, sample it and try to replicate the qualities of that soil as much as humanly possible on the rest of the farm. We could bring our overall average up.”
The high yields are even more surprising because the area has been suffering through a drought for several months, although temperatures have been relatively cool. “We watered corn seven or eight times and we watered the beans three times.”
Another advantage of not raising cotton this year is that Engram will be through harvesting a month earlier. “It's the end of September, and we don't have any cotton to pick. We just have a few more days on these beans and we'll have them all out.”
He'll use the extra time to land-plane a few fields and dig out ditches. Engram will try to do some custom picking this fall to pay for his cotton harvester.
For Engram to consistently bump the 80-bushel mark requires twin-row planting, irrigation, foliar fertilizer, fungicide, good insect control and a good management team.
At the end of the season, the proof is in the pods. Engram pointed to a clump of them. “They look like banana clusters. You really know you've done a good job when you have those fruiting sites per acre, whether it's corn, cotton or beans. It's all the same.”