Cost cutting rescues tobacco profits

The bitter pill for most tobacco farmers is that prices have not keep up with the increased cost of production. Except for the dark tobacco growers, 2008 will be a year of exceptionally narrow margins.

But there are still cost-cutting measures you can take to keep that bottom line as large as possible. Southeast Farm Press interviewed several Extension tobacco specialists to get ideas on ways to cut production costs in face of a low price:

• How much high-priced fertilizer do you really need to side-dress this crop? Burley growers have a chance to save some money on nitrogen in their side-dressing, said Tennessee Extension Tobacco Specialist Paul Denton. “In most of this state, we haven’t had enough rain to leach a substantial amount of nitrogen,” he said in June. “Take a look at your initial fertilizer application and the rainfall you have had since then. You may be able to cut back a bit.”

A fringe benefit of less nitrogen could be improved maturity and timing of your tobacco. “There is an opportunity here to get some benefit at the end of this crop,” said David Reed, Virginia Extension tobacco specialist. “A significant portion of Virginia’s flue-cured has been over-fertilized in recent years, and the season has run longer than necessary. If we can change that by keeping nitrogen applications low, we can avoid extending the season and save some on late-season labor.”

• But you can economize too much on fertilizer, said J. Michael Moore, Georgia Extension tobacco specialist. One shortcut that laid an egg in Georgia this season was the use of fertilizer materials containing high levels of chlorine. “These are not good choices for tobacco,” he said.

• Another fertilizer cost-cutting strategy backfired this spring when some Georgia farmers tried to ‘mine’ the potassium they had in the soil.

“On our long-time tobacco soils, we may be able to make use of some residual potassium,” said Moore. “But on newly cleared soils where there has not been time for a buildup of P and K, low levels are frequently seen. A soil test will tell. You don’t want to treat all your fields the same way.”

• You can grow tobacco with fewer cultivations than your grandfather did. “The tendency now is to cultivate less than in the past,” said Moore. Cultivation is still a good way to manage weeds not effectively controlled by herbicides, and it improves aeration and water penetration. “But fewer cultivations than in the past are certainly acceptable,” he said.

• A wait-and-see approach with Ridomil Gold is now legal, said Denton. A new label means you no longer have to apply Ridomil Gold before transplanting if you want to make an application afterward. You can delay any application until the appearance of black shank symptoms. Denton says that in fields with a history of the disease, it may be best to go ahead and treat right after transplanting with a half pint to one pint per acre. “It seems now that every year is a bad year for black shank in this state (Tennessee),” he said.

• Resistant varieties are a relatively low-cost method of reducing loss to black shank, and burley farmers seem to have jumped on two new ones. Two thirds of the burley acreage in Tennessee this year is in one or the other of the two new black shank resistant varieties — Kentucky Tennessee (KT) 204 and 206, said Denton. Both have resistance to both races of black shank. The newer of the two, KT 206, also features blue mold resistance.

• Blue mold has already appeared in the tobacco belt, first near Gainesville Fla., in a greenhouse and in May in a field near Blackshear, Ga. There were two more incidences of blue mold in Georgia in early June, then the disease was discovered in a greenhouse in Blackstone, Va., on June 9. The intensely hot and dry weather of early June was expected to limit blue mold spread.

• If you are using diesel fuel to heat flue-curing barns, it could pay to convert to liquid propane (LP). “With the current price of diesel, it appears LP gas is the most efficient choice,” said Moore. “It would involve changing the burner, but there is enough of a cost difference now to make such a conversion worth doing.”

• Insulating an un-insulated flue-curing barn will almost certainly pay, and quickly too. Research has shown that fuel usage can be reduced by 10 percent to 15 percent when you insulate, said Paul Sumner, Georgia Extension engineer. “The average fuel consumption per barn per cure is around 300 gallons of LP. Using 10 percent at $2.10 per gallon LP for seven cures equals a savings of $441 per year per barn. Growers need to use an insulation material that will not absorb moisture.

• Try to top burley at a level of 22 to 24 leaves, said Gary Palmer and Bob Pearce, Kentucky Extension tobacco specialists. It allows the plant to produce true tip leaves, which the companies seem to want.

But don’t top much higher. “Too many extra leaves increases stripping labor and may increase the incidence of house burn in old barns that have less space between tiers,” they said. “And extra leaves beyond 24 do not necessarily mean extra yield, since the additional leaves may be smaller.”

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