Grower keeps farm accountable

To Clarkton, Mo., cotton producer Chuck Provance, money is money. It doesn't matter if it's spent on plant growth regulator, potash or postage. Every cent spent during the course of the season that directly or indirectly contributes to the success of the crop, is accountable.

“We learned very early to develop a system to justify costs, be it equipment or a cultural practice change, an improvement of some kind or renting a particular piece of ground,” he said.

“My dad (Charles) taught me to base everything on 1 acre. For example, we know what it's going to cost per acre before we buy a used picker versus a new one or two smaller pickers. He also taught me to figure all the costs, not just the purchase price, but the interest, depreciation, operator costs and repairs. That's been a part of the operation since my father started it in 1972.”

Yes, the man takes this economics stuff seriously.

Provance knows his cotton acreage for this year, 2,328 acres, and last year, 1,917 acres, without even looking at a ledger. And there's good reason for such dedication to figures, not the least of which is that any good businessman should know to the penny how much it costs to produce his product and, therefore, how much money he's making or losing.

“There is also a lot of competition for land in this area,” Provance said. “We run our operation on borrowed money. We've always operated on thin margins, so we've had to justify everything — first to the people who loaned us money to operate and second, to landlords.

And by the way, Provance really does know how much he spent on postage in 2004 — 11 cents per acre.

But farms don't cash flow without yield, too, so Provance doesn't deny his cotton crop the investment it needs to make regular high yields.

After harvest, fields rotated from wheat/beans are Paratilled. If he is rotating a field out of one year of cotton, the land will be no-tilled. If a field has been in cotton for two years, Provance shreds stalks, Paratills and re-hips the ground.

Since the late 1980s, Provance has planted a wheat cover crop on his ground, which is mostly light sandy soil, to fight wind-blown sand. Wheat is drilled into no-till ground and drilled or put out with a buggy on hipped-up fields.

Potash and phosphate are broadcast in the spring. “Some nitrogen will also go out at that time. Later in the season, we will sidedress with liquid nitrogen or spread urea. It's all price dependent. If 28-0-0-4 is cheaper, we'll sidedress with that.”

If wheat is headed out before spring planting, it will be burned down with a 2,4-D and Roundup tank mix. “Generally, we try to plant our cover late enough that we can burn it down with Roundup after the cotton comes up.”

At planting, Provance will run a bed conditioner to lightly take the tops out. This season, a streak of good weather in April “lured us into an early planting. We planted about a third of our crop April 18 to April 27. Then it turned cold for three weeks. We started again May 2 and finished May 6. We were lucky. The early stuff survived because it was cold, but not wet.”

Cotton varieties are ST 5599 BR, DP 444 BG/RR, ST 4575 BR and ST 4793 R. This year, seed was treated with Dynasty (azoxystrobin) fungicide. “We've been using seed treatments the last three or four years. We don't use an in-furrow fungicide anymore. We just didn't see enough benefit in it to keep it up.”

Temik will be applied in-furrow on all cotton acreage for control of root-knot nematodes, which are becoming more of a problem in Provance's sandy soils. “Three and a half to 4 pounds of Temik will help us. Nematodes are also part of the reason for the rotation program with soybeans. ST 5599 BR also has some tolerance to root-knot nematodes.”

The Temik also takes care of early-season thrips, Provance said. If a foliar application for thrips is needed, he will use Orthene, which is also a good material for plant bugs. A pyrethroid will go out behind the planter for cutworms, which seem to thrive in the wheat straw environment.

After cotton is up, Provance will make a broadcast application of Roundup, followed by a second application with one tip in a band over the row “to save a little money.”

If weeds still persist, Provance will spray under the row with Caporal/MSMA. “On layby, we sometimes have done a third application of Roundup, post-directed. That gets into the eye of the newt, wing of the bat type of thing. You have to walk every field and talk to your cotton, ask it what it wants.

“My dad said cotton was like a woman. You have to spend a lot of money to ever get anywhere. He's right. You don't how things are going to turn out until the last minute.”

Consultant Victor Roth has been scouting for Provance since the 1980s. “His attitude matches ours — don't spend it if you don't have to have it. He's not out there spraying and spraying just because it might be there.”

Roth's job is constantly evolving. “Our secondary pests are now the frontline pests. We've beaten back the boll weevil with eradication, which is a tremendous program. The Bt has generally taken care of the worms. And now it's plant bugs. We sprayed every other week the entire fruiting season last year. We varied the materials.”

A little over 90 percent of C and C Farms, which runs about 12 miles along Hwy. 25, is irrigated, mostly by center pivot.

Provance is moving toward generic ethephon as part of his defoliation mix because of price. “If we are defoliating late in the year, we'll put a little Dropp in to inhibit regrowth if a field is to be picked last. We try to get by with one trip across by ground. We're having good success on cotton we can keep in shape.”

At times, it's worth a little extra plant growth regulator during the season to get one-step defoliation. “If I have to make two trips, and I'm going to have to spend another $4 or $5 an acre, why not spend that on plant growth regulator early in the season and just go over it once. I would rather invest the money in plant growth regulator to keep it small. I think it yields better anyway and there's less chance of boll rot.”

He usually applies Pentia beginning at pinhead square and until he is starting to hold size. Then he moves to a generic material. While Pentia is a more expensive product, “I think I can justify it economically.”

One result of controlling plant size and uniform defoliation can be a once-over harvest, Provance said. “It's very expensive to go over cotton a second time. It's always a huge coffee shop debate, and I've argued both sides of it. But we try to wait the crop out and go when it's all ready. We'll spend money on higher Prep rates if we can get a once-over picking. Last year, we had 1,917 acres of cotton. We second-picked about 300 acres.”

In 2004, Provance started the harvest season with two pickers, a five-row and a two-row. “I had too much cotton acreage for one five-row picker, but not enough to justify another one. So I bought a two-row picker to pick 300 acres and we were back in the range.”

But a large crop and bad harvesting weather in 2004 caused him to rethink the economics. “We had 700 acres picked by Oct. 7. In the next three weeks, I picked 180 acres. So when November came around, a six-row picker was sitting on the turnrow waiting to go.”

While every change in practice, input or field undergoes a rigorous economic analysis, there have been new industry developments that were simply no-brainers to Provance. “No. 1 was Roundup cotton, hands down. We waited eagerly for it to show up. We were fighting pigweeds tooth and nail. Second would be no-till, but the Roundup cotton made that work.”

Provance fears the herbicide-resistant technology is losing some of its value. “Resistance problems — horseweed has been a problem in the Bootheel this year — may change that equation.” Provance explained that certain weed species like horseweed are requiring more and more add-on chemicals, which add to the cost. “We're taking a mixed approach now, some tillage in weedy areas, some no-till where things are cleaned up and the ground is in good shape, and we're saving just as much money as we ever did.”

In addition, much of the new technology derived from genetic engineering “is priced close to 100 percent of its maximum proven effectiveness. When some other limiting factor comes into play, then you pay more for the technology than it's going to make you.”

According to Provance, the road to profitability is rooted in sound economic theory — get bigger and do it with less equipment and labor. “There is no other way to dig out except to expand the revenue-producing base some and try to keep the cost down and use the margin to recover.”

Spoken like a man who knows the math.

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