As a picker rolls in the distance, a smiling Ray Dardenne scans a cotton field outside Altheimer, Ark. The plants are absolutely loaded with frothy bolls and the veteran crop consultant is clearly excited.
With letters to his clients already in the mail breaking the news, the indefatigable Dardenne is set to retire. Eventually, the plan is to build a house in Hot Springs and enjoy sunsets with his wife. For now, though, he’s staying on the same stretch of land between Stuttgart and Pine Bluff that’s always been home.
“An old man is like an old machine,” says the fit, enthusiastic consultant. “When you get a lot of hours on it the parts wear out. Sixty-five has snuck up on me.
“I have a great relationship with all my farmers. It’s all about trust. We don’t argue about recommendations and they know when I’m serious.
“The beauty of my operation is being able to stay contained in a surrounding community. I don’t have to drive two hours to scout 2,000 acres. This year, other than two farms near Humphrey, I worked 13,000 acres up and down the highway between Altheimer back to Reydell.”
How did Dardenne come to consulting work?
“It started 45 years ago. I was born and raised on a cotton farm at Wabbaseka, just down the road from Altheimer. In 1972, I was looking for a job and since I had farming background the county judge sent me over to the county (Extension) agent. They ran a program where they hired cotton scouts to go out and check for insects. I stayed with the Extension Service for four years.”
After graduating from college in 1975, “I could see a real need growing on farms for consulting-type work. In 1976, I started the business. Early on, all I could manage to work was 5,000 to 6,000 acres of cotton.
“I’ve been at this a long time. When I started DDT was still in the arsenal.”
The cotton field
The boll-heavy crop is DynaGro 3385.
“What you see is a field with a pre-emergence shot,” says Dardenne. “We did some over-the-top with some Liberty. But our pigweeds kept roaring back. So, we sent cultivators in and used a mixture of old-school/new-school techniques.”
This field was planted around the first week of May.
“We started cultivating when the cotton was around six inches tall.
“This variety is a Roundup Liberty stacked gene. Thankfully, we have that because the pigweeds are so tough. It’s really hard in the years we’ve been having with all the rains and warm temperatures, almost tropical conditions, we have to wait for the biggest flush we can tolerate and then spray Liberty. We had to spray Liberty on some of these fields three times to keep the pigweeds under control. They kept flushing on us because of the warm conditions.
“Then, once the cotton was up and running and the rains let up, we put the cultivators in.”
Trying a new variety isn’t something Dardenne wants his farming clients “to go into waist-deep. Let’s just wade into a new variety – maybe go with 10 percent of the acreage. I’m scared of getting away from proven varieties for our region. New varieties can have a yield drag, may be especially sensitive to overheat, all sorts of things.
“This DynaGro variety is only new to us. They’ve been planting it up in the Bootheel because they need a faster-maturing cotton.”
It was suggested by a friend, Kenny Euseppi, manager of CPS.
“He asked if I’d be interested in planting some of it. CPS developed the variety and it just so happens that Kenny was my first scouting partner back in 1972.
“We planted right at 80 acres of it. It was extremely easy to manage with growth regulators. It was environmentally tolerant and matured at a faster rate – it matured out almost two weeks faster than any other field on the farm. That pays dividends when you have rains coming in during October.”
Once the cotton began opening, “I started looking at the yield potential. To me, there are two big things to check: do we have the boll numbers and what is the number of seeds per lock? This field was averaging seven, eight, and sometimes nine. When you get that many, cotton will be extremely heavy.”
Dardenne says cotton must be paid proper attention. “Don’t scout cotton just once a week after first square. From first square through defoliation, I believe you should never go more than four days without checking cotton. Too many bad things can happen too quickly.”
Dardenne sees a time when “chemical farming, by itself, is rapidly coming to an end. The biggest challenge for new consultants, I think, is how to manage resistant weeds. How are we going to keep up with the rate of resistance development we’re seeing? How will we manage these weeds?”
First, you need to be clean when you plant. “The best approach is with a pre-emergent. We have some really good pre-emergent programs available. Once the pigweeds come up, especially in a Roundup Ready system, there are few bullets for post.
“For Roundup Ready, my number one pick for post is Reflex and Dual. But I’m very mindful that we put it out when the pigweeds are less than two inches tall. I prefer not to let them get much more than an inch tall.”
But farming isn’t accomplished in perfect conditions.
“Because of untimely rains, adverse environmental conditions, sometimes we can’t get across a field. It doesn’t take long for pigweeds to grow – they’ll jump half-an-inch per day in the right circumstances. And once it meets that two-inch height, the pigweed is much harder to kill.”
Dardenne is a “big believer” in growth regulators. “One thing I tell young consultants is you’ve got to manage the stalk to get high yields. You don’t want all your fertilizer developing stalk and stem.
“We didn’t have growth regulators when I started in the business. It takes a little time to get a feel for managing cotton, paying close attention to internode development. Learning how to use Pix, learn the art of using it, is one of the things new consultants have to figure out.”
A properly managed stalk through a growth regulator has three payoffs, he says:
- Insecticide penetration.
“Plant bugs are one of the worst insects we have. It took the place of the boll weevil. With a well-managed stalk, the insecticide gets into the plant interior meaning it’s easier to deal with that insect.”
- Lessened hard lock or boll rot.
“You won’t take nearly the degree of these two things without a rank stalk. If that stalk is robust and bolls are opening at the bottom and we get a light rain or heavy dew, the bolls will start rotting because there’s no sunlight getting deep.”
- When you defoliate, there’s less to deal with.
“If you have a rank plant, it’ll take twice the money to get it in a condition to be picked.”
A short while after the picker has finished up in the field, Dardenne remains extremely happy.
“If every one of the round bales is holding four bales, the field picked 3.1 bales per acre. That’s about as good as it gets in our zone.”
Ever had a better cotton field than that?
“Only once and it was planted in DPL 444, a variety that was popular years ago. It was a year where all everything fell into place.
“When he told me what it picked, the grower said ‘Ray, the field is 33 pounds shy of four bales.’ I said, ‘you’re telling me you’re 33 pounds to the acre shy of four bales?’ He said, ‘No, Ray, I’m 33 pounds shy, period.’
“I said, ‘I’ll be right down there.’ I carried a burlap sack and my daddy’s old cotton scales to the field and picked until we had 33 pounds of scrap cotton. Had to hit that four-bale mark!” says Dardenne laughing. “There were other farms and consultants who hit four bales that year –it was incredible.”
Dardenne offers a last piece of advice for new crop consultants.
“When there is a problem, don’t hide it. You aren’t doing your farmers any favors when they’re balking on doing something you’ve recommended and know is important. As a professional, you have to look him dead in the eye and say ‘you’ve got to take care of this.’
“Never, ever, surprise a farmer at the end. Make sure they know of a problem early. And there will be problems – never assume otherwise and always spend the time it takes to do the job properly. Do all that and your farmers will stick with you.”