Now firmly entrenched in the use of computer programs to aid his farm, the beginning of Steve Stevens’ earnest adoption of technology was in 2008. Attending a crop management meeting in Little Rock, the southeast Arkansas producer was shoehorned by a former state Extension irrigation specialist.
“I’ve found I can spend three days at the meeting and learn more about the latest university research than any other place,” says Stevens. “It’s a great place to network with university personnel as well as chemical reps.
“Phil Tacker, who was still with Extension at that point, pulled me aside. He wanted to talk about PHAUCET, which I’d never heard of even though it had been available for a while. He explained that by using the program, a set that normally needs a 24-hour irrigation can be dropped down to 15 or 16 hours. I thought there was no way. He challenged me to try it on six fields and he promised to help me set up.”
Stevens agreed to give it a shot. As irrigation season drew near his corn — some 1,600 acres — was getting dry. “The problem we’d had was the first two-thirds of the rows would be watered and the last third would be halfway into the field. Guys were afraid to blow the pipe up, and they didn’t have the hole selection right.”
Surging diesel prices were another prod to get it right.
“Once we had the fundamentals down and I saw what the program was doing, it impressed me so much I figured we’d do it on as many fields as possible. We ended up using the program for 155 fields, about 450 sets.
“I was probably the only grower stupid enough to try that. Since then, let me tell you, it would have been so nice if the first row of polypipe I ever got came with a CD containing PHAUCET or Pipe Planner. I wish I’d never known there was another way to use polypipe.”
That first year Stevens estimates the operation likely saved $100,000 by using PHAUCET. “I was probably saving $1,000 an hour while I sitting at my computer setting it up. It was a long slog — many nights it was after midnight before I headed home.”
Stevens admits his crew wasn’t too happy because “we were introducing this whole new thing. I’d slowed them down and they were itching to get the pipe laid. We were starting from scratch and had to get the well flow rate from each well, we had to get the turn-row elevation.”
Then, the penny dropped for all involved.
“We’d quit growing rice that year and my rice man was responsible for setting up the pipe. He was very apprehensive at first, but about two weeks into this, he got it. He said, ‘The boss gives me a piece of paper that tells me how many, and what size, holes to punch. He drops the flag down and tells me where to stop and start. The paper tells me the size of pipe to lay, tells me how fast to run the well. All of the rows get out about the same time and we haven’t blown any pipe. Seems like a pretty good system to me. I don’t have any problem with it.’ After that, everyone climbed on board.”
Stevens’ belief in the irrigation programs has only been strengthened since. “We need to have farmers in the Mid-South using the computerized programs. That would not only help with water shortages, but it would save them loads of money.
“Don’t use one of these irrigation scheduling programs? You’re just leaving cash on the table. I’m really surprised more ag lenders don’t ask about the use of PHAUCET when folks go in to get loans.”
With the irrigation program success, Stevens' work with University of Arkansas researchers only increased. Currently, Stevens’ farm — located about 10 miles east of Winchester, Ark. — is the only cotton Discovery Farm in the state.
The Arkansas Discovery Farm program was modeled on what was being done on Wisconsin dairy farms, says Mike Daniels, Arkansas Extension water quality management. “We took a delegation from Farm Bureau up there to check this out and came back wanting to try it here on a cotton farm.
“At first, we didn’t have funding, but we went to state legislators and they provided some money. So, we had the funding but we had to find a farmer. We also didn’t have a presence in southeast Arkansas — no one knew what a Discovery Farm was.
“Steve came on board somewhat reluctantly. But he embraced it, saw its value, and has become one of the best spokesmen for the program. He really likes being able to follow what’s happening on his farm through hard data.”
Runoff data/Fieldprint Calculator
For the last three years, Daniels and crew have collected data on what’s running off at the edges of the same four fields — some in continuous cotton, some in corn. “We’re also looking at the water that goes on in terms of irrigation and precipitation. How much water is coming on? How much is running off? How much is being used by the crop?
“What we’ve found so far is the amount of nutrients coming off the fields during growing season is less than 10 percent of what is applied. We didn’t know what we’d find when we started this, but it was a surprise to find that low a percentage running off.
“Steve asked, ‘Okay, what do these numbers mean?’ So, one of the first things we had to do was make the numbers we’d collected relative to something. We had to tie them to something concrete, so we tied them to application amounts.”
Daniels and colleagues had never provided farmers with this type of data before. “I’m learning that this will help Arkansas farmers verify that what they’re doing in terms of management is the right thing. They’re being good stewards and aren’t losing the amount of nutrients that, perhaps, farmers in other areas of the country are experiencing.”
Bill Robertson, Arkansas cotton specialist, then brought a Fieldprint Calculator into the research.
“When (Robertson) came on board, he began running the FPC,” says Daniels. “We had the metrics developed, but no one really knew what those meant, how robust they were. They can show you a diagram saying, ‘You’re less sustainable than in the rest of the county, or state.’ But from a science standpoint we needed something to relate those metrics to. How relative is it? How solid is it? It’s been a great opportunity to layer what Bill’s doing with our data.”
Robertson says the data being collected is secondary to the primary goal for Stevens’ operation. “Bottom line is Steve must be profitable. We’re trying to ensure that’s the case as we move from tillage to no-till, use cover crops and other things as we strive to improve soil health.”
“We’ve really got to keep track of what it costs on the farm with Steve’s standard practices and the other things we’re trying to implement,” says Robertson. “What we’re doing with the (FPC) is to show how we’ve shrunk Steve’s environmental footprint when looking at different metrics for sustainability. Then, when we make that footprint smaller, is he more profitable? That is the question we want to answer.
“A lot of things Steve has done, we plug into the FPC and it shows his footprint is, indeed, smaller, which means he’s on track to be more sustainable. If we can establish a direct link between improved profitability and a smaller footprint then, in my opinion, we could then use that information to improve other farmers' sustainability and profitability.”
That in turn would mean the brands and retailers calling for more sustainability “will be happy with producers,” says Robertson. “And if Hanes, Walmart, or Fruit of the Loom needs documentation and is willing to pay a premium, that extra money would allow producers to hire a consultant or someone to sit down and enter that data.”
Is this tied into Cotton LEADS program?
“It does tie in to that,” Robertson. “All those initiatives are interrelated and support the main goal of continuous improvement.”
The calculator is available online to all producers wanting to check on their farms. “There are a number of Field to Market pilots. When I was with the National Cotton Council, there were two pilots — I ran one in Texas and Andy Jordan ran the other in Louisiana. Unofficially, I had a pilot in Arkansas where I took the Cotton Research Verification Program field information and put it into the FPC.”
Stevens has one field with a well centered on the upper end. Water drains back to a central point where a ditch takes it off. The field configuration allows it to be split in two for research.
“One thing we’ve been looking at on that field is granular urea versus 32 percent UAN,” says Stevens. “We’re monitoring how much runoff there is from each product — whether due to irrigation or rainfall.
“So, we’re actually rotating those back-and-forth to bw sure of our findings, because there is a bit of soil type difference between the halves. We’d prefer to go with urea because it’s easier to use. But the trend shows 32 percent UAN having less run off the field.”
Robertson insists it’s important to note that “basically everything he’s doing as a Discovery Farm is the same as he’s doing on the rest of his land. We’re showing what’s going on using Steve’s standard practices in real life.”
Daniels says the research is going so well the project may last a while longer. “We said from the start we needed to be on site for five years. But we’ll go as long as we need to get the necessary data. The hard part is getting set up. Then, it’s largely a matter of maintenance although sometimes we do troubleshoot.”
Studies that Daniels is doing are “just gravy on top of what I’m doing and vice versa,” says Robertson. “My main objective is to improve soil health. Looking at cover crops and alternative tillage will have a direct impact on soil health. Then, one of the greatest things to come from that better soil will be increased water use efficiency.
“Can we make the same amount of cotton — or maybe more — using less water? Of course, if that turns out to be true for Steve’s cotton, it’ll also be true for his soybeans.”
Water infiltration isn’t just an issue in southeast Arkansas “but from the Louisiana border all the way up to the Missouri border,” says Robertson. “Our ground slicks up and the water runs off. In studies, we have sensors at 6 inches, and they don’t even pick up an irrigation event.
“In fact, (Arkansas irrigation specialist) Chris Henry has set up a system that allows you to pull up sensor information on our iPhones. But Steve watered some corn and Chris kept asking, ‘When are you going to start watering?’”
Stevens confirms the account. “The first year Chris had moisture sensors, they put them right in the middle of rows in the root zone. We had done three irrigations and Chris called me up asking when we were going to turn on the pump. I said, ‘Chris, we’ve already done it three times.’ ‘No, no, no way.’ ‘Chris, I promise I’ve watched the crop being watered. I’ve seen the water flowing.’ ‘Well, the sensors say you haven’t.’”
That taught Stevens that soil health is of utmost importance. “That water was going down the middles in a small channel. The feeder roots came down to get that water. The crop was saying, ‘Okay, we’ve got water.’ However, we weren’t doing an entire soil profile. That’s when the idea of cover crops came to the front.”
What about other Discovery farms? Are Daniels and colleagues finding similar runoff percentages?
“We are,” confirms Daniels. “Mainly what we’re seeing in rice and soybeans are low levels of nutrients running off. That is expected in rice because it kind of acts as a nutrient sink. We weren’t sure what we’d find in furrow-irrigated crops.”
One thing different on Stevens’ fields is a higher irrigation efficiency. “I think that’s because Steve adopted Pipe Planner and PHAUCET to calculate pipe hole selection. He did that much earlier than many other producers and has it down cold. His crew is much more conscious of paying attention to that program. We brought in a surge valve and improved efficiency even more.
Approach to tillage
“We’re now looking at approaches to tillage. Steve has been growing cover crops in one field. We haven’t made any measurements yet, but Steve feels the cover crops are improving water intake of the soil.”
Robertson plans to pull soil samples to evaluate soil health as soon as it dries down a bit. “We’ll see what differences, if any, there are between the tillage and cover crop practices in Steve’s fields.”
This will be the fourth year Stevens will be trying cereal rye as a cover crop.
“We’d been on stale seedbed where we’d disk it once and hipped it back on the row in the fall,” says Stevens. “We started hipping the old row in the early 1980s and went to fall tillage in 1992. We’ve been on that program — let winter cover establish and then burn it down in the spring — for a long time. With some of it we knock off the top of the row.
“But, more and more, we’re trying to get the row established. That’s what we’re doing on the ‘shop field’ where we’re planting cover crops. We burn the cover crop down three weeks before planting and then plant right on that row. That allows us to infiltrate more water into the crop.
“The program has real traction. We like being well-monitored on what we do with management, and the university can tell us what’s what with no bias. We want the numbers. We want to know what will work on this land.”
Asked about ultimate motivations, Stevens points to a theme common to other producers: family. “Let me be clear about why I’m doing this: to ensure this farm is as good as it can be for my grandkids. My grandson is so like me it’s scary. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if he ends up wanting to farm. Well, it’s my responsibility to get this operation as profitable and in as good a shape as I can.
“And if by doing that, by working with these programs, it shows other farmers what’s possible and works, then great.”