Neither growing up on a farm nor a 14-year career with the USDA's Farmers Home Administration fully prepared Alliance, N.C., grower Wyatt Whitford to cope with the ever changing weather patterns of the Albermarle Sound.
His experience and training did put him in a position to make sound business decisions about the farm and part of that decision-making process has been to diversify his operation to spread out much of the weather related risk involved in farming in eastern North Carolina.
Whitford was raised on a farm in rural North Carolina, graduated from North Carolina State University in animal science and worked for 14 years for the USDA. When the opportunity to go into a farming operation with his cousin, Scotty Whitford, he took the challenge and hasn't looked back.
In 2006, Whitford Farms LLC will grow approximately 760 acres of cotton, 850 acres of corn, 800 acres of soybeans, 550 acres of wheat and 85 acres of tobacco.
Growing tobacco after the Stabilization Program has been a challenge from both a production and a marketing standpoint. “Last year we had a good tobacco crop, but we didn't anticipate the huge increase in energy costs, which hit us hard, the North Carolina grower recalls.
Tobacco is a traditional crop in eastern North Carolina, but tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV) is a relatively new problem for growers. TSWV hit last year's tobacco crop hard. “Last year we lost 25-30 percent of our crop in some fields. Combination of wet weather and TSWV cut overall yields by 30 percent,” Whitford says.
A warm winter and dry weather is not a good sign for TSWV, because the thrips that vector the disease are in high numbers.
Whitford plants tobacco in late April and finishes the first week of May. Waiting until later to plant may help keep thrips numbers low early in the season, and combined with burning down stubble early, hopefully will help at the end of the crop season.
On corn, the North Carolina grower has used Gaucho and Cruiser for the past two years, instead of Counter, and it has worked well. “We come back with Orthene at our first Roundup spray, and this combination has worked well for us. Fortunately, we don't have a big problem with nematodes, which wouldn't be affected by the seed treatments,” he notes.
The three year rotation he has used over a long period of time has helped keep nematode populations low, allowing him to use some of the new seed treatments to manage thrips.
Rotations have been a big part of the overall management strategy at Whitford Farms. Typically corn will follow cotton, which follows soybeans. They rotate tobacco every two or three years with various crops on their better soils.
In 1999, the North Carolina farmer began growing cotton. “Before we even started with cotton one of our neighbors said we would never see yields below 600 pounds per acre. The first year we had hurricanes and all kind of wet weather, and we averaged 425 pounds per acre. The second year we averaged 870 pounds per acre, and the third year l,l25 pouns per acre. Since 2002, he says yields have declined — mostly due to weather.
“Last year we had a really good crop, then a weather system came in and knocked yields down. In one field we picked 10 acres and averaged over 900 pounds per acre before the front came through. After the front came through in early October, and we could get back into the field, we only harvested a little over 600 pounds per acre,” Whitford laments.
“We had a bumper top crop, and it looked like a white cloud in the field, but the bottom crop was hard locked, and we just didn't get the yield potential we had from the crop,” he explains.
Whitford farms is in Alliance, N.C., which is about 70 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, separated by the Nuese River and the Albermarle Sound.
Cotton is a relatively new crop in the area. Many soils in the region are low to moderate in organic matter and typically suited to grow 80 bushel per acre corn and 600-800 pounds per acre of cotton.
They have never planted cotton earlier than April 24. This year weather was warm enough to plant in early April, but Whitford was busy planting corn and tobacco. By the time he got to cotton, cooler weather returned. By mid-June, the crop looked good, but what happens in July and August will greatly determine how the cotton ends up.
Growing cotton in southeastern North Carolina is highly dependent on the weather, and managing weeds is one of the tougher weather-related problems. Though he hasn't seen evidence of Roundup resistant weeds, Whitford says it is a real concern.
“We use Liberty Link corn systems, which helps break up the Roundup cycle.
Using Liberty Link corn helps break the cycle of Roundup used in cotton and soybeans. Liberty Link has a different mode of action. He sprayed with Liberty and atrazine after the corn emerged and it worked well.
They plant Roundup ready cotton and soybeans and burn down wheat with glyphosate, but are careful to restrict glyphosate use when possible. They still burn wheat with fire, which requires careful management, but works well.
In 2006, Whitford will plant 200 acres of full season Group V and VI soybeans, planted in early May. The rest will be double-cropped with wheat. Though some area growers have made good crops using Group IV maturing soybeans, commitments to tobacco and corn make the practice impossible for Whitford. With wheat running from fall to spring, Whitford has one or more crops in the ground year around.
Fuel costs are a big concern with all crops, and the difference in profit and loss can be how a crop is sold and where it goes. Whitford contends a key to selling a crop is transportation costs. The new ethanol plant at Aurora is exciting, he says. It is only 10-12 miles from his farm, and he hopes it will add value to his corn crop.
Whitford works with Crop Consultant Bruce Niederhauser to determine fertility needs of his cotton crop. They pull samples two weeks before bloom, at bloom and two weeks after bloom. This gives Whitford an idea of what the nutritional status of the cotton crop is at any set time.
The first test provides a benchmark, the second gives him a trend, and by the time he gets to the third tissue sample, everything needs to be in balance.
Whitford uses a DD-60 system to determine when to plant his cotton. The formula consists of taking the high and low temperature for the day. Add the high and low temperature divide by two and subtract 60, which produces a DD-60 accumulation for that 24-hour period. A 10 DD-60 rating for five consecutive days after planting cotton is the benchmark used to determine when to plant‥
Another critical management decision in growing cotton in the Albermarle region is how to control plant growth. The region is in the crosshairs of tropical storms and long periods of hot, wet weather are typical in the region. Timing and rate of growth regulants are critical to managing plant growth in the region.
One tool Whitford uses to control cotton growth is a Dixie Pix Wick, which he mounts on his hooded herbicide rig. Usually wicks, which are soaked with Pix or other plant growth regulators, are mounted on a herbicide rig. The first wick treatment comes at 16 inches of plant growth height.
“We try to manage the things we can control as efficiently as we can, and we try to not worry so much about the things we can't control,” Whitford says. In North Carolina's Albermarle regions, being ready to react to weather changes is a fact of life that he has managed well.