It might not rank as the most significant breakthrough in cotton production. But it comes pretty close. When 78-year-old Arkansas producer Andrew Whisenhunt prepares to harvest a crop this year that may average four to five bales per acre, everyone will take notice.
Probably because you don’t normally associate such high yields with any location in the Mid-South – and especially in an area in the extreme southwest corner of Arkansas near the small town of Bradley.
Where is Bradley? It’s about 10 miles from Texas and even closer to Louisiana. It’s an area that once had 10,000 cotton acres. Today that acreage has dropped to 3,000 acres.
However, for anyone who knows history, the Bradley Bottoms area has always been known for excellent cotton quality and high yields.
Whisenhunt is certainly no stranger when it comes to farming and innovative techniques. And he’s also not shy in talking about a region that he says might be the best kept secret in the state of Arkansas.
“If you’ll talk to any cotton agronomist in this state, he’ll tell you the same thing,” he says. “The three most fertile and productive farming regions in the world might be the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam, the Nile River Valley in Egypt and the Bradley Bottoms of southwest Arkansas.”
He readily admits that farmers in Russia, Africa and other areas might argue this point, but that doesn’t bother him.
“I still contend that we have some of the most fertile soil you’ll find anywhere,” he says without hesitation.
A Different Approach
To say that Whisenhunt marches to a different drumbeat compared to other farmers is a classic understatement. For more than 50 years, he has farmed cotton, soybeans and rice, and he’s done it his way – complete with innovative techniques. At one time, his total acreage was more than 4,000 acres. Today, he limits his involvement to about 500 acres of soybeans and 150 acres of cotton.
One of his dreams was to produce “five-bale cotton.” According to Whisenhunt, he came close to achieving that goal in 2008 – only to have the yields reduced to 2.5 bales after Hurricanes Ike and Gustav came roaring through the region.
So far, this year has been a different story, and he is preparing to have his dream realized – if he can survive unexpected heavy fall rains.
The Perfect Environment?
The veteran farmer, who also spent 13 years serving as president of Arkansas Farm Bureau, will be the first to admit that it takes a combination of many factors to produce record-breaking yields.
The aforementioned fertile clay soil benefits from its location near the Red River, which winds its way from Texas into Arkansas before emptying into the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Then there is the longer season that allows cotton to mature fully and gain necessary heat units for a heavy boll load.
Other factors include Whisenhunt’s meticulous style for weed and insect management. He sprays his fields early and occasionally attacks any weed escapes with his trusty hoe. The strategy has worked beautifully.
Also playing a key role in this success formula is Whisenhunt’s innovative approach utilizing skip rows and twin 40-inch rows. The distance between the two skip middles is 64 inches. The wider length allows the plant to extend its stalks laterally, allowing for more sunlight and air, while irrigating down the skip middles reduces the amount of water needed by 50 percent. According to Whisenhunt, this creates an increased canopy which promotes boll setting while preventing boll rot.
“I can increase my fruit set by 20 to 30 percent,” he says. “It’s a system that works, and I think the yields prove my point.”
Finally, there is the performance of the lone variety he plants on his cotton acreage – DP 164 B2RF. This is the second year that Whisenhunt has planted the variety, and he likes the way it sets bolls and adapts to the production environment of southwest Arkansas.
“We’ve used other varieties in the past, including DP 555 last year, but I like the way DP 164 performs,” he says. “It just seems to be a better fit for my farm.”
Although Whisenhunt’s acreage is small, he believes there is information he can share with farmers in every region of the country. He’s not guaranteeing spectacular yields, but he is confident that certain practices can benefit any area.
Minimum till is a practice that he has used for many years along with polypipe irrigation, and he highly recommends this approach. In fact, Whisenhunt has planted into undisturbed beds for eight consecutive years. He likes how it maintains the root structure of the soil, promotes root growth and increases yields.
Best Kept Secret In Arkansas
To the casual observer, it might not seem possible that such a record-breaking yield performance could occur in what Whisenhunt refers to as “the forgotten part of Arkansas.” But Joe Vestal, Extension county agent in Lewisville, Ark., has known Whisenhunt for 30 years and can vouch for his expertise as a cotton producer.
“Andrew farms some of the best land you can possibly imagine,” he says. “I can assure you this isn’t a one-year situation. He consistently grows this kind of cotton every year. He’s willing to try anything, and he’s incredibly innovative.”
As for the performance of DP 164 B2RF, it doesn’t surprise Dave Albers, Monsanto’s cotton germplasm technology lead. He hasn’t ever seen a Mid-South farm produce such high yields but he’s pleasantly surprised that it’s occurring in southwest Arkansas.
“The key for this variety is having the full range of heat units to mature and making at least 24 to 28 nodes during the season,” says Albers. “It sounds like this producer did that quite nicely.”
That might be the understatement of the year.
Contact Tommy Horton at firstname.lastname@example.org or (901) 767-4020.
A Closer Look at Andrew Whisenhunt’s Farm
• Farm located in Bradley, Ark.
• 150 acres of cotton, 500 acres of soybeans.
• Smaller acreage of wheat.
• Planted DP 164 B2RF on all of his cotton acres.
• Employs skip row and wide-row production practices.
• 120 acres of irrigated cotton and 30 acres of dryland.
• Projected 5-bale yields for 2009 cotton crop.
• Intensive weed and insect management program.
• Leans toward planting as early as possible each year.
• Farms on fertile clay soil in the Red River delta area.
• Able to avoid boll rot problem with wide rows.
• Production techniques increase fruit set by 20 to 30 percent.
• Farm located near historic Conway Plantation site.
• In earlier years, farm had 4,000 acres.
• Excellent drainage system on all parts of farm acreage.
• Cotton ginned locally in the Bradley Bottoms area.