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Danny Darnell, who farms in north Alabama's Tennessee Valley, has been named the Southeast High Cotton Award winner for 2013. Darnell farms with his sons, Jared and Heath.
DANNY DARNELL’S LOVE of farming has resulted in a successful family operation in northwest Alabama’s Tennessee Valley and being named the Southeast High Cotton Award winner.
Family farm is two operations
The family farm is actually two operations — Clifton Farms, owned and operated by sons Jared and Heath, and Darnell Farms, run by Danny and Pat. “But we work it all together,” says Danny.
Jared’s wife, Michelle, does the accounting for Clifton Farms, while Heath’s wife, Sally-Rae, who is a full-time school teacher in the area, helps out in the field when necessary.
Most of the Darnells’ land is rented, except for about 130 acres.
“We try to keep it about one-third cotton, one-third corn, and one-third soybeans and wheat,” says oldest son Jared. “A three-year rotation is our goal, although we can’t do it every year because of weather and other factors. We installed four grain bins in 2010, and they hold about 210,000 bushels. We can’t just grow cotton after cotton, so we had to add another crop to the mix. We started having problems with reniform nematodes in cotton, and rotation is the best cure for that.”
Only about 400 acres of their land is irrigated. “The Tennessee River runs adjacent to some of our fields, and we’re watering just about everything we can right now, considering water availability and field size,” says Danny. “It seems like the closer we get to the river, the harder it is to find groundwater.”
Soil variability is a challenge on most of their land, sometimes changing from one end of the field to the other. “It can go from a cooler, grayer-type ground to a higher redder-type ground,” he says. “In some fields in 2013, we had to replant in spots because the bottoms drowned out in places. Very few of our fields are uniform from one end to the other.”
Darnell practices minimum-tillage and no-till, along with some vertical-tillage, using a Great Plains Turbo Till.
“We spread poultry litter over all our land, and we use the Turbo Till to incorporate the litter into the soil. It helps to evenly distribute the litter. We used to turn all of this land, but we eventually moved to conservation tillage. We’ve always contour-farmed and terraced, and it was always in the back of our mind to switch to conservation tillage.
“People who experimented with it could afford it because they owned their land. When you’re on borrowed money and rented land, everything you do counts — you can’t take a chance that it won’t work, but you can experiment on a small scale.”
Rotation, says Jared, has been the key to good cotton yields.
“Rotation is our main advantage. We’ve kept cotton in our rotation and plan to keep it there. We might miss one out of about every three corn crops, but we’ve averaged 1,000 pounds of cotton four years in a row. New cotton varieties and rotation have made a big difference for us.”
Danny adds that nothing really matters if there isn’t water — either from a pivot or rainfall.
“We can do all these other things, but if we don’t have water, we can’t do anything. July rainfall really helped us in 2013.”