Robert Massey has retired from two careers — 34 years as an educator, 25 years as a licensed crop consultant — but he’s still going strong in the profession that was his first love, farming.
A fifth generation farmer, he now partners with sons Craig and Robert, Jr., both of whom have pursued other careers in agriculture, and manages their 2,500 acre family operation in Tate and Panola Counties in north Mississippi. Craig is general manager for Tennessee and western Kentucky with Crop Production Services at Union City, Tenn., and Robert, Jr., is soybean quality manager with the seeds business of Bayer CropScience at Memphis Agricenter International.
Stay current on what’s happening in Mid-South agriculture: Subscribe to Delta Farm Press Daily.
“I’ve always farmed, even when I was working in education and consulting,” Massey says on a sparklingly sunny, coolish late April morning following yet another round of the almost daily rains that halted his soybean planting two weeks earlier.
“In all my years of farming, this is one of the hardest springs I can remember. We started planting April 1, and were going strong, with about 1,000 acres planted. Then it was rain, rain, rain — we’re now probably seven or eight inches above normal. When we’re able to get back in the fields, we can finish in eight or nine days.
“We shoot for high yields, and I like to plant early, to get everything in during April, if possible, in order to try and take advantage of early rains. Yields tend to be better if we can get the crop off to an early start.”
He was able to get a favorable forward contract on soybeans while the price was still good, Massey says, so this year it’ll be soybeans only. “I normally like to rotate some acres to corn, and if wheat prices are favorable, I’ll have 500 acres or so, with an average 85 to 90 bushels. But with wheat at $5 this winter, I’d rather go with full season beans. We’ll normally contract one-half to two-thirds of our expected yield.”
He prefers mostly Group 4 varieties, in about three plantings, matching variety and maturity to the different soils on their 14 farms, all dryland.
“In most years, we get better results with Group 4 beans than with Group 5,” he says. “I like to plant our better soils first. Last year, the first planting was Dyna-Gro 31RY45, a Group 4.5 bean that was planted April 11 and averaged 81 bushels. We were extremely pleased with that performance, and we’ll increase acres of that variety this year. We also had some Asgrow 5233, a Group 5 variety, which also yielded really well. After that, we planted Asgrow 4632, which has become our go-to variety. It averaged 80 bushels.”
Some 100 bushel spots
Jim Jacks, farm manager, says when he was harvesting beans last year, “there were a number of spots where the yield monitor would be showing 100 bushels or better. The combine would often be full before I’d get to the end of a row — just some really great beans.”
Across all farms, for both varieties, Massey says, “We had a 62 bushel average, which was our highest average ever. In 2013, our total average across all varieties and farms was 54 bushels, and I didn’t think we could top that, but 2014 was outstanding.”
As was the case for many farmers in 2013 and 2014, he feels cooler than normal summer temperatures and timely rains were factors in the high yields.
This year, in addition to the Dyna-Gro 31RY45 and Asgrow 4632, he says, they’ll round out plantings with Asgrow 4933, which yielded in the high 70s last year, and Asgrow 4934. Using multiple varieties and maturity groups allows them to better manage their harvest period.
“In the future,” Massey says, “with the progress that’s being made in genetics and technology, I believe 80 to100 bushel beans will become the norm, rather than the exception.”
He usually starts harvesting about Sept. 20. “We don’t have any on-farm storage. We truck our crops to ADM, Cargill, or North Mississippi Grain. We own three trucks, but to keep up with the combines, we’ll hire two additional trucks during harvest.”
The Massey farms range in size from about 100 acres to 420 acres. Most are bottom land in the hills, but two, with about 800 acres total, are in the edge of the Delta near Sardis. A bit over 50 percent of the land they farm is owned, the rest rented.
“All our farms are no-till,” Massey says, “but every three years we’ll deep chisel plow to break up hardpans. After that, we use only chisel plows and field cultivators.
“We shoot for high yields, and that removes nutrients, so we soil test every field each fall, and we use CPS Veris mapping system for variable rate applications of potash, phosphorus, lime, and other nutrients specified by the soil tests. This takes the guesswork out of fertility, insures that the crop will have what it needs to meet its yield potential, and saves money over blanket applications. We have an average $85 per acre in fertilizer costs this year. It has been my experience from my years of consulting and farming that, in a dry year, crops perform better when they have adequate nutrition.”
Corn rotation helps with pigweeds
In most years, Massey says, they will plant about 500 acres of corn, “But with the tumble in corn prices, we have none this year. Our average last year was about 125 bushels, all dryland. On some fields, we had as high as 140 bushels, but on one farm where we got no rain at all during the season, yield was only 76 bushels. Had we got rain on that farm, our overall yield average would have been 175 bushels or more. Relatively cool summers and timely rains over most of our farms the last two years have really been beneficial.
“Corn is an excellent rotational crop, particularly where we have pigweed pressure. We’ve had some resistant pigweed, but we’ve been able to control it with our herbicide program. We’re careful to never let pigweeds attain any size, and if there are escapes, we pull them out immediately.”
For initial burndown, he uses a full rate of Valor mixed with Roundup. “Depending on the farm, we may also add dicamba. It’s an excellent burndown material, but because of its 14-day planting restriction, if our planting window is shortened because of weather, we won’t use it. This year, because of all the rains, we had to make our first burndown applications aerially — we couldn’t get in the field with our new sprayer without rutting up the ground.
“At planting, we chase the planter with CPS’ Intimidator, a three-way formulation of metribuzin, Reflex, and Dual. This gives another two to three weeks of residual control. On land where we have pigweed pressure, it provides excellent control.
“We’ll often mix Gramoxone or paraquat with the Intimidator — this makes a really effective combination that will take care of anything that emerges behind the initial burndown. I like to see a field where nothing is coming up but the crop. If we wait to spray until weeds start emerging, that can be a problem. It’s better to control them before they come up than afterward. Our post-directed spray is Warrant and Roundup, and that will usually take us through to harvest.”
Soybeans generally get a yield boost following corn, Massey says, as well as less weed pressure. “The atrazine used in corn eliminates a lot of hard-to-kill weeds. Also, we usually won’t need as much fungicide on soybeans following corn. We automatically make a fungicide application, either Quadris or Headline, fourth node and pods are about one-fourth inch. It’s particularly important where we’ve had soybeans following soybeans for two or three years.”
Scouting helps application timing
Stink bugs can affect soybean quality, Massey says, and other pests can be a problem. “We know we’re going to make a fungicide application, so we scout our fields and try to time the fungicide so we can include an insecticide. That’s usually Tombstone, a third generation pyrethroid, which gives broad spectrum control at an economical price. If our scouting shows only minimal insect pressure, we’ll skip the insecticide and go with the fungicide alone.
“Son Craig worked with me as a consultant before joining CPS, and that experience, plus the knowledge he’s acquired in working with CPS’ many farmer customers, has afforded him an extensive knowledge of varieties and chemistries. I credit a lot of our success to his expertise in these areas.”
The Massey equipment lineup is mostly John Deere, an exception being their new sprayer, a Case IH 213. “Our green lineup includes an 8310R with GPS and auto-steer,” he says. “That’s our go-to planting tractor. We also have a 4960, 4640, and a 4850, a model 212 combine with GPS and yield monitor, and a model 211. Jim Jacks looks after the high tech aspects of our operation.
“Years ago, when we were growing cotton,” Massey recalls, “we’d all compete to see who could plant the straightest rows — now, with GPS, every row is arrow straight.”
Their last cotton was in the late 1980s. “I’ve always liked cotton,” he says, “and during my consultant years, I usually checked 12,000 to 15,000 acres of cotton each year. But unlike soybeans or corn, cotton requires attention every day. When Robert, Jr., received a baseball scholarship, I wanted to be able to take time to go and see him play, so we got out of cotton. Now, it would take so much money to get back into it that it just isn’t practical for us.”
Massey grew up on a farm, and his father had cotton, a dairy, and corn silage. “Dad always ‘recommended’ that I not get into farming,” he laughs, “but I guess it was just in my blood. I’ve been a farmer by choice — even during my educator and consultant careers, I enjoyed farming. I enjoy it still.”
He attended Northwest Mississippi Community College, where he played football, then Mississippi State University, where he earned B.S., master’s, and specialist degrees in agriculture and Extension education.
“I taught agriculture for several years at Sardis, Miss., and also earned another master’s in school administration at Ole Miss, after which I was teacher, assistant principal, and principal for 15 years in Tate County schools. Then I spent 17 years in Panola County schools, retiring as superintendent.
“I started working as a consultant in 1974. Applications were being sought for cotton scouting jobs in nearby Desoto County, Miss. One requirement was to have an A in entomology. I met the qualifications, so I applied and got a job. I was an active consultant until my retirement, and am proud to have been a member of the Mississippi Agricultural Consultants Association since 1974.
“I’m pleased that my sons are both Mississippi State agriculture grads and have pursed careers in agriculture. Craig got his master’s at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and was UT Extension area cotton specialist and state cotton specialist before joining CPS. Robert, Jr., also earned a master’s at Mississippi State before joining Bayer CropScience. Both worked with me as scouts in their earlier years.”