By Carroll Smith
Matt and Sherrie Miles come from multi-generational Arkansas cotton families. Although cotton is in their blood, they farmed only 180 acres last year. In 2016, they embraced the crop once again by planting 3,300 acres. “Cotton brought us to the dance, and we haven’t forgotten that,” Matt says.
The Arkansas couple were high school sweethearts, and their fathers were “farming neighbors.”
“We met when my dad, Charles Miles, went to their house to give her dad, Joe Snow, a gift for helping him pick cotton,” Matt says. “My dad was sick and had gotten behind on picking his cotton. Mr. Joe came out to our farm with his pickers to help him. I finally got up the nerve to ask Sherrie out. We dated through high school and married while we were in college.”
After graduating, Matt went to work at First National Bank as an ag loan officer in McGehee, Ark., and Sherrie began her career as an insurance agent. They both wanted to farm, but Matt’s dad didn’t have enough land to support two families. Sherrie’s dad had a field that didn’t fit into his program, so the couple got their start in 1990 with 56 acres of cotton while they kept their “day jobs.”
“We used my dad’s equipment and her dad’s land, so we got help from both families,” Matt says. “When we got married, Sherrie had a $10,000 CD her dad had put back for her. To tell you how much faith she had in us, our marriage and our business, she let me cash in that CD and make a down payment on a tractor. We bought our first tractor with her life savings.”
When their first child was born – daughter Sydney – Sherrie left the insurance business and began keeping books for a small trucking company owned by Matt, his dad and his brother. It was an easy transition since Sherrie wrote checks and paid bills for her dad’s farm when she was 14 years old. As a young couple with a strong ag background, their operation and their family continued to grow. In 1995, they farmed 2,300 acres of cotton and 200 acres of soybeans.
“When corn and soybeans started cash flowing equal to or better than cotton in some cases, we had the opportunity to rotate, use different chemistries on weeds and get things where we wanted them to be,” Matt says.
Today, they farm 9,900 acres of furrow-irrigated cotton, corn, soybeans and rice in Desha, Ashley, Chicot and Drew counties. Sherrie’s role has expanded to keeping books and crop input records for Miles Farms using Land.db software in the AgriEdge Excelsior program. She also provides Matt with the cost of production for each commodity.
“These costs help Matt decide what we are going to plant each year,” Sherrie says.
Their son, Layne, and his wife, Ryane, have now joined the operation, and daughter Abby is a senior in high school. For the past three years, Ryane has taken over the bookkeeping for the family’s trucking business and uses Adobe Photoshop to draw irrigation information from Pipe Planner on aerial photos of each field. “Next year, in addition to these duties, I will teach her how to keep up with the crop input records once she learns how everything is used,” Sherrie says.
Layne’s primary responsibilities include managing 1,300 acres of zero-grade rice and several hundred acres of corn and soybeans, running the variable-rate fertilizer spreader truck and tag-teaming with their crop consultant, Robb Dedman, on the irrigation for each field.
“Layne has not been exposed to a large amount of cotton acres until this year,” Matt says. “He spends a lot of hours with me learning how to manage it. He is fluent in science and computer technology, which is a big benefit for the next-generation farmer.”
Let’s Buy The Picker!
As cotton prices tanked, the Miles family concentrated more on their grain rotation and grew only 180 acres of cotton in 2015. They sold their round bale picker, but kept the module builders and a conventional picker. When grain prices took a downturn, cotton crept back into their thoughts.
“In December and January, I pondered our 2016 crop mix options,” Matt says. “Do I want to invest in a round bale picker again or try to make it on low grain prices? As a team, we decided to buy the picker and are glad to be back in the cotton business.
“We know cotton and love to grow it, but we believe in rotation and diversification, too. A good rotation sometimes trumps price; diversification makes us farm more efficiently; and cotton yields are good behind soybeans and corn.
“This year we have 3,300 acres of cotton, 2,800 acres of soybeans, 2,500 acres of corn and 1,300 acres of zero-grade rice. Although we normally double crop 200 to 800 acres of wheat and soybeans, we decided not to plant wheat this season.”
In 2015, Miles Farms’ cotton acreage was planted to ST 4946GLB2 and PHY 499 WRF. This year, the three main varieties are ST 4946GLB2, DP 1518 B2XF and DP 1522 B2XF. Matt also participates in Bayer’s agronomic performance trials to get a look at the new Stoneville varieties and traits that are coming.
“For the past five or six years, I have planted Stoneville varieties,” Matt says. “They are ‘thebomb.com’ coming out of the ground. Emergence is excellent. These varieties are dependable, yield well and have good fiber quality. 4946 has been a good workhorse for us.
“I planted the Deltapine varieties this year to see how they will perform and how to manage them. When over-the-top use of dicamba gets approved, I think it will give us another tool with a little more residual that we can use with Liberty to control pigweed.”
With encouragement from Dedman, the Miles family is going to put in some cover crop plots this year. “We will plant combinations of cover crops, such as cereal rye and tillage radish,” Layne says. “Robb is working on that plan right now. It will be a challenge with furrow irrigation, but cover crops are supposed to make the soil healthier and hold moisture, which is another way to conserve water.
“We also are working with biologicals in cotton. We started with a seed treatment on some of the acres, and then combined a couple other foliar products – vitaNterra and Exploit – with our fertilizer at first bloom. We came back in 10 days to two weeks and put on 2 gallons of liquid potash. It appeared to help with cotton vigor on those acres. We spent about $25 per acre and hope to get a return of $70 to $80 per acre. We generally try to get the majority of our nutrient uptake through the roots, but we like to look at different things.”
Employee Dream Team
When asked what he attributes the success of the farming operation to, Matt is quick to respond. “The good Lord is first,” he says. “And then I would say this team of people we have put together makes us successful.”
Matt says their crop consultant, Robb Dedman, thinks outside the box and pushes them to try new things.
“He offers complete crop consulting services and data management,” Matt says. “We would work a lot less if we didn’t have Robb. I give him credit for a lot of the things we are doing today in our production system. Much of our success with 100-bushel-yield soybeans was because of him.”
And now Dedman has taken on consulting responsibilities for the Miles Farms’ cotton acres as well.
“I believe in intense management and communication,” Dedman says. “It’s been a long time since we have had a lot of cotton to deal with. We are taking the intensity with which we grow soybeans and applying that same approach to cotton.”
Farm manager Billy Garner also is part of the inner circle. “Billy knows exactly what is going on in every aspect of the farm, including equipment purchases,” Matt says. “I am always transparent in my communication with him.
“We have been blessed with our labor, too. One of our H2A workers has been here for three generations. Almost everyone else has been here for 10 to 15 years. Everyone pulls their weight and wants this yield as much as we do.”
Matt is adamant that he would put their employees up against any group in the United States. “This operation runs efficiently and successfully because of the people who are out there. It’s like a big family.”