After 35 years in the farming business, Obion County, Tenn., fourth-generation farmer Kenneth Barnes approaches his occupation much like a seasoned hunter — focused more on strategy, observation and pushing his own limits.
Barnes farms and raises cattle, working 6,000 acres that spread from south of Troy, Tenn., up to Hickman, Ky. The land rolls from steep ridges down to flat open fields.
“This is good land; we have all kinds of dirt and all types of conditions,” he says.
He mainly rotates corn and soybeans, and, in 2012, planted 2,000 acres of corn and 2,000 acres of soybeans, all Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield. During late summer harvest, his fields appeared remarkably clean.
“We have some pigweed, but not like farther South. We started seeing resistance problems about two years ago, and Roundup doesn’t get it.”
Barnes, who farms with his brother, Lynn Barnes, son Jeremy Barnes, and brother-in-law Glenn Patterson, says they strive to hit the pigweed in the very early stages, not letting it get higher than a few inches.
Even for a seasoned producer, 2012 has been a challenge. “This is the worst drought ever, and I believe it was hotter than 2010,” he says.
Intermittent fierce storms also left their mark, as one field showed damage from greensnap, leaving patches of stalks severed in half. Barnes’ operation is all non-irrigated.
He begins planting corn during the last part of March, if the ground is workable, but primarily plants during April.
“This year, we planted from the 1st to the 25th,” he says. Like many producers, he is faced annually with changing varieties. “We don’t keep varieties very long, and I like to try different ones,” he says.
In 2012, he planted mainly DEKALB varieties, including 6697, 6387 and two new varieties for his operation, 6209 and 6519. He also chose Pioneer’s 2088. Seed populations range from 25,000 to 32,000.
“We’ve planted the 6387 because it is a tougher corn,” says Barnes.
Not only was the season dry, but the normal humidity didn’t hit until late summer. Ironically, the dry weather did offer one benefit: “It’s been a light year for pests and disease,” he says.
Barnes began harvesting in mid-August and had 60 percent of his corn combined by early September, with bushels ranging from 90 to over 200 an acre.
The dry weather also created problems for his soybean crop. “We planted in May, but it was tough getting them up because it was dry so early,” he says. “It was two weeks before they came up.”
He chose several varieties including Asgrow 4005, 4232 and 4932. “We’ve planted the 4005 for three or four years now — it’s just a good bean. We averaged 40 bushels to 50 bushels per acre, sometimes hitting as high as 70 bushels.”
Barnes also pays attention to early season weed control. “We use Valor for pre-emergence and add 2, 4-D. We also use Prefix now.”
For all his experience, he believes the business part of farming has become the most difficult.
“Years ago, we used to get seed corn from the co-op without having to book in advance. Now, we have to book seed eight to nine months in advance and sell a crop year-round.”
Despite the fact his operation is one of the largest in his area, Barnes believes the industry benefits from having many growers of all sizes. “It’s almost impossible to get into farming if it’s not in your family. I don’t think getting bigger and fewer is good for anyone.”
In order to stay competitive and productive, Barnes relies on many sources, including his seed reps, technology and experimentation.
“I’m more apt to go out for the new varieties. Our technology allows us to match corn with the ground, the time of year, and more,” he says. He occasionally participates in test plots with seed dealers, as he did in 2012 with Pioneer.
Barnes is no stranger to competition and has won several yield contests in the last five years. In 2011, he placed second in the state of Tennessee as part of the National Corn Growers Association; his DEKALB DKC64-69 brand yielded 253.85 bushels per acre.
In 2010, he was chosen as one of the top three winners in Tennessee by the NCGA for producing 234.59 bushels per acre with DEKALB’s DKC67-88 brand. His seed population was 32,000, and he used Roundup WeatherMAX, Degree Xtra and atrazine in his herbicide program.
Ever on the move, Barnes strives for improvement throughout his operation. “I want to figure out how to stack the nodes on soybeans,” he says.
He marvels at the evolution of technology, allowing producers to do everything from field mapping to determining variable rate seeding to dissecting plant tissue problems. “It’s the most interesting thing,” he says.
In his lifetime, Barnes has seen it all. “We harvested corn using mules — we’d pick it and put it in the wagon. My grandfather probably had one of the last working pair of mules in Obion County.”
From their earliest beginnings to the current operation, the Barnes brothers’ experience runs as deep as the soil they work, offering a real appreciation of the changes within the entire industry.