In years past, Swann Farms would have planted 800 to 1,000 acres of cotton, but in 2013 they cut back to 400 acres, this year it’s just 200, and, says Hal Swann, “If I didn’t have that picker sitting out there in the shed, I might have skipped cotton altogether.”
Still, he admits, “I enjoy growing cotton, and as long as we’ve got a gin in the area, I don’t really want to give it up. It also provides a good rotation benefit.”
Swann, who farms with his brother, Larry, and sons, Rett and Will, in Lee, Prentiss, and Union counties in northeast Mississippi near Guntown, will have soybeans on the bulk of the 2,500-acre operation this year, and 60 acres of grain sorghum.
Weather hasn’t been kind to area farmers this spring, and cool temperatures and frequent rains — more than 8 inches during May in the area where the Swanns farm — hampered planting.
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At the first of June, the Swanns were still waiting for soggy fields to dry enough to finish planting. “We were about 80 percent done with soybeans when we had to quit,” Hal says. They had to replant about 200 acres of soybeans, some of which just never came up, and finally completed planting June 13.
“All the rain kept us from doing our burndown when we’d planned,” he says. The ag pilot we used in the past retired, so we now do everything with our ground rig.” Burndown applications with Roundup and Sharpen were made the last of March and early April.
They have resistant marestail, but he says, “Sharpen and Roundup do a really good job, and we overlay that with Prefix. Resistant pigweed hasn’t been a big problem if we get them early. But if they get very big, we can’t control them with Roundup. With all the rain we’ve had, weeds have really started coming through. We’ll spray the soybeans with Prefix, a Dual-Reflex combination.”
Insects are usually not much of a problem, Hal says. “We may have to treat once for plant bugs, and fortunately we’ve not had the problems with resistant plant bugs that they have in the Delta.
“The eradication program took care of the boll weevil. Eliminating that pest gave us at least a quarter-bale yield increase, saving money, energy, and labor for spraying. I remember years ago, with the spray equipment we had then, we couldn’t get around our fields often enough spraying for boll weevils. And we’d never see any bolls in the top one-quarter of the plant — now, we have full-grown bolls all the way to the top.”
Yields for both cotton and beans have really improved over the last five to 10 years, Hal says. “The varieties the seed companies are giving us are continually setting the yield bar higher. We’ve had 60- to 70-bushel beans on some fields. Not that long ago, that kind of yield was unheard of.
Last two years 'really good'
“We farm a lot of marginal land, and we don’t get any really huge yields, but the last two years have been really good. In 2013, with favorable weather — moderate summer temperatures and adequate rainfall — we averaged 45 bushels. In 2014, a three-week period of too much rain hurt us, and we averaged about 40 bushels, but we were pleased with that.” Their beans are marketed through the Cotton Plant Gin and Grain Elevator near New Albany, Miss.
When he came back to the farm after earning his degree at Mississippi State University and working a while in the public sector, he and his late father, Everett, were growing mostly soybeans, with some cotton. “Then we went altogether to soybeans, but in the late 1980s we got back into cotton. The last three or four years, we’ve averaged about 900 pounds.” Cotton is ginned at Scruggs Gin at nearby Belden, Miss.
Son Rett, who handles the planting and spraying, says soybean varieties this year are a mix of Asgrow 5332, Croplan 4752 and 5103, and Progeny 5555. Cotton varieties are Stoneville 4946 GLB2, PhytoGen PHY 333 WRF, and a bit of Deltapine 1518 B2XF, Bollgard II with XtendFlex technology that features tolerance for glyphosate (Roundup), glufosinate (Liberty), and dicamba.
“Dicamba hasn’t yet been approved for use on this variety,” he notes, “but we’re trying a small amount of the variety to see how it performs for us.” It is anticipated that approval for dicamba use will come in 2016, but growers will be able to use Liberty with the variety this season.
The Swanns haven’t grown corn for 10 years, Hal says. “Land that’s best suited for corn is also best suited for cotton. You’ve got to be fully committed to corn to manage it and market it most effectively. You’ve got to be able to store it and constantly monitor it for quality, and we weren’t ready to make that kind of commitment.”
Technology 'has made farming easier'
Technology has made a big difference in farming, says Hal. “Many of today’s younger farmers don’t know what things were like before Roundup Ready, Bt, auto-steer, or the wide array of sophisticated electronic systems now available, not to mention iPhones and iPads that pretty much put the world at your fingertips. It has all made farming easier.”
Rett agrees: “We have auto-steer on one of the tractors that we use for planting, and Row Command on the planters, which is really good for accuracy and efficient use of seed and chemicals. Our 4720 sprayer has guidance and swath control, really great technology. We save a lot on seed and chemicals, with no gaps or overlaps, and the fields look much more uniform. With auto-steer and other technological assists, you’re not as worn out at day’s end, and if we need to, we can work after dark with the same precision.”
Their equipment is John Deere: “Our newest tractors, which are leased, are John Deere 8420 and 8285 R,” Rett says. “We also have an 8410 and two older models, a 4850 and a 4760, and two 9650 combines. We’ve got some really good equipment; it’s just that we don’t have many fields large enough to really enjoy its capabilities.”
They usually start start harvesting soybeans mid-September, after spraying with Gramoxone for desiccation, and cotton harvesting starts mid-October. They have a John Deere 9976 six-row picker.
Hal laughingly says he doesn’t know the total number of fields they farm — “More than 60. The two largest are 100 acres, some are only 1 acre, and every size in between. All are within a 30-mile radius. Soils vary, from sandy bottom land, to black, and red clay.”
Hal grew up in farming. His father, Everett, who died in 1999, was an agriculture teacher at Saltillo High School. “My grandfather was a dairyman; there were dairies everywhere in this area in those days. Daddy tried dairying and found out that wasn’t what he wanted to do, so he became a teacher and a farmer.
“Daddy never really discouraged me from farming, but he felt I should at least try something else. I went to Mississippi State and got a degree in agricultural education/Extension, then married my wife, Cindy. I did public work for a while, then came back to the farm, and I’ve never had any thought of doing anything else. I think Daddy was concerned, too, that the farm couldn’t support two families — it was only about 800 acres at the time. But, we kept adding acres here and there, and everything worked out for us.”
After his father’s death, he and brother Larry carried on the farming operation, and were joined by Rett full time after he graduated from Itawamba Community College. Hal’s youngest son, Will, lends a hand when he’s not in school. A sophomore at Itawamba Community College, majoring in agronomy, Will plans to attend Mississippi State University, probably continuing studies in agronomy.
Expansion in farming in the area is difficult, Hal says. “There’s a lot of competition for farmland, and increasingly much of that competition is from subdivisions and commercial development that’s spreading out from Tupelo,” just a few miles to the south.
There was a lot of land speculation when Toyota announced their $2 billion plant now in production at nearby Blue Springs, he says. “People from as far away as California were buying land sight unseen. But that has pretty much settled down now, and the main competition for land is other farmers wanting to expand and land being developed for subdivisions and commercial use.”