When Jay Hardwick’s name comes up, most people think cotton. And rightly so: He’s the current chairman of Cotton Incorporated and in 2009 was National Cotton Council chairman. But, visit his family’s Somerset Plantation along the Mississippi River near Newellton, La., and you’ll find his interests run much deeper than cotton alone.
For much of his career, his attention has been focused on diversifying crops and pushing soybeans to greater and more efficient yields. To do that, he had to make some fundamental changes that brought wide-ranging benefits to crops like cotton, corn and grain sorghum.
“To improve our revenue stream, we either had to acquire more land or reinvest money into cropland,” Hardwick says. “The answer was to work to make our soils better.
“Our biggest problem here along the river is too much water, so we’ve had an aggressive program to get the water off our fields. Now, we can drain 90 percent of the property within 24 hours.”
But, being able to irrigate during dry weather is also necessary to assure crop yields, he says.
“We’ve been landforming to put fields to grade so we can put in furrow irrigation. We’ve been installing four to six wells a year.”
On a ride around the farm, you see 26 center pivot systems, mostly in the bigger fields. But, Hardwick says he has probably installed his last pivot.
“We’ve moved to furrow irrigation because everyplace where it’s practical to have a pivot already has one. The areas that weren’t irrigated were more suited to furrow. The flatter land is relatively inexpensive to put to grade and put in furrow irrigation. Where there’s undulating land, though, it’s costly.”
It’s a long-term project geared toward making the farm much more efficient without buying more land, Hardwick says.
“My brother-in-law and I are on a 10-year program of land leveling and irrigation on 12,000 acres of cropland which, if double-cropped, turns into 18,000 acres. It’s our way to create cash opportunities for our family by investing in what we already have — the soil.
“For too long we farmers have taken the soil for granted, and we’ve been mining a tremendous amount of nutrients off the land. It’s time to turn that around.”
A close analysis of the farm’s fields showed that some would never hit the yield goals Hardwick wants, so he’s taking those out of cropping plans.
“We’re taking some tracts out and putting them in timber. That land is better off in trees. We’ve added 500 acres of riparian areas through National Resources Conservation Service programs, which is helping wildlife. We’re now seeing a lot more quail. The changes have been phenomenal to watch.”
The 2013 soybean crop — much of it planted late due to weather problems — gave Hardwick an even greater appreciation for the capabilities of this fertile soil.
“We have July-planted soybeans that got no rain from mid-August through most of September. If we could have planted them June 1, they’d have received more sunlight and rainfall. But instead of looking at a 35-bushel per acre soybean crop, we were pushing 50, like in 2012. The double-crop beans behind wheat were just as good as the earlier-planted beans.”
He likes to no-till soybeans behind wheat for a number of reasons.
“Since we adopted no-till 15 years ago, soil organic matter has gone up unbelievably, now averaging 3 percent — which is unheard of in this area. We leave wheat residue in the field and don’t work it in. If we can get out of the field without disturbing the residue, we do that.
“Residue is our best management practice. It helps us get through dry periods like we saw this past summer. Residue soaks up moisture and makes it available to the crop.”
That’s only one of the benefits, he says.
“The increased organic matter drives microbiological activity. We’re finding lots of earthworms, which we didn’t used to see. No-till is like compound interest on money: Over time, you see incremental values change.
All that is manifested in yields, which are continually going up with our heavy residue management program. The residue was responsible for the moisture that made our July-planted soybeans.”
Hardwick refines techniques and often looks at different methods in the same year to check results. In 2013, for example, he drilled some soybeans 7-1/2 inches apart and planted others in 36-inch rows.
“We’re constantly looking at drilled versus rows and at bedded versus non-bedded. Our thinking now is that we’ve got to have a bed of some kind to be able to get water off efficiently. On this flat ground, water ponds up, and that sets up anaerobic conditions, which we want to avoid. As far as drilled versus rows, we’re going to continue to look at that.”
A philosophy of preventing problems rather than dealing with them as they appear in fields keeps Hardwick occupied. Fending off glysphosate-resistant weeds has been a big concern in recent years.
“We have an aggressive program on pigweed management. We’re using a lot of different chemistries in addition to Roundup. We’re also using pre-emergence herbicides on glyphosate-resistant Italian ryegrass, which is a bigger threat for us than pigweed.
“A crop consultant we hired years ago is helping us with this. We’ve made it a field-by-field program.
“In this area, producers are using a reduced rate of Roundup. We don’t see a lot of pigweed, so we’ve been fortunate. When we see pigweed, we dig it up and haul it out of the field. We spray when they’re very small, before they get a chance to compete with the crops.
“We also use Liberty with 2,4-D in spring as a burndown on winter vegetation. That’s had tremendous efficacy for us and is an important part of our weed control program. It’s not well-known, but this also has the capacity to kill spider mites, and we like it for that.”
On Hardwick’s farm, cotton certainly plays a major role, as it has since before the Civil War. But things look different now than they did when he married into the family and moved here in 1981. Now, in addition to cotton, he grows from 5,000 to 7,000 acres of wheat, along with corn, grain sorghum, and soybeans.
He is increasingly intrigued with grain sorghum.
“Our cost structure on grain sorghum is 40 percent less than corn. We can put it on our dryland areas where conditions are worst and it still makes a crop. It will cannibalize itself to make a head. It breaks the nematode cycle, too, which is important. It’s pretty amazing. We grow 1,000 acres a year.
“It’s a good cash crop and we have a good basis on it here. It’s a darned good tool to work on land where we might be planning to do something different the next year, where we might have land problems or a weed problem we’re trying to work out.”
With two adult sons soon to return full-time to the family business, Hardwick expects the farm’s use of technology to evolve even faster.
“They’re interested in robotics, in all kinds of high-tech things that push the envelope,” he says. “When I look at what’s coming down the pike, the future for American agriculture looks very exciting. I’m very optimistic.”
It’s all a big leap from the day when Hardwick arrived here after serving as head of the art department at Southern Methodist University. Son of a career Navy dentist, he had little knowledge of agriculture, but a big desire to learn.
“There were no guarantees when I came here. My father-in-law, Jack Mabray, who is 91 now, threw many things out to test me. He stretched me — in fact, he tried to run me out. But, it was all good.
“Running a farm like this is not an easy task. You can make a catastrophic mistake from which you can’t recover.
“But, the thing is to not let that destroy you, but to mitigate the potential. You flex with it the best you can and move on. There isn’t a recipe for this business.”