Managing a burley tobacco crop calls for some major modifications in your management scheme if what you are accustomed to growing is flue-cured.

You need some guidance. At the request of Southeast Farm Press, North Carolina Extension tobacco specialists David Smith, Loren Fisher and Robbie Parker helped prepare a management checklist for “bright” tobacco producers who are growing burley for the first time.

  • First, make sure you are planting in well-suited fields. — They may not be the same ones that you have grown flue-cured on. Disease is a special consideration: No burley variety is resistant to Granville wilt, and many are susceptible to root knot nematode. If a field has either of those, plant elsewhere. Also, burley is less drought tolerant than flue-cured. So if you can, plant burley in fields you can irrigate, especially if you are farming in the Piedmont.

  • Be cautious about building curing facilities. — Remember, burley in flue-cured areas is still an experiment, and there is no guarantee it will be repeated in 2006. It may pay just to “get by” in 2005 and cure burley in whatever structures you have — hay shelters, hog buildings that have an open side, poultry houses, or whatever is available.

    But old flue-cured stick barns are not likely to be a good choice. It will be hard to modify them enough for adequate ventilation. Also, they won't hold much burley: By one calculation, you might need six such barns to cure one acre of burley. What's more, you can't drive through most of them, so they will not be labor efficient to hang.

  • Don't wait too late to transplant. — Burley requires less time in the field, but be sure to transplant it immediately after flue cured. Tobacco planted after June 1 yields 33 percent less than that planted at the normal time.

  • You must manage blue mold on burley! — It is much more susceptible than flue-cured, and failure to control it can result in disaster. Don't delay spraying until you see blue mold in the field. By then it is too late. Instead, make use of the Blue Mold Forecast System and Local Extension Advisories to know when to begin sprays. Once inoculum appears in your area, you will need to start a protective fungicide spray program, and fast.

  • Burley needs more nitrogen than flue-cured. — Apply 180 to 200 pounds per acre (but no more). Burley's requirements for phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients should be applied at the same rates as flue-cured.

    And please note: Products formulated from muriate of potash (KCI) should never be used on burley. They can lead to excessive levels of chloride in the cured leaf, causing quality problems and making your leaf unusable.

  • Remember that insects can continue to feed on burley even after it has been cut and hung. — So be sure to scout fields for insects and apply insecticides (observing REI) if needed before harvest.

  • Top early and top high. — Sucker control is a little less complex than on flue-cured. You need apply no more than one contact at 4 percent, and follow it with a combination of MH and flumetralin.

  • Harvest four to five weeks after topping. — You want to maximize “flyings” — “primings” in flue-cured — and tips. They sell for the highest prices. Spear five to six stalks on each stick and wilt three to five days in the field before hanging. Place the leaf butts toward the afternoon sun to reduce sunscald on the leaves. If scald occurs, leave the sticks in the field for a few additional days. Follow the weather forecast to prevent rain damage and mud sticking to leaves.

  • Manage the cure by controlling ventilation. — Air curing is a long-term process and because it is a natural process, every curing season is different.

  • Strip the leaf from the stalk in a timely manner and when tobacco is in good working order. — Avoid fat stems. Observe maximum moisture levels of no more than 23 percent. Use your contract specifications to decide how to grade and package.

  • Make your stripping and packaging operation as efficient in time and resources as you can. — Research in Tennessee suggests that when a farmer converts from the traditional program of moving, stripping and handling burley to the most up-to-date approach, he can reduce total labor use by 50 percent or more. You need to start with that 50 percent savings.

  • Finally, burley production is a craft, and you should take advantage of opportunities to learn it. — Field days, tours and curing schools are planned in 2005, and keep in touch with your county Extension agent, who will have additional information.