Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Forward-Looking Mindset

Missouri Farmer Explores New Technology From Planting To Harvest


This Missouri cotton team likes to use technology to move the operation into the future. From left are Bailey Below, Allen Below, Justin Littleton and Austin Littleton.

Fourth-generation Missouri farmer Allen Below grew his first cotton crop on 1,000 acres in 1993. That fall, Below and three of his neighbors went in together and bought a gin in Bernie, Missouri. Today, he still owns Stoddard County Cotton Co. with two of the partners, so he is a cotton farmer and ginner.

Below continued to expand his operation and farmed about 7,400 acres of cotton in 2023. He has operated in a business relationship with two brothers — Justin and Austin Littleton — for the past 10 years.

“We are separate operations, but we pool our knowledge and resources and use our size, efficiency and management to help us all, which was our vision from the beginning,” Below says. “It has worked well. We’ve put a good crew together and have about 10 employees between us.”

The Missouri farmer always strives to look for future opportunities. His latest vision involves bringing his oldest daughter, Bailey, into the fold. She had expressed interest in the farm for the past couple years and worked there during the summer and fall after graduating from college last May.

Bailey Below is learning the ropes about farming from her dad, Allen Below, in the Missouri Bootheel.

“Bailey helped me with irrigation, which included laying out tubing, punching holes and getting the motors set up,” Below said. “She never complained, was always here and has started driving a tractor some. Last fall, she worked alongside the picking crew and moved the round modules to where they needed to be for pick up by the gin.

“We are now at the point to sit down and decide where we will go from here. If this is what she wants to pursue, I want it to be her decision. I would like for her to start out the way Austin and Justin did. Go get financed, rent some ground, buy a little bit of equipment and start figuring everything out. There is no better way to learn than to get in debt. Then it gets real.”

Cover Crop Observations

Below said he and the Littletons are up to 12,000 acres total for 2024 because they all have taken on more land since the fall.

“We are 99% irrigated,” he said. “The Littletons have pivots and most of my land is furrow irrigated and similar to the Mississippi Delta. Soil types range from really light sand to Sharkey clay. Cotton is our predominant crop, but we also grow corn, soybeans and peanuts. This year, we will have 6,500 to 7,000 acres of cotton, 1,000 acres of peanuts, and the balance will be split between corn and beans. We also may have a small amount of rice in our mixture.”

Below said they “started down the cover crop path” 12 years ago with the main goal of keeping that living plant in the soil year round. Today, they are planting cover on almost 100% of their acres.

“We are happy with where we are with our cover crop, but we can always improve while trying to stay sustainable,” he said. “We want to be as environmentally friendly as we can.”

NPE Program Benefits

Below said the majority of their cotton is Deltapine brand.

Deltapine cotton loaded down the row.

“Our two ‘stars’ for the past couple years have been DP 2127 B3XF and DP 2115 B3XF,” he said. “We started growing both of them in 2021, and they have been good for us.”

The Missouri farmer has also been a Deltapine New Product Evaluator since 2016. He said from the beginning he has liked being able to see new varieties on his farm in what he calls a “real-world situation” a year before they are brought to market.

“The NPE program is the best I have seen as far as evolving cotton varieties since I have been in cotton production,” Below said. “I can see the varieties on my farm, using my practices, in my cover crop and planting the way we plant in the Missouri Bootheel. Also, instead of having just six rows, I like having several acres where we can make a module.

“The other great thing is it’s not just me. Some of my neighbors are NPE growers. We have become a network to talk about what we all thought about the varieties in the NPE plots. We also have a Bayer conference call, and I know the company listens to our comments because I see what they bring forward and what they don’t. There are about 20 of us on the call in my group, and every single person said they liked DP 2414 B3TXF the best compared to other varieties in the 2023 NPE plots.”

Sprayers, Harvest Equipment

On the equipment side, Below said he is always looking at technology to improve his efficiency. One example is the John Deere See & Spray technology.

“We are trying to evolve into variable-rate sprays and get away from blanket sprays,” he said. “We want to apply inputs where they are needed and none or less where they are not needed. The sprayers we have coming will have See & Spray technology on them. It’s good and it works, but it will be an evolution process for us.”

Below said he had always run John Deere pickers, starting out with the 9960 and then moving to the CP690 and the CP770s.

“When the round bale module building pickers were in development, we ran some prototypes for them in 2007,” he said.

Since the latest round bale pickers can make a 96-inch bale, Below had to assess how that was going to work as far as hauling them and then dealing with them at the gin. He found there were no issues hauling the big bales on a flatbed truck with a semi. He also bought a module truck and equipped it a little differently to where he could get the bigger bales in it, but that was only one truck.

“The bottleneck came when the truck was loading the modules into the feeder at the gin,” he said. “We’ll probably have to make some modifications to the truck to get the bigger bales on the feeder. But the actual feeder and unwrapping system we have now works fine. There are no issues there.

“The only hurdle we have to get over now is the older, narrower module trucks. We will probably have to pull the sides off, which will work fine on the lot because the trucks are not going down the road. That’s where we are with that technology. But the fact that the bigger module has more cotton in it, and we are using less wrap is definitely an advantage. We’ll also be making fewer trips and still hauling a legal load and abiding by the law. For efficiency’s sake, I think this is the direction we need to steer for. It won’t come quickly, but it will come.”

What’s In The Future?

Below said one of his long-term goals is to make the most of new technology to be more efficient and sustainable.

“I think the biggest thing for us in moving toward this goal is watching the evolution of our cover crops,” he said. “We are soil sampling more than we used to and trying to target good areas and not-so-good areas, which makes us more efficient with the amount of nitrogen we are using to produce a cotton crop.

“We will continue participating in the NPE program to keep up with the new seed genetics as they come along and invest in new machinery technology as we are able without putting ourselves out of business. We definitely want to stay up to date as we move into the future.”

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