Challenges ahead for area growers

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.

Large farming operations in the Southeast typically began as a small family farm, as sons and daughters came back to the farm to work, the need was there to get larger to support several families. At the same time, many row crop farmers were getting out of farming for myriad reasons, usually retirement. The result has been an opportunity for well-managed farming operations to grow dramatically in size.

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.

Large acreage farmers fully understand the concept of grid and zone sampling, but too many simply don't have the time, or the equipment to incorporate sampling techniques with sophisticated precision application techniques.

Even fewer growers have the time to install and use yield monitors. As Calvin Perry, an ag engineer at the University of Georgia recently pointed out, getting high tech equipment, like yield monitors to show them off to the neighbors and grandchildren hurts rather than helps make farm decisions. Investment in precision agriculture takes more than money, according to Perry, 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.

Reduced-tillage, fueled by the development of cotton, corn and soybean varieties tolerant of glyphosate has allowed many growers to increase the size of their operation without increasing the size of their labor force. However, increases in size do require increases in size of equipment. Larger tractors, larger combines, etc, are critical to increasing acreage.

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. He points out that growers who are buying larger, four wheel drive tractors have to look at keeping the power on the ground. When the tractor and implement is balanced properly slippage is reduced by as much as 50 percent.

Sparenberg says that a tractor that is not precisely aligned with weight dispersal and tires may have 16-18 percent slippage. This would be equivalent of jacking the tractor up on blocks and revving up the engine and letting it run for about 10 minutes out of every hour.

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.

Larger, heavier, high horsepower tractors that can generate in excess of 500 horsepower are coming onto the market. These monsters will have more power, torque and slip than smaller tractors, unless they are properly calibrated, Sparenberg adds.

For growers in the Southeast, especially large acreage row crop farmers, a four-wheel drive tractor with horsepower in the 400 range may be all that is needed to replace several older, less efficient tractors, he contends.

The major tractor manufacturers all have tractors exceeding 500 horsepower, but in many cases row crop farmers don't need this much horsepower. The key, Sparenberg says is to increase the size of implement, along with the increase in horsepower of a tractor. If a farmer can triple the size of his implements, he can easily pull this larger equipment with four-wheel drive, high horsepower tractors.

With labor available and qualified to drive a $250,000 piece of equipment hard to find, replacing two or three tractors with one is often an economic saving, despite the high initial cost of the tractor.

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.

“We have these new tires (the new Axios will be available in January 2007) out in tests in the Midwest, and one of our cooperators, who grows about 3,000 acres of grain crops reported that he saved eight days planting and harvesting crops, simply by putting these new tires on his tractor” Rees notes.

Kevin Lutz, agricultural technical manager for Michelin, says that farmers, regardless of the size of their operation, need tires that cause less soil compaction, better traction, increased productivity, better load carrying capacity, long tire life and a better ride.

“The tractor and the tires it rides on are directly related to the comfort factor for a farmer. If that grower has to cover large acreages in a short period of time, the limiting factor is often going to be how comfortable he or she is,” Lutz notes.

He adds that the Nationwide trend in farms getting larger is creating a nationwide demand for more efficient and more comfortable tractors.

Not many farmers would likely notice a difference between a 42 and 23 degree angle of the bars of a tractor tire. “It makes a huge difference in the ride comfort of the tire,” Lutz points out. The steeper angle, that is part of the new Michelin Axio tires provides more comfort and generally produces a bigger footprint than conventional tires.

“There is a big difference between the new tires, using new radial technology than the tires we currently market and those marketed by competitors,” Lutz contends. These tires are manufactured primarily for the larger 500-plus horsepower tractors that are coming onto the market, he adds.

Regardless of whether working with crop consultants, equipment dealers, university or USDA personnel or others with specialized information, the key to getting bigger and more profitable is managing information and putting it to use on a particular farm.

If the trend to larger and larger farms continues in the Southeast, the availability and reliability of management information will be increasingly valuable components of a successful farming operation.

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