Arkansas Operation Endorses Forward-Looking Information Exchange
• By Carroll Smith,
Arkansas farmer Marty White grew up working side by side in the field with his mother, father and sisters. They were a close family who believed in the importance of communication and teamwork to make a good living while sustaining the land for future generations.
Today, he farms with his sons, Jesse Flye and Logan White. White Flye Farms now encompasses 14,500 irrigated acres on which they grow cotton, row rice, soybeans, corn and peanuts. Last year, they enrolled their cotton acres in the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol sustainability initiative.
“I don’t ever want to be the old man who won’t change,” Marty says. “We update our equipment on a regular basis, try different twists on our production practices and take advantage of new technology. We sit down and make decisions together before we do anything. We are all trying to learn.
“Our employees are our greatest asset. We run a good labor pool here. A lot of the guys have been with me for a long time. We also have some H-2A workers from South Africa who help us out. Because our employees are constantly out in the field, they share their thoughts with us, too. If anyone has a better idea about how to do something, I want to know about it.”
White Flye Farms also employs several young college students who bring new ideas to the table.
“A lot of times we’ll try some of the things they bring up,” Logan says. “Sometimes they work and sometimes they fail, but that’s how we all learn.”
New Technology Observations
This year, Marty and his sons are growing Deltapine, NexGen, Stoneville and DynaGro cotton varieties on about 6,500 acres. All of them include the Bollgard 3 trait. The Arkansas farmers also have Deltapine New Product Evaluator plots that feature varieties with the ThryvOn technology. According to Bayer, ThryvOn offers protection against tarnished plant bugs and thrips.
“We didn’t have to spray for thrips in the ThryvOn field, which borders a corn field,” Jesse says. “As of Aug. 3, we’ve flown on two applications for plant bugs, and the fruit retention is about 95% compared to 75% to 82% in the other cotton fields. In fields without ThryvOn, we’ve made four plant bug applications and sprayed for thrips.”
They all agreed the wet, cool weather prevalent in their area this year created perfect thrips conditions.
“Overall, insect pressure has been bad,” Logan says. “The cold winter hurt us because it killed the plants where beneficials overwinter. We lost the good bugs.”
The Arkansas farmers depend on field recommendations from their consultant, Eddy Cates.
They also cooperate with industry personnel and University of Arkansas Extension to try various approaches to production practices that include adjusting plant populations and growing cover crops on about one-fourth of their cotton acres.
Cotton Plant Populations
“Five years ago, we were at 44,000 cotton plants per acre,” Logan says. “This year, we planted from 36,000 to 38,000 ppa, which amounts to a $15 to $20 per-acre savings, and the yield is comparable. This helps our bottom dollar.”
Another benefit of a lower plant population is the way it affects the plant’s growth.
“With a lower population, the plant is able to put on more lateral branches and more fruiting positions going out instead of going up,” Marty says. “The thinner plant population gives us a shorter plant that’s quicker to the finish line. With the higher populations, the plant was growing so fast, we could never put out enough plant growth regulator to slow it down.
“We do have to be careful with the thinner stands because sometimes there is not enough canopy shade for weed control later in the season. It’s a balancing act, but we are trying to figure it out.”
Marty also wants all the employees to understand what they are trying to accomplish with the different production practices. To facilitate this information exchange, he invited Jay Mahaffey to visit the farm and make a presentation. Mahaffey is the manager at Bayer’s Scott Learning Center in Scott, Mississippi.
“He talks on a level we can all understand,” Marty says. “When we have a job for our workers to do, we want them to know the reasoning behind it — why we are doing it. The employees relate to Jay and are comfortable asking him questions. It is a good give and take.”
Cover Crop System
White Flye Farms also cooperates with University of Arkansas Extension cotton specialist Bill Robertson on their approach to using a cover crop on a portion of the cotton acres.
“We go through years where a system has its pluses and minuses,” Marty says. “This year is a minus for the cover crop. Normally, you want it to keep the plant cooler and hold moisture in the ground. The cool spring slowed down all our cotton, but the slow growth was compounded where we had a cover crop. Typically, we fruit a node earlier on the cover crop fields, but this year we are behind.
“However, we’re still exploring our options and looking at several different ways to get the cover crop in. We’ve tried flying it on between defoliation applications or waiting until we picked the cotton, then slung it out and shredded the stalks. In another instance, we shredded the stalks, put out the cover, then bedded up.”
The Arkansas farmers also are experimenting with the thickness of the cover crop and adjusting fertilizer rates to see what works best.
“With a cover crop, you’ve got to decide if you’re using it to achieve a healthy soil structure or to benefit weed management,” Jesse says. “It has to be thick to keep weeds from coming up. If you cut back the cover crop mass, you still get what you want going on with the soil, but it may not be thick enough to prevent weeds from emerging.”
To further their knowledge about cover crops, the farmers are cooperating with Robertson on a 160-acre block with three different production systems to see how each one works out.
“In the cover crop system we typically use, we are spending about $20 extra an acre,” Logan says. “The question is, are we making $20 extra an acre. Bill wants to see a number. We are going to put pen to paper for the next four or five years to see what works and what doesn’t.”
Marty says they are willing to share anything they learn with other farmers, but what works for them may not work on someone else’s operation.
“I’ll never say my way is the only way to go because we all farm differently and have different goals,” he says. “But some of the things we are doing may help them out, and I want to know what they are doing as well. It may be a practice that will benefit our farm. We all need to work together so everyone is successful.”
U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol
One thing the three men are all passionate about is encouraging U.S. cotton farmers to sign up for the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol sustainability initiative.
Gary Adams, National Cotton Council president and CEO, says, “Strong enrollment (and reenrollment) in the Trust Protocol will demonstrate to brands/retailers that the United States is a leader in sustainable cotton growing practices. It also enables producers to track their sustainability progress by comparing year-over-year Fieldprint calculator-collected data both from within their farms and anonymously against other Trust Protocol producers.”
White Flye Farms signed up for the Trust Protocol and plans to reenroll for next year.
“We need to tell our story so brands, retailers and consumers will know we are growing a safe, sustainable product right here in the United States,” Jesse says. “I think our cotton has a chance to increase its demand, which leads to a better price, if we take advantage of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol. A lot of companies say they want Trust Protocol cotton. Everyone needs to enroll so we can provide those certified bales.
“There are three levels of certification, and the enrollment process is really easy. Go to trustuscotton.org, click Join Now and fill out the questionnaire about what you are doing on your farm. The common sense questions are not intrusive. You answer yes, no, or we may try this in a few years.
“The next step is to border 10% of the cotton acres on your farm. Then you are asked a few things like how many times do you go in this field and what kind of fertilizer you put out. Based on your answers, the program then uses a Fieldprint calculator to create a visual chart showing your economic and biodiversity footprint.
“The U.S. cotton Trust Protocol now has the information it needs to certify your bales. You provide the name of your gin and what merchant you sell your cotton to so the information can go downstream when your cotton is tagged as U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol bales.”
The second and third levels of certification involve a random selection from the pool of farmers who sign up. The ones chosen to participate in the second level receive a brief phone call to confirm what they said they are doing on their farm. Those chosen to be a part of the third certification level receive a short visit that takes place in a casual atmosphere with an independent contractor.
“We had a lady come out to our farm, and she was impressed by all the good things we were doing that 99% of all cotton farmers do on their farms as well,” Jesse says. “The whole U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol process is quick and easy and designed to show we are growing the sustainable cotton the world wants. We need this documentation to continue to increase our market share, so we encourage all U.S. cotton farmers to sign up to help get our story out there.”