Whether it be driving to nearby Myrtle Beach in his 1960s vintage Ford Galaxy convertible or planting crops on his Bennettsvillle, S.C., farm, Frankie Hinson has always done things a little differently than most folks and often getting surprising results.

At a time when many of his farming neighbors have increased acreage, Hinson has kept his operation at 1,100-1,200 acres. Growing peanuts, cotton, corn, wheat and soybeans on a relatively small land base creates some challenges, he says.

For example, last year he planted corn on some really good land on his farm on July 1. By comparison, this year most of the corn acreage in his corner of South Carolina was planted in March.

Planting corn in July wasn’t something he planned to do, but it did fit into his plan of getting more corn and wheat in his rotation in the future.

Corn has always been planted in the PeeDee area of South Carolina in March or early April. For the past several years, Hinson has been experimenting with some of his corn acreage planted after wheat, instead of planting soybeans after wheat.  Soybeans are not a part of his peanut rotation, so having corn behind wheat gives him more planting options.

In another field, he harvested about 85 bushels of wheat per acre and followed that with grain sorghum last year. Planting tiny grain sorghum seed in heavy wheat straw didn’t work too well he says.

Rather than taking the spotty areas of grain sorghum out and starting over, he came up with an innovative rescue plan. He stresses that this course of action isn’t one he would recommend other than as a desperate salvage attempt.

“We planted corn in that field on July 15, and it was 116-day corn — around the spotty stand of grain sorghum — just left the grain sorghum in the field and planted corn in areas where we didn’t have any sorghum,” he explains.

At harvest time — for both corn and grain sorghum — there were some interesting challenges, but except in small areas where the two crops were intertwined, Hinson was able to get a decent yield of both corn and grain sorghum.

“We harvested the grain sorghum first, and in some cases we would have to drive around the corn to get to the grain sorghum. It wasn’t real efficient, but I didn’t lose that piece of ground, and this year I got peanuts planted there behind a good rotation,” he says.

Corn behind wheat

Planting corn behind wheat, on the other hand, is not a salvage operation for the South Carolina grower. It helps put wheat and other double-crop options in his peanut rotation.

“For a long time we’ve tried in our area of the country to plant corn as early as we can to beat the heat that we know is coming during critical growth stages in corn.

“My thinking is that this far south I can plant 90 to 95-day corn as late as July 15, and get it harvested before the first frost. Thus, corn will be past critical silking and other growth stages at a time when temperatures are beginning to go down.

“We planted some 92-day corn, which did okay, but we can push that longer and still get corn cut before we get a killing frost,” he says.

Soybeans have a place in South Carolina, but fitting beans into a rotation that includes cotton and peanuts can be tricky and for most peanut growers in the Palmetto State having soybeans in their peanut rotation is just not an option.

Soybeans are a host for white mold, which can be a big problem in peanuts in our part of the state, Hinson says. “So, getting grain sorghum or more corn in the rotation to break up nematode and disease cycles is a big advantage for us in growing peanuts.”

“We feel like we have to have at least two years between peanuts, and we like to get three years between the two crops, if we can. Sometimes stretching that rotation on a farm the size of ours can be a tough thing to do,” the South Carolina grower explains.

The real niche for grain sorghum in the PeeDee area of South Carolina is on light land that is being planted to soybeans and going to pine trees or left vacant.

Grain sorghum is a good double-crop with rye on light soil. Grain sorghum adds a tremendous amount of green manure to the soil — much more than soybeans, 

Now that Murhpy-Brown (large North Carolina grain buyer) has gotten into the grain sorghum business in a big way, there is going to be a market for it. And, they want it delivered at fairly high moisture, which allows you to get it out of the field earlier, Hinson says.

“In our case it works out well as a rotation crop for peanuts, but there is plenty of light, over-worked land in this area in which the soil would benefit from grain sorghum,” he adds.

“And, if the grower puts adequate inputs into the crop, they can make a little money on it, too, the South Carolina grower says.

Innovative shop work

Working out the rotation sometimes calls for some innovative shop work to configure planting equipment to plant corn, cotton, soybeans, peanuts and now grain sorghum. Hinson is a self-professed tinkerer and admits he’s pretty good in a machine shop.

We were trying to plant narrow-row beans and different row widths for different crops, and we ended up with tractors on 80-inch spacing and another on 60-inch spacing, and I just hated having to consistently make changes with our planting equipment, Hinson says.

Now that he’s back in the corn business, the trend is to plant in narrow-rows.  “I just wasn’t going to invest in a new corn combine. The solution was to design and build, or alter existing equipment to end up with a corn planting system that best fits his operation.

“The whole idea for designing a new corn planter came after riding with my son while he was picking some corn planted on 30-inch rows. I remember thinking — that’s some of the best corn I’ve ever seen,” Hinson says.

“If you look at current corn harvesting data for South Carolina, it seems you can increase yield by going from 40-inch to 30-inch rows and you can pick up 15 percent yield and another 15 percent by going to 20-inch rows. That seems to back up what we were seeing in combining corn on 30-inch rows,” he adds.

Approaching the challenge of designing a new corn planter with his typical out-of-the-box thinking, Hinson built two seven row planters, one for himself and one for his son. These planters have 28-inches where the tractor tires are located and 24 inches between the inside rows and 24 inches on the outside rows.

He added a six-row, narrow-row John Deere 630 header and added another junk header to make a seven row corn header. Row widths range between 24-28 inches wide, and average row widths are about 25.2 inches.

So far, he says, the corn planter/harvester system has worked better than expected. “We’ve cut some of the best corn we’ve ever grown on this farm, and the whole system works great — looks a little odd, but works great,” he says.

Putting his altered farm equipment to best use has been one of Hinson’s best steps outside the bounds of routine crop planting procedures in the South Carolina PeeDee.

He has gone to an early burn-down of 20-inch rows of winter cover crops, primarily wheat. Then, he waits as late as he can to burn down the cover crop in the middle of the rows.

This provides maximum cover and residue on half the land and a better seed zone in which to plant on the other half.

“It works great for us!” Hinson says. For the 2012 crop about 80 percent of his land will be in this unique planting system, he adds.

Next year Hinson plans to add GPS equipment to his tractors. For most growers guidance systems would be a time and labor saver. For Hinson, it will still provide those benefits, but also offer plenty of options for adapting equipment to do specific jobs on his farm.

rroberson@farmpress.com