If there’s a question about when to harvest tobacco, wait. Holding the tobacco crop a little longer in the field can add to your bottom line, as well as make you look better in the eyes of manufacturers.

A long-term study associated with the Official Variety Trials is taking on new significance in the era of contracting, where manufacturers are requiring riper tobacco and more tip grades, says David Smith, North Carolina State University Extension tobacco specialist. The information could also help growers select varieties in the future.

Smith, Glenn Tart, Ken Barnes and Loren Fisher looked at how holding 10 varieties in the field affected yield and quality of the upper-stalk tobacco. The study looked at varieties in 2002 and 2003, to opposite years as far as weather was concerned; 2002 was dry, 2003 was wet.

Researchers found that K 326 and NC 71 held better than Speight 168 and NC 606 in both years. NC 297 held as well as K 326 in 2002, but not in 2003. “All varieties lost value at some point in the test,” Smith says.

“We found that you can hold all varieties in the field without affecting yield, price and value per acre — up to a point,” Smith says. Most yield, and ultimately price, started to decline 20 to 30 days after the upper leaves were ripe.

The greatest decline occurred in relation to price per pound. In 2003, a wet year, K-326 harvested unripe brought $1.58 per pound; waiting 10 days later, however, the same variety brought $1.72 per pound; at 20 days later, K-326 achieved its top price of $1.91 per pound.

Price per pound started to decline at 30 days.

In 2002, the price per pound of K-326 didn’t start to cut out until 40 days after the unripe harvesting treatment.

The researchers conducted the study at the Border Belt Tobacco Research Station in Whiteville, N.C. After two initial harvests, they made harvests at seven days before the crop was ripe and thereafter for 10, 20, 30 and 40 days after the initial two harvests, Smith says.

“Looking at the data, you can see that the first 10 days after the earlier priming generally gets the farmer the best price,” Smith says. “By waiting the first few days, they don’t sacrifice yield or value per acre. The result is it improves quality. They’re making the buyer happier and they’re having a better quality of tobacco.”

The study, which has been conducted for a number of years, takes on greater significance in an environment of contracting, Smith says.

Philip Morris is an example of a company requiring more tip grades from its contractors. “The darker the tobacco, the riper it is and the more likely it will obtain a tip grade,” Smith says.

Tip grades average about a nickel more per pound than the same leaf grades. Philip Morris has said that it is looking for a range of stalk positions in its crop throw.

At grower meetings over the winter, Smith found a lot of agreement among growers over how to increase tip grades. “Growers are paying attention to this type of information.

“All of the varieties available will grow good tobacco,” Smith says. “The big difference is disease resistance and holdability.”

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com