Rapid change is the new constant in agriculture today, but Stuttgart, Ark., consultant Ray Dardenne is staying focused on what's important to his clients — producing consistently high yields and a no-nonsense approach about what's going on in their fields.
Dardenne, who started consulting in 1972 as an Extension scout for Jefferson County, has been consulting on cotton for over 35 years. For all of those years, success followed a keen eye, solid knowledge of plant physiology and a plain-spoken approach to advising his clients.
The last few years have brought high prices for those clients, and for Dardenne a shift in the crops he scouts. “I'm happy for my farmers. This is the first time in a long time I've seen them excited. But there is also a lot of worry because the input prices have followed the prices up.
“One of my growers commented that he was better off raising $6 soybeans with the input costs we had several years ago. He's right. It's all about risk management today. If you want to play, you've got to pay.”
Three things are important for producing cotton in this type of environment, Dardenne said — fertility, water and pesticides. “When all that meshes together and everything is well managed, it should click. But you never knew when the environment is going to throw you a curve.”
Properly-done fertility soil tests will give you an idea of nutrient availability, according to Dardenne. “But don't forget about hidden hunger. It's when a crop doesn't show the symptoms, but the plant is in the first stages of starving. Soil tests will help. But consultants need to do more mid-season tissue analysis to determine whether you're at maintenance level or do you have a hidden hunger problem.”
With producers shifting from cotton to grains, insect complexes have adapted, and so has Dardenne. He has started scouting corn, soybeans and wheat to make up for the loss of cotton acres, just as a whole new array of insects started to emerge in fields.
For example, in cotton surrounded by corn, “you'll have plant bugs and more plant bugs. We probably saw the largest infestations of plant bugs we've ever seen last year. When you have to spray 6-8 times for control, you have simply overwhelming numbers.
“The key to insect management is choosing a chemistry that gets a good kill and has a long residual, so you don't have to get back into the field immediately with another insecticide. Products such as Carbine or Centric are excellent.”
Another key is to not let insects complete a full life cycle, creating a situation where simultaneously, there are eggs on the leaves, degrees of immatures present and adults breeding. “Anybody who went through the boll weevil years knows you can't allow boll weevils to go full cycle because you're looking at 3-day sprayings to clean them out.”
Use chemicals wisely, Dardenne said. “We know Bidrin is a great brown stink bug product. At the same time, if we use it early, we can flare other insects. There are other great products out there that we can use at that time. Bidrin brings value to the grower when it's used when there are developing bolls on cotton.”
There are a lot of great tools to achieve high yields in cotton, according to Dardenne. “No question about it, mepiquat chloride is key in cotton management. To make high-yielding cotton while lowering inputs, we have to have earliness. I don't necessarily mean planting early, but how quickly we can establish those first and second position bolls moving up the tier of the plant.”
A more compact plant also allows for better insecticide penetration, especially for insects like fall armyworm and plant bugs that feed deep into the interior of the plant. “But the biggest payoff is defoliation. If everything clicks, the nitrogen runs out, the plant is under control, and it's very easy to defoliate. And sometimes all we need is a one-shot defoliation.”
A strong nematode management program is another key for Dardenne. He suggests doing a soil assay to determine the level of infestation first. If levels are high, the ground needs to come out of that crop and go to something else depending on the nematode species. The top methods of control for Dardenne are crop rotation and Temik, “a product we can't afford to lose. Seed treatments such as Avicta are also showing promise.”
Dardenne's philosophy is to improve cotton plant health in the presence of nematodes in a “top down” approach. “Nematodes are nothing more than microscopic worms that tend to prune the root system of the cotton plant. When the root system is pruned, it makes it difficult to take up the nutrients in the soil. When you get into dry periods, it's going to stress if it doesn't have an extensive root system. So, if we can't go from the bottom up because nematodes have pruned the roots, the next logical thing we need to do is top down.”
Dardenne says there's good data on the impact of Vydate and foliar feeds to fight nematodes and improve plant health. “I've had limited experience with ProAct because it's fairly new, but from what I've seen it's a really good product.” ProAct is a foliar applied product that uses harpin proteins to turn on a plant's natural defense system to make it more resistant to nematode attack.
“Later on the season, there are other foliar feeds, Coron and Tricert K are excellent products.”
While Dardenne is convinced of the benefits of Bollgard technology, it's changed the dynamics of scouting “After Bollgard, it didn't take bollworms long to figure out the weak link in the technology. They were depositing their eggs deep in the dried blooms and then hatching — feeding on the pollen in the blooms. Whatever it is, imprinting, natural selection, they have adapted to survive.
“That puts a lot of pressure on me. It's made it much harder because I have to spend more time searching for the insect. You have to concentrate not only on the top of the plant, but around the blooms.
“But the genie is out of the bottle, the snowball is going down the hill and we're not going to stop this technology. Everything is headed toward genetic engineering. If it puts more food and fiber on the table, so be it. That's what the technology has done.
“As an insect scout, we need to address the fact that insects are adapting and we need to stay ahead of them. Bollgard I leads to Bollgard II. The rules of engagement have changed. Right now, Bollgard II is doing much better than Bollgard I.”
As plants, insects and producers adapt to new environments, Dardenne says consultants must change too. “Consultants in the future must be diversified. At the same time, they have to understand the limitations on how many acres they can scout to do the job right. There's no sense in doing it half right.”
The goal is to keep your eyes on the prize, according to Dardenne. “It's a dice table. If everything clicks, the odds of you doing well are in your favor. Sometimes Mother Nature throws us a curve, and sometimes we have to adjust. But you have to draw on your experience and stay focused. You have to sell your strategy to your grower.
“If you know he's got a problem, look him straight in the eye and tell him he's in trouble. Never hold back. They're under stress trying to manage the money. It all goes back to trust, the relationship you have with your grower.”