Something feels different about planting season for the 2011 cotton crop. The experts will say every year is unique and that no two years are alike.
But, taking that thought one step further, you also could say that the environment this time around doesn’t resemble anything farmers have previously experienced.
It might have something to do with the volatile price environment surrounding cotton. Maybe it’s all the new technology. Or, it could be a big lineup of new varieties being introduced from the seed companies.
Regardless of the reason for the so-called “different feeling,” most cotton producers admit that this is the year to take advantage of historically profitable conditions.
Arkansas producer Allen Helms is entering his 40th season in farming, and he says the “opportunities are out there that we don’t normally see.”
That might be the understatement of the decade. With futures prices fluctuating between $1.50 and more than $2 – depending on the month – this is the year to make money on cotton.
“How can you not be excited about this season?” says Helms. “As always, we’ll do the best job we can and try to get off to a good start. However, there is no question that our farm is increasing cotton acreage in direct response to the market.”
Important Acreage Shifts
Of all the crucial planting decisions that a farmer can make, it all starts with how much acreage will be moved into cotton. That was the case with Helms, who will plant nearly 3,600 acres to cotton in 2011 – a 20 percent increase from last year.
The other crop acreage on his farm will be:
Corn – 900 acres.
Wheat – 2,200 acres.
Soybeans – 3,400 acres.
Rice – 300 acres.
Once the decision is made on how much acreage will be devoted to each crop, Helms and his consultants begin the task of deciding which cotton varieties to plant. This is where 40 years of experience in farming begins to pay off.
The decision process involves studying Official Variety Test data as well as on-farm trials on his land in Clarkedale. Then, it’s a case of making sure that the right variety is planted to the right soil.
Because of soil variability, not all of Helms’ acreage is suited for cotton or corn. For example, some of his best cotton ground was planted to wheat last fall when wheat prices suddenly were an attractive option.
Helms’ cotton and corn acreage is interchangeable because he rotates the two crops a lot – mainly, because of the excellent agronomic benefits.
However, even though corn and cotton are good rotation partners, Helms says there are major differences between the two crops. Corn is a heavy user of nitrogen, and the corn residue can “tie up a lot of the soil nutrients.” Corn also requires a lot of phosphorus.
“I think we have to be aware of the things that will change in the soil,” says Helms. “Our weather changes. No two crop seasons are ever alike. Having said that, technology has really changed in the last 30 to 40 years.”
What about variety selection? Should a farmer stick to just a few varieties, or should he go ahead and plant several varieties?
In Helms’ case, he has always opted for planting several varieties to spread his risk, and he staggers the planting dates so that he won’t be harvesting too many fields at the same time in the fall.
Barring any unusual last minute changes, Helms will plant DP 0912 B2RF, ST 5458B2RF, AM 1550 B2RF and PHY 375 WRF on his cotton acres. He’ll also plant a Dyna-Gro variety as well as the new University of Arkansas conventional variety recently released.
“When it comes to variety selection, I put a lot of stock in the Official Variety Trials (OVT),” Helms says. “This data isn’t always a guarantee because even if the variety performs well for a couple of years, there is no assurance that it will deliver when you plant it. Conditions can change and have a real impact on that variety.”
Nearly a decade ago such a problem arose when the bronze wilt outbreak affected many cotton varieties. Other examples involve later maturing varieties that simply weren’t a good fit for Helms’ acreage in eastern Arkansas.
“It wasn’t a case of those not being good varieties,” he points out. “They just weren’t a very good fit here on our farm.”
When Should You Plant?
The planting window is also crucial during the spring. Helms likes to plant his cotton beginning the last week of April and continuing until the middle of May.
This three-week window has worked well through the years, and he consistently adheres to it. The only thing that could make him veer from this schedule would be weather conditions.
He has enough planting flexibility that he could continue to plant into late May, if necessary. However, Helms tries to stay away from planting too early.
“Even when we have unseasonably warm weather in late March or early April, we stick with our regular schedule,” he says. “We have too much money tied up in our planting, and we have to get off to a good start. We just can’t risk running into problems if we plant too early.”
To have survived 40 years in farming is a testament to Helms’ ability to manage so many different crops (cotton, rice, wheat , soybeans and rice). In addition, he is a co-owner of the Crittenden Gin near Clarkedale. He has also held numerous leadership positions within the cotton industry, including being chairman of the National Cotton Council just a few years ago.
Through it all, it has been a challenge as he tries to keep pace with the changing technology of farming while being actively involved in leadership positions in the industry.
“I’d like to think I’ve adapted pretty well to the market,” he says with a laugh. “Up until now, I think I’ve kept up. To be honest with you, there have been some things that have moved too fast for me. But, like I said, we’ve adapted and are still in farming. That’s a good feeling.”
Contact Tommy Horton at (901) 767-4020 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
It Takes Teamwork To Make Planting Decisions
Even though Allen Helms has the final word on all decisions on his farming operation in eastern Arkansas, he relies heavily on Extension specialists and consultants. That’s been his formula for success during the past four decades.
Bill Robertson, National Cotton Council agronomist and former Arkansas Extension cotton specialist, has been an observer of the Helms operation for many years.
He worked with Helms’ consultant Chuck Farr numerous times on projects on the Helms farm. Robertson says it all comes down to a farmer surrounding himself with good people and appreciating informed recommendations.
“Farming is a real business,” says Robertson. “It’s almost like a coach on a football team. If you surround yourself with good people, you can do a better job. That’s what Allen has done through the years. He listens to these people, and it pays off in the long run.”
Adapting To New Environment
Robertson says the key to Helms’ longevity as a farmer is his long-range planning and willingness to adapt to new production techniques that will work on his farm.
For example, he points to Helms’ willingness to be flexible by shifting his corn acreage to cotton. Although Helms implements a regular corn-cotton rotation schedule on his farm, it was just a few years ago that he was moving more cotton acres to corn to take advantage of high prices.
Robertson says another reason why Helms and other farmers are so meticulous during planting season is because of the huge investment in seed.
“I always like to tell the story about how much value is in those hopper boxes in a 12-row planter,” he says. “You’re looking at $30,000 worth of seed in that planter before you even get to the field. That’s enough money to buy a new pickup truck.
“When you paint a picture like that, it hits home with folks. Again, we’re talking about a big investment.”