The trend in row crop farming in the Southeast is to get bigger to compensate for dwindling profit margins. Fewer farmers and larger acreage farms create some interesting challenges that farmers in other parts of the country have faced for years, but are becoming more critical for Southeastern growers.
Except for availability of land and money, the biggest obstacles for getting bigger are labor, management and equipment.
Crop consultants have been a part of some Southern farming operations for years, though usually more for crop scouting than crop management. Certified crop consultants, who are fully capable of helping a large acreage farmer produce a comprehensive farm plan and manage the problems associated with crop production are few.
In the Midwest, organizations, like Dodge City, Kan.-based Crop Quest have been in existence for over 20 years. Crop Quest provides agronomic, pest management, water management and even high tech precision agriculture assistance to their growers.
Large, comprehensive crop management companies, like Crop Quest simply don’t exist in the Southeast.
Typically, labor is a chronic problem in larger farming operations. Most of the work is done by a few people, and that work runs the gamut from fixing a tractor to marketing a crop. When pushed for time, too many farmers use averages for crop production.
Even if a farmer splits a 7,500 acre farming operations into 500-700 acre farms, which is typical, he may apply nitrogen to a 500 acre farm based on an average of soil samples over the entire 500 acres. If the average calls for 100 pounds per acre of N, restricted by time and management input, too many growers would apply 50,000 pounds of N to the entire farm.
Data from grid sampling or zone sampling, even higher tech electronic conductivity of the soil can be used to build computer-generated farm-wide soil variability maps. Combined with variable rate application equipment, such maps could easily save the grower 25 percent on volume of fertilizer applied and 25 percent on efficacy of fertilizer applied.
Investment in precision agriculture takes more than money, according to Calvin Perry, an ag engineer at the University of Georgia, it takes a commitment of time to learn how to most efficiently adapt precision ag technology to a particular farming operation.
For farmers who are getting larger and older (the average age of a farmer in the Southeastern U.S. is 57.4 years of age), including high tech and precision ag technology into a growing farming operation is difficult, but vital to sustainability of the operation.
Variable rate application technology, for example, can save growers huge amounts of money on everything from fertilizer to irrigation water, but this technology requires huge investments in time.
Strip-tillage, no-tillage, even never-till have all caught on in varying degrees throughout the Southeast. Though these tillage practices aren’t new, factors like tractor/implement balance, size of tires, configuration of tires are things large acreage growers in other parts of the country have faced for years, but have not been management considerations on the typically smaller Southeastern farms.
Paul Sparenberg, product marketing specialist for AGCO’s new Challenger MT900B four wheel drive tractors, says matching the tractor to the job is critical in larger farming operations.
Conversely, proper tires and proper weight alignment can reduce slippage to 6-8 percent. Spread out over a 7,000-8,000 acre operation and multiple passes in many cases, reducing slippage is a critical money-saving factor that is well within the grower’s ability to control.
Tire size, configuration, even air pressure are factors that few growers in the Southeast have had to consider. When going from a 1,000 acre operation to a 5,000 or 6,000 acre operation, the performance of every piece of equipment becomes incrementally more important as the acres go up.
On the lighter, sandier soils typical of the Southeast larger, high horsepower tractors are likely to use big dual tires to provide for optimum flotation. Simply setting air pressure properly can increase the size of the footprint of the tire across the field and dramatically increase the amount of time a farmer can spend working in a wet field.
Bob Rees, technical survey manager for Michelin Ag Tires, says the new Michelin line of Axio tires, which utilize the company’s new Ultraflex technology, can dramatically improve a farmer’s ability to stay in a field longer under wet conditions and get back into the field early after rainfall.