It’s getting on toward the end of May, and cicadas are filling the air with their high-pitched whine, reminiscent of a giant electric motor spinning at warp speed — millions of scary-looking, red-eyed male bugs singing their weird love songs to attract females for mating and laying of eggs for progeny that won’t appear for another 13 to 17 years.
And on this sunny morning, at his farm shop in Benton County, Miss., as he looks out over a ripening wheat field across the road in the bottom, David Bennett, Jr., is less than happy.
A few days earlier, he was broadsided by an 18-wheeler, doing major damage to his almost-new workhorse pickup (but thankfully, no significant damage to him), and the insurance company is dragging its feet on settling, leaving him without the vehicle on which he relies daily for hauling, towing, and other farm chores.
On top of that, a couple days before, a three-inch rain shut down soybean planting, and he’s anxious to get back in the field and finish the remaining 143 acres.
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Like many farmers this spring, he’s been hampered by wet, cold weather, but because of his far north Mississippi location — just a few miles from the Tennessee line — he usually plants later than growers farther south.
This year, given the downtrend in grain prices, he has only 400 acres of corn, despite having the best yield ever in 2014. “In 2013, my corn average was 176 bushels,” he says, “and I thought I’d never live long enough to beat that, but last year averaged 188 bushels. In addition to near ideal weather during the growing season, I had rotated corn to better ground than in 2013, and that helped.”
He’s boosting soybeans to 1,200 acres this year, and for the first time since 2009, will grow some grain sorghum, 295 acres. He has 300 acres of wheat. All his acreage is dryland.
Of the land he farms, 887 acres is owned and the rest rented. “I have 9 landlords,” he says, “and I couldn’t offhand say how many fields — a lot. The largest field is 77 acres, the smallest about 8/10 acre. All are within a 10-mile radius of my shop. Most of the land is in Benton County, but two places are in adjacent Marshall County, about 150 acres.
“Last year, wheat beans and full season beans, averaged together, yielded 46 bushels,” David says. “On some fields, I cut as high as 72 bushels, others were in the 40s. The difference was in the soil, variations between bottom land and hill land.”
Wheat last year averaged 80 bushels. “There hadn’t been any wheat on the place since the 1980s,” he says. “We couldn’t get decent yields; we were basically just spending money for the privilege of growing wheat. I started growing it again four years ago. The first year, I averaged 88 bushels and, in retrospect, should’ve planted it on every acre because the price was so good.”
An all-grains operation marks a radical change for David. For 60 years, he and his late father, David, Sr., had centered their farming program on cotton.
“Some years, we’d have all cotton and we’d come out OK,” he recalls. “Other years, because of the boll weevil, bollworms, weather, whatever, we wouldn’t make any money.” He smiles. “That can lead you to an early grave.
“Cotton takes a lot of labor, and for reasons we couldn’t figure out, our yields kept going down. It’s a big risk crop — you can come out OK if you can get good yield and a good price. But if you can’t, you can go broke in a hurry.
A lot of labor, inputs
“We’d refined our production system to be pretty efficient — ultra-narrow row and stripper harvesting — but it still took a lot of labor and inputs, and it got to where we couldn’t make any money with the crop.”
He hasn’t grown any cotton for six years. “It really seemed strange, that first year, not to be out checking cotton every day,” he says. “The first two years, I missed it. But (he smiles), I’ve come to like it; with grains, you have time to do things other than work.”
His father was an enthusiastic supporter of the boll weevil eradication program, and was one of the leaders in getting it accepted by growers. “That has been a major achievement for the cotton industry,” David says. “I hate to think of all the money boll weevils cost us over the years. Although Daddy lived to see eradication in Mississippi, his health had declined to the point he wasn’t able to attend the note burning ceremony a few years back, but I went and represented him. It would've been a proud day for him.”
Although soybeans aren’t as demanding of time and inputs as cotton, he says, “They aren’t a plant ‘em and forget ‘em crop any more. I’ve increasingly had nematode and insect problems. These pests may have been there all along, but when soybeans were a second crop we just didn’t pay them as much attention as we did cotton. Now, my soybeans are scouted once a week for insects and any other potential problems.
“The last two years got off to a cold, wet start — just like this one — but I couldn’t have asked for better weather than we had during the growing season last year: frequent rains and moderate temperatures. I’ve really been blessed with good soybean, corn, and wheat yields. I’d never have dreamed I’d see the kind of yields we’ve had, particularly the last two years. But, the way prices have dropped, it looks like I’m going to need some help on the yield side this year to pay the bills.” His grain is marketed through Cargill and ADM at Memphis.
“The plant breeders and the seed industry have stepped up, and are giving us better varieties for all our crops. I have a friend who had 3-bale cotton last year. Daddy and I couldn’t have imagined that kind of yield when we were growing cotton.
“Soybean yields have gone straight up since I switched from Group V varieties to Group IVs. I plant primarily Pioneer, Asgrow, and some Mycogen and Dyna-Gro varieties. Last year, I also had some Hornbeck 4721 beans, which performed very well. Corn varieties are Pioneer, DeKalb, and Asgrow — all are good, and do well for me.”
He started planting corn April 14th, finished April 21, then started on grain sorghum. “I haven’t grown any milo since 2009,” David says, “and before that, the last time we had any was in the ‘70s. We had a really wet September and couldn’t get in the field to harvest. It looked like the milo had been sprayed John Deere green — all the grain had sprouted in the heads. We ended up Bush Hogging it. Our Group IV beans were ruined that year, too. Thank goodness, we had crop insurance on the beans.
“I know there are worries this year about the sugarcane aphid and potential damage in milo. Some of my friends sprayed for the pest last year, but going into this season, the price of milo actually looked better than corn, so I decided to take a chance on it.”
Weed resistance problems
He began planting soybeans April 29, got interrupted by rain, had to stop and spray for resistant pigweed, and then got the three-inch rain. “Resistant pigweed has been spotty,” he says. ”One year I’ll have it, the next I won’t. In some fields it’s bad, in others I can still control it with Roundup. But I tell everyone, if you don’t have it, all you’ve got to do is wait, and you’ll get it.”
He’s also had problems with resistant marestail, but gets good control with 2,4-D, Sharpen, and Gramoxone/metribuzin. “Pigweed is more of a challenge,” he says. “I use Roundup and 2,4-D for early burndown, and at planting, or shortly after, Gramoxone, Sencor, Authority, and some metribuzin, which heats up the other materials.
“I’ve been 100 percent no-till for 10 years. We started some no-till in 1980, and then moved toward all no-till when Roundup Ready came along. Now, there has to be some really bad ruts in the field before I’ll plow. I had to plow one place last year because of some deep combine ruts. Soil and water conservation is a significant concern, and Daddy and I put in a lot of terraces over the years. We had a lot of grass strips, too, but I’ve been moving away from those.
“I don’t do a 50/50 crop rotation, but I do rotate ground depending on the crops I grow in a particular year. With $3.50 corn, I can’t afford a 50/50 rotation. But I like to rotate to corn as much as possible because of the weed control I can get with corn herbicides. That really helps with pigweed.”
Insects aren’t usually a major problem, David says, mostly stink bugs, some plant bugs, and three-cornered alfalfa hoppers in the beans, “and with transgenic corn, insects are seldom a problem.”
He grid samples fields for prescription fertilization, using commercial fertilizer. “I’m working on a three-year program with prescription fertilization to see how it works for me,” he says.
He’ll usually start harvesting corn in late August/early September, and beans as soon as he’s done with corn. “I’m not sure about the milo this year, since it was planted late.”
David’s equipment lineup includes two John Deere tractors, 8295R and 8285R, a 40-foot Great Plains planter, and a Case IH sprayer, all recent purchases. “The tractors have auto-steer, which is great,” David says. “The sprayer has auto-boom and section shut-off controls, and the planter has row shut-off, all of which saves money on chemicals and seed. If I upgrade my sprayer, I’ll also have nozzle shut-off.
“I’ve adapted pretty well to technology, and I appreciate what it has done for me in terms of cost saving, and less wear-and-tear on me. I remember the long days with two-row planters and other equipment that didn’t cover as much ground as today. And with a smart phone and iPad, I can do anything I need to do in the way of recordkeeping, communications, and access to marketing/crop management information.”
One thing he doesn’t have is a combine. “When the one we had wore out, I didn’t replace it. Jesse Hall, at Grand Junction, Tenn., does custom combining for me, as well as hauling grain to the terminals. I’ve figured every way possible, and it still comes out cheaper than buying and maintaining a combine and factoring in labor.”
Nor does he have any grain trucks. “Don’t want any,” he says. “I hate driving trucks. It’s boring, time-wasting. I’m happy to turn that over to someone else.”
'I love equipment'
But when it comes to machinery, that’s another thing. “I’ve been totin’ a wrench since I was old enough to hold one,” David says. “Daddy, as smart as he was, wasn’t mechanically inclined. He’d call people to come out and work on our equipment. I told him, ‘Daddy, we can’t afford to do this,’ and I started doing as much of the work as I could.
“I love equipment. I love running equipment — always have, always will. I’m the planter man, the sprayer man, the bulldozer man, you-name-it. I love my bulldozer. My grandfather was in construction, and I went with him on jobs almost from the time I could walk. It just rubbed off on me, I guess.
“I grew up in farming. When Daddy got out of military service, he worked for Extension, but he’d always wanted to be a farmer. He bought this place in the 1950s and started farming. I grew up on a tractor. I never wanted to do anything else, never had any intention of doing anything but farming.”
He laughingly recalls, “I had no intention of going to college, either. But one morning Daddy woke me and said, ‘Get your things together, you’re going to college.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’
“Daddy was a smart man — I learned so much from him. He’s the only man I’ve ever known who could cuss somebody up and down and never say a cussword. He was calm, cool, collected — I, on the other hand am hyper and high-strung. I still miss him.”
David went to Mississippi State University and got a degree in plant and soil science, “but my intent always was to come back to the farm. I’m out here even when I don’t have to be. I like to deer hunt, and there are deer galore, so I’m here a lot during the winter months.
“My friends and I built a ‘hunting lodge’ using panels from commercial walk-in refrigeration units.” He laughs, “It’s so well insulated, you can practically heat it with a candle, cool it with a fan.
“We all take the legal limit of deer each year, but we don’t make a dent in the population. On my farms in Marshall County, there have been years I didn’t even put a combine in the field there was so much deer damage. Last year, the beans managed to outgrow the deer and I got a decent yield. There are quite a few people from Memphis who have small farms or second homes in the area, and many of them feed the deer and don’t want them killed, so it’s an ongoing problem.
“As bad as the deer are, the wild hogs are worse. I was out checking fields a year or so ago, and one of the corn fields looked like it had been plowed up — every row with a trench just as straight as if you’d used a ruler. The hogs had rooted up every bit of the corn. They even followed the adaptive curves in the field.”
In terms of size, David says, “I’m pretty happy where I am. It’s an operation I can manage myself, with my one helper. And there’s not a lot of land that becomes available in this area for farming. I’m working to get to the point where I don’t owe anything. The banks, bless their hearts, stood by us in tough times, but I less and less like to borrow money.”
Mississippi, David says, “is fortunate to have one of the finest Extension Service organizations in the country. Daddy taught me a lot about farming, but Extension has always been there for me and other farmers. I don’t know where I’d be today without the information, advice, and help they’ve given me over the years.”