David Bennett is quick with a smile and it’s easy to see why. His soybean contest field yielded 112 bushels per acre breaking the previous record by over four bushels. He is the Arkansas yield king.
“It feels good,” he says during a late September break from harvesting rice. “I’m lucky, happy, just riding the wave.”
With five fields breaking 100 bushels in the last two years, extreme southeast Arkansas has proven to be extremely conducive to high bean yields. But the Bennett farm -- some 4,000 acres just south of Lake Village, Ark., that David works with his father, Earl and brother Michael -- holds the crown.
“My father farmed back in the 1930s,” says Earl. “When I got out of school, I decided I would try it. That was back in 1968 and I had 80 acres.”
Michael joined his father in 1992 and David followed shortly. “We have a dirt operation and I land-leveled for about 18 years,” says Michael. “That led into catfish ponds and we still have some. Actually, we’re one of only a handful around Chicot County still working aquaculture. We started out with 400 acres and we’re down to about 225.
“With prices where they are, the only way we can make catfish work is to spread the labor around. There isn’t a strict division -- ‘you work the ponds, you work the farm.’ Whatever needs attention gets the manpower. Right now, everyone is on crop harvest.”
“That’s right,” Earl agrees. “I don’t think it would work if we had the catfish off by itself.”
The shift away from catfish isn’t the only major change for the operation. On the Bennett’s office wall are pictures of bountiful, snowy white cotton.
“Same story as everyone else, it seems: we’ve cut back on cotton,” says David. “We also cut back on corn this year -- from 1,200 acres to about 400. We have about 600 acres of rice and the balance, about 2,700 acres, is in soybeans.
“Of course, a decade ago, a lot of this top-notch ground was in cotton. When the soybean price spiked, it allowed land owners to say, ‘let’s shift the acres.’”
Always a gamble
Even so, cotton was always a gamble for the Bennetts. “You’d work all year and when harvest time came, a storm would come through and take it out,” says Earl.
“We’d grow three-bale cotton almost every year,” says David. “But it was very seldom we’d pick that amount.”
The Bennett land is in one big block. David, who turns 41 in a few days, says that means “I’ve probably spent half my life in a five mile area. I have hardly a single childhood memory from the summertime that doesn’t involve this farm.”
The contest field was planted on April 22 with Asgrow 4632 on a strong, sandy loam soil that was in corn in 2013.
“We used a twin-row planter with 38-inch middles,” says David. “The seed treatment was CruiserMaxx.”
The planting date was abnormally late. “Normally, by the first of May we’re done,” says Earl. “That’s why we still have 1,000 acres of soybeans to harvest at this late date.”
Why plant the Asgrow variety?
“We utilize the county Extension office a great deal,” says David. “Our agent, Gus Wilson, knows his business and makes solid recommendations. In the past, we always had plots looking at 25 or 30 different varieties. It’s time-consuming but by doing it we can see what excels on certain ground."
“We knew it was going to be a good field. Just before harvest, a friend pulled a stalk that had 239 pods on it.”
David planned to put the field in the Arkansas Soybean Association’s Grow for the Green yield contest from the get-go. “That was decided because last year I didn’t think we had the yield and I wrong. We had two 40-acre fields side-by-side and when I cut one it yielded over 100 bushels for the whole field. I said, ‘Daddy, let’s see what this next field cuts and put it in the contest.’ That field ended up yielding 98.9 bushels and good enough for third place in the contest.”
Look out the office window and Lake Chicot is across the street. “We pump out of that so there’s plenty of salt-free water. Last year was the first time that field had a disk in it since 2000. We are minimum-till farmers -- harvest and go right behind to hip up. If possible, we also put out the N, P, K in the fall for our bean ground. This season we didn’t even have to pull a roller on the field since the winter flattened it down.”
The contest field was sprayed with Brigade one time for stink bugs.
There’s one big difference between Bennett’s 100-bushel field and others that have accomplished the feat. “I used no fungicide. That isn’t because I dislike them -- we use them frequently. But the field just didn’t need it. It would have been like getting up in the morning and taking a couple of aspirins even though you don’t have a headache. Why spend the money?”
That’s another reason Gus Wilson is such a good agent, David says. “He didn’t try and talk me into using a fungicide. He isn’t afraid to tell you not to do something.”
Once the beans grew large enough to irrigate, “we barely let it dry up. We let it get firm enough to put a sprayer in before it lapped the middles. It was never in standing water, but we kept it moist.”
David insists that seed companies be included in the conversation. “Once Roundup Ready beans came on, they really focused on providing genetics for this area. Before the herbicide tolerant beans came on, we were spraying all kinds of herbicides on the beans. Now, it didn’t burn the leaves but it had to be hurting our yields. That’s a benefit that most folks don’t think about.”
What is it like to harvest 112-bushel beans?
“Man, it was exciting,” says David. “When they finally certified the yield the visits and calls of congratulations didn’t stop. We all had fields in the contest; mine was just the one that hit.”
The Bennetts, says Earl, are “big believers in inoculants on mixed dirt. We’re especially careful to use it on soil that used to be in fish ponds.”
P and K “really help with our bean yields,” says David. “We’ve seen dramatic increases. I’m guessing across the farm this year, we’re averaging close to 80 bushels an acre.”
The family’s farm is “probably 95 percent irrigated,” says Michael. “This year, like everyone else, our irrigation was way down. The rains just kept coming at the right time.
“You put that beside the cooler temperatures and that equals up to great crops. It isn’t just us. Everyone around here has done well.”
Earl is also quick to praise their landlords. “They let us try things. Twenty years ago, we started leveling the fields and one didn’t want to deal with the expense. I said, ‘Well, we’ll do this field on our dime because I’m convinced it’ll pay off. We’re going to be farming this land and want it to be profitable. Let’s just see what happens.’ Sure enough, we leveled it off and didn’t have to pay as much rent for the next couple of years.”
At the time, the Bennetts were cutting five to eight bushels per acre. This year, that same ground cut 92 bushels. “That comes from simply fertilizing it properly, keeping the bean/corn rotation and irrigating on time,” says Earl.
“Dad’s right: we’re so fortunate to have landlords like we have,” says David. “Many of them have seen Michael and me grow up.”
Extension agent Hayden
Amidst the backslapping and joy there is a bittersweet element to achieving such a high yield. Long-time Chicot County Extension agent Carl Hayden is not around to see it.
“He was the best,” says Earl. “He passed away a couple of years ago. But he envisioned these high bean yields way back. He knew this land was capable of more than we were doing. He was always pushing us and our neighbors to put plots out. He said, ‘Y’all can do this if you’ll give it a shot, put in the effort.’
“He saw yields here go from single digits to 80 bushels. It’s just too bad Carl isn’t here to celebrate what’s going on now.”
“Carl and Daddy were tight,” says David. “He was out here three or four times a week. Michael and I coon hunted with him all the time. We miss him badly but know he’d be so happy.”
Note: As far as they know the subjects and author are not related.