You don’t farm for very long in the challenging hills of north Alabama’s Tennessee Valley unless you truly love it — and for Danny Darnell, there has never been any doubt about that love.

“I’ve always enjoyed it, and I’ve loved being around it,” says Darnell, who farms in Hillsboro, a small community just west of Decatur, Ala.

His father farmed and worked at nearby Redstone Arsenal, “back when you had to have another job to afford farming.” For a while after finishing high school, Danny got a job at a local plant, but it soon became apparent to him and wife Pat that farming was his true calling.

“Pat got so tired of me complaining that she told me to either quit the job or shut up — her exact words. So I quit working at the plant and starting farming. Since then, we’ve been very fortunate.”

But it wasn’t an easy start, Darnell says, noting that he literally started with nothing. He baled hay for the public and worked his own farm whenever there was time — whatever it took to make a living.

“Basically, we’re still doing that now, but it’s just a little better living,” he says.

His love for the land was passed on to his sons, Jared and Heath, both of whom were eager to return to the farm after finishing their educations at Auburn University.

Today, the Darnells farm about 5,500 acres, split between cotton, corn and soybeans followed by wheat. Their success with this operation has earned Danny the 2014 Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award for the Southeast Region.

See photos of Darnell's farming operation

Family farm is two operations

The family farm is actually two operations — Clifton Farms, owned and operated by sons Jared and Heath, and Darnell Farms, run by Danny and Pat. “But we work it all together,” says Danny.

Jared’s wife, Michelle, does the accounting for Clifton Farms, while Heath’s wife, Sally-Rae, who is a full-time school teacher in the area, helps out in the field when necessary.

Most of the Darnells’ land is rented, except for about 130 acres.

“We try to keep it about one-third cotton, one-third corn, and one-third soybeans and wheat,” says oldest son Jared. “A three-year rotation is our goal, although we can’t do it every year because of weather and other factors. We installed four grain bins in 2010, and they hold about 210,000 bushels. We can’t just grow cotton after cotton, so we had to add another crop to the mix. We started having problems with reniform nematodes in cotton, and rotation is the best cure for that.”

Only about 400 acres of their land is irrigated. “The Tennessee River runs adjacent to some of our fields, and we’re watering just about everything we can right now, considering water availability and field size,” says Danny. “It seems like the closer we get to the river, the harder it is to find groundwater.”

Soil variability is a challenge on most of their land, sometimes changing from one end of the field to the other. “It can go from a cooler, grayer-type ground to a higher redder-type ground,” he says. “In some fields in 2013, we had to replant in spots because the bottoms drowned out in places. Very few of our fields are uniform from one end to the other.”

Darnell practices minimum-tillage and no-till, along with some vertical-tillage, using a Great Plains Turbo Till.

“We spread poultry litter over all our land, and we use the Turbo Till to incorporate the litter into the soil. It helps to evenly distribute the litter. We used to turn all of this land, but we eventually moved to conservation tillage. We’ve always contour-farmed and terraced, and it was always in the back of our mind to switch to conservation tillage.

“People who experimented with it could afford it because they owned their land. When you’re on borrowed money and rented land, everything you do counts — you can’t take a chance that it won’t work, but you can experiment on a small scale.”

Rotation, says Jared, has been the key to good cotton yields.

“Rotation is our main advantage. We’ve kept cotton in our rotation and plan to keep it there. We might miss one out of about every three corn crops, but we’ve averaged 1,000 pounds of cotton four years in a row. New cotton varieties and rotation have made a big difference for us.”

Danny adds that nothing really matters if there isn’t water — either from a pivot or rainfall.

“We can do all these other things, but if we don’t have water, we can’t do anything. July rainfall really helped us in 2013.”

Cotton planting date changes

The Darnells used to plant cotton on or near the first week of April, but now it’s closer to the end of April, thanks to longer-maturing varieties and larger planters that allow them to plant the entire crop in just three to four days.

Poultry litter, applied at 2 tons per acre each year, plays a big role in their fertilization program, says Jared.

“We sample every year, and work with our consultant, Dwain Reed, on all our recommendations. The poultry litter has allowed us to cut back on our liming. We may lime a field every five years, though we probably don’t have to. Litter has helped with our soil pH. It’s putting organic matter back into the ground and giving us a healthier soil. We get our N, P and K from chicken litter, and then we’ll add in N-Sol as needed for each crop. We band-spray behind the planter, using nitrogen as a carrier for Cotoran in cotton.”

The Darnells participate in the Deltapine New Product Evaluator (NPE) program, evaluating different varieties each year. This past year, they planted DPL 1212, 1133 and 1137, all with good results.

“We haven’t had problems yet from Palmer amaranth (pigweed), but we’ve seen some isolated cases in fields,” says Jared. The keys to keeping it in check, he says, include crop rotation, rotating herbicide chemistries, and keeping the residuals on it with a fall and a spring burndown.

“We use a product called LeadOff from DuPont in the fall, and sometimes we’ll use it in the spring. Cotoran goes behind every row, and we use Diuron at lay-by. We keep a residual on every crop.”

The best tool for controlling pigweed, says youngest son Heath, is “having good farmers around you — and the only farmers left in our area are good farmers.”

For defoliation, they favor ethephon at 1 quart, Def at 10 ounces, and Ginstar at 3 ounces. They also use some Finish.

While rainfall this past season was considered excessive at times, the Darnells aren’t complaining.

“We had big rains that actually washed seed out of the row in places, but we didn’t have any crop stress. Spring was cold and wet, and we had more rain than we normally see in July and August. Some cotton was replanted after heavy rainfall in the spring, but all in all, it was a good year.”

Mama decides marketing strategy

As for marketing their cotton crop, Jared is quick with an answer: “Whatever Mama tells us — that’s our marketing strategy.”

Danny concurs. “Pat is our marketing agent. We’ve got a direct mill contract through Servico Gin, and then we go through various other merchants with the Hillsboro Gin, so we market our own cotton. Pat monitors the markets, and we discuss it back and forth.”

Their marketing strategy can best be described as conservative, says Heath. “We try to hit the rallies and sell a little, leaving ourselves room if the market rallies some more. Mainly, we try to keep our bases covered — hitting singles instead of home runs.”

Winter wheat acreage varies each year. They had about 2,000 acres in 2012 and expect to have 1,500 acres this year, trying to keep it at one-third of their total acreage.

“Wheat and cotton don’t really mix,” says Jared. “When you’re harvesting wheat, you need to be working on cotton. But wheat and beans have been hard to beat here in recent years. Our consultant scouts the wheat as much as he used to scout cotton; wheat is very important in the overall operation.”

Any successful crop depends largely on hard work and timeliness, he says. “That is especially true when you’re handling four crops. If we get a scouting report, we spray right then — we don’t wait three or four days.”