EDITOR'S NOTE — Poor rotation and changes in the government program have caused peanut acreage shifts in some regions of the lower Southeast. In this final installment of a three-part series, Southeast Farm Press looks at what some producers in the traditional peanut growing areas are doing to stay in business.
Dressed in a cowboy hat, plaid shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots, Larry Ford looks more like a cowman than a peanut producer. But one ride in this Malone, Fla., native's Ford pickup truck will reveal that he's doing a lot more than just raising good cattle.
As owner of Ford Farms, LAD Farms and Greenwood Oaks Farm, Ford manages 140 brood cows, 800 acres of peanuts, 1,600 acres of cotton and 250 acres of corn. He also serves as president of Tri-State Peanuts and CEO of Malone Peanuts, while holding various other committee and council positions.
“They say if you want something done, give it to the busiest man in town. He'll figure out a way to get it done,” Ford says, after pausing to help one of his workers with a problem over the two-way radio. “I guess that's the case with me.”
The full schedule doesn't hinder Ford from keeping a vigilant eye on his crops, though, especially his passion — peanuts. “I don't let important dates pass by. If I know it needs to be done, I see that it does.”
Eight years ago, Ford saw the need to incorporate bahiagrass into a four-year peanut rotation, a decision he says wasn't a new idea for peanut farmers. “It has been a known fact that bahiagrass in a rotation always benefits you. I don't know why we crowded the crops so long.”
Today, Ford devotes about 30 percent of his farmland to the four-year rotation, and he says the benefits abound. “On a four-year rotation with bahiagrass, you're going to increase your yield, and you're going to reduce your costs,” he says.
Ford says he has seen at least a 1,000-pound increase in peanut yields, with the potential for even greater yield increases. “With this rotation, there are growers who are consistently getting 5,500 to 5,800 pounds per acre.”
Besides increased yields, Ford has noticed that bahiagrass also loosens the soil and encourages better water retention, preventing run-off. “You hardly have any water standing in a bahiagrass field. In a regular field, you would,” Ford says, as he points to a portion of a peanut field not in the rotation turning yellow from standing water. “You also get a lot more vine growth.”
With more time between peanut crops, Ford also reduces his disease problems. “My input costs for nematicides, insecticides and fungicides is considerably less than for a field I've got in a two-year rotation.”
Ford says the biggest challenge for planting bahiagrass is taking the ground out of production. “You need to make more to compensate for the loss, but if you can figure out how to make it work, it's to your benefit.”
Ford has made bahiagrass work for him by grazing brood cows and cutting some acres for hay. “Where cattle are involved in a rotation, it makes it a lot simpler. If you're straight row-cropping, it makes it more difficult to make money.”
Ford has been pleased with the bahiagrass returns so far. He nets about 6 to 10 tons of hay per acre, and his calves gain an average of 100 pounds per month. “You really get some good weight gains on these calves.”
Those calves are offspring of F1 cows, half Brahman, half Angus, that have been bred back to an Angus bull. He sells the females as replacements and markets some of the bulls as herd bulls. “The F1 mama cows are a little bit spirited, but you have to know how to handle them,” Ford says.
Handling cattle efficiently translates to added costs and labor, Ford says. “You need pens, working facilities and water facilities. Most farming operations aren't set up to utilize that. It takes high management skills to make all that work efficiently.”
Catering to cattle needs isn't the only extra expense for a bahiagrass rotation, according to Ford. Seed cost is also a factor. “The biggest cost is buying the bahiagrass seed at $2 a pound. It's better if you've got your own seed.”
Ford says the four-year rotation may be one way to increase yields needed to supply the 2 million-ton peanut demand, without sacrificing peanut acres to new parts of the state. “The rotation will work best for those who have already been growing peanuts. The challenge is getting growers to see that it will work.”
Ford realizes that growers who rent land are even more hesitant to accept the rotation as a profitable solution. “You've got to compare the rent you're paying with the increased yields you make to insure it's going to work,” he says.
Growers willing to take a chance on this rotation will not be disappointed, Ford says. “If you can figure out how to generate income on that rotation, it's worth it. It's probably not for everybody, but if a grower is looking for cheaper production costs and increased yields, it's an area he needs to look at.”
Rebecca Bearden is a senior at Auburn University majoring in agricultural communications. She is completing her internship with Southeast Farm Press.