High grain prices cause Bishopville, S.C., grower William McElveen to rethink his rotations, but peanuts and cotton remain his bread and butter.
Peanuts have grown from a few thousand acres in South Carolina at the turn of the millennium to over 60,000 in 2008. Though many farmers in his area switched to peanuts from other crops since 2004, McElveen says peanuts have been a staple on his farm for over 20 years.
In addition to peanuts, the South Carolina grower produces 600 acres of cotton, 500 acres of corn and 500 acres of wheat, double-cropped with soybeans. He added some extra storage capacity on his farm, which continues to pay off as he harvests his wheat.
He says he will plant about 600 acres of NC V11 and Champs, both Virginia-type peanuts. He notes a short supply of NC V11 seed has forced most South Carolina growers to choose some alternative varieties.
Champs is a new variety, developed by Virginia Tech plant breeders. This new Virginia type variety has performed well in Virginia and North Carolina.
Peanuts have a big advantage in these boom times because of the good contract prices. “This is the first year since I've been farming that I couldn't book my crops. You can't book soybeans and cotton. They are at a high price, but it doesn't mean anything, if you can't book sell.” He stresses that planting crops that aren't booked adds significantly to the already high risks of farming.
Knowing that his peanuts are sold and sold for a good price is a comforting feeling for the South Carolina grower. Despite a long history with peanuts, McElveen says he doesn't make a major decision without consulting Clemson Peanut Specialist Jay Chapin.
“I also get a lot of cropping advice from Jerry Adams, my Bayer Crop Science representative,” McElveen says. “This year I told Jerry I was going to plant my peanuts the last week in April. Jerry called Chapin, who told him to shoot out the tires on my tractor, if that's what it would take to prevent me from planting peanuts before May 10,” the South Carolina farmer recalls.
“Even with the horrific drought last year, we made pretty good peanuts. A good harvest season saved us. I believe the No. 1 cause for loss of yield in peanuts comes from the harvesting process,” he says.
Last year McElveen says he tried planting peanuts on strip-tilled land. The drought and the flat land didn't work too well. The South Carolina grower contends he lost several pounds per acre trying to get his peanuts out of the hard, flat rows. It's more convenient than conventional planting, but it just didn't work for us, McElveen notes.
Planting peanuts is a slow process, but one in which increasing speed never pays. McElveen runs two 8-row planters and under ideal planting conditions he can plant his 600 acres of peanuts in 15-16 days. Of course getting 15-16 days of consecutively good weather in the Pee Dee area of northeastern South Carolina in early May is nearly impossible.
“We put Temik at 5 pounds per acre in the furrow with the planter to control thrips, and we feel that gives our peanuts a good start. We include Asset, Optimize Lift and First Up at planting to help with root formation,” he adds.
“Before first bloom we come back with our first herbicide application, which is always a combination of chemicals,” he says. Last year he used a combination of Storm, Blazer, Dual and Basagran. The South Carolina grower stresses these materials have to be used in a timely manner to work properly.
While his neighbors to the north in North Carolina and Virginia have had devastating problems with diseases on peanuts, McElveen says a timely, diversified fungicide program has helped keep disease problems to a minimum in his peanuts.
“At 45 days we begin with an application of Bravo and Tilt, giving us two different families of fungicides. At 60 days, we come back with Provost, giving us another family of fungicides. At 75 days we sprayed with Abound and at 90 days with Provost and my last spray was another application of Bravo,” McElveen explains.
“We usually are digging peanuts and still spraying other peanuts — you can't neglect the last peanuts on your digging schedule. It may take us a month to dig and combine 600 acres of peanuts, so you are harvesting and growing different parts of the crop at the same time,” McElveen adds.
The things that pay off the most for his peanut operation, he says, are:
Planting rate. “We have to get six seed per foot of row. With the high value of seeds, it is equally important to get that seed at the right depth and to be sure you can get the plant to pop out of the ground early in the growing season.”
Controlling weeds early in the season. “If you let weeds get started and up with the peanuts it's harder to control them, they compete with the peanuts for nutrition, but most of all they mess up your digging. Again, losing peanuts at the end of the season is something you can prevent by managing weeds in the early part of the season.
Timing fungicide applications is critical. “Again, keeping disease out of your peanuts is the key. Once any of these diseases gets started, it's so much harder to manage it than it is to prevent it.”
“There seems to be a bond between the grower and peanuts unlike the bond he has with other crops. And with peanuts, you just cannot cut corners,” McElveen says.