Roy Burns started farming on his own in Navarro County, near Corsicana, Texas, in 1977 with a $15,500 tractor and a $2,500 planter.
He grew wheat, milo and cotton on 200 acres of rented land. He added corn to the mix over the years and put in about 10 times more acreage this year than he did in 1977 — with a new $189,000 John Deere 8430 tractor and a $69,000 planter.
Times have changed. But his labor force is about the same as always. “I hire one part-time cart driver in the summer to help with harvest,” Burns says. “Most of the time I have a one-man labor force — me — and I don’t have to wonder on Monday morning if my hand will show up. And I know who’ll be out at 2 a.m. getting things done.
“I’ve always invested more money in equipment than in labor, but I couldn’t do all this without GPS technology.”
Burns admits that he “balked a little” when his John Deere dealer first suggested he switch to GPS technology three years ago. “I was planting straight rows,” he says. “I thought I could plant just as well as the GPS could.”
But the tractor he was buying was already hard wired for the technology, so he tried it. “It’s a lot more accurate. With deep tillage I don’t get overlaps and can do about six more acres a day. I’m also saving fuel.”
He says his North Blacklands farm often has narrow windows of opportunity for planting fall and spring cops. “Sometimes we have about three good days,” he says. GPS technology and the 16-row planter, an upgrade from the 8-row unit he used before, make planting 300 acres a day possible.
He planted 637 acres of milo in a day-and-half this year. “I can plant 260 or 270 acres a day comfortably,” Burns says. “I can run 225 to 230 acres a day with the field cultivator and can chisel 180 to 190 acres a day. When we get weather right to work we have to go.”
Stress is less, too. “I’ll turn 55 this summer and the older I get the less stress I want. I love to drive a tractor, but not all day and all night.”
His custom applicators also use GPS technology to apply fertilizer and other materials. “We see very little overlap and GPS is especially effective on dry spreader trucks. Coverage is more uniform and we don’t have to watch foam markers. Applicators also don’t have to mix up another batch of material just to finish a field.”
He’s not using a yield monitor yet. “Yield mapping is not as important in this part of the country as it is up north,” he says. “We don’t have as much to count. And we would need an RTK system to make yield mapping viable and we don’t have a station in the area.”
Burns says equipment in general is more efficient than when he started. “That first tractor took about one gallon of fuel for every acre. With the new one I can run field cultivators with less than half-a-gallon per acre, plant with less than one-third of a gallon and do heavy tillage with about six-tenths of a gallon.”
He credits a lot of his efficiency to a good equipment dealer. “Good service from the dealership is critical. I can’t keep up with all the technology to repair a tractor but I can call Brazos Valley Equipment in Hillsboro, give them a code and they’ll come out with a laptop, diagnose the problem and usually fix it right there. They take care of me. They know it’s just me and they come right away.”
By mid-April Burns was through planting everything but cotton and he was waiting on warm weather to finish up. “I have planted cotton by April 15,” he says. “But it’s been too cold this year.”
He was also watching his wheat crop following an early April freeze that left a yellow tint in the tops of stalks in some fields. “I don’t think we have a lot of damage,” he says. “We might have lost the top few kernels in some fields but I think we’ll be okay. We just have to wait and see. It may take 10 days to two weeks to assess damage.”
If some fields are severely damaged he may replant with cotton into the stalks and then shred them.
Wheat is his main crop, taking up about 40 percent of his acreage. Corn takes about 20 percent, milo 30 percent and cotton 10 percent.
“I don’t plant cotton every year. We have a lot of root rot in the area so I have to be selective about cotton land.”
Burns still does some deep plowing but has reduced tillage, “by about two trips. And I don’t cultivate row crops. I go over the top (of herbicide tolerant crops) with post-emergence herbicides. It’s cheaper and more effective than cultivation.”
He shreds corn and milo stalks to hasten decomposition before he plants wheat. He likes to plant wheat behind one of the grain crops.
“I plant corn and cotton where I have Johnsongrass problems because I can handle it with Roundup or Touchdown. I always pick the most cost effective option or the best programs available, including price and finance options.”
He said supplier financing has become more common as local banks have backed away from farm loans.
Even with a one-man labor force Burns tries to give back to the industry that has supported him for more than 30 years and his family for much longer than that. He’s a fourth generation Navarro County farmer.
He teaches eighth grade vocation prep classes at the middle school in Corsicana, is chairman of the Texas AgriLife field crops committee for Navarro County, and is past chairman of the county IPM committee.
He’s also chairman of the Food and Fiber Roundup, sponsored by the Navarro County Farm Bureau and Texas AgriLife. That program takes local fourth graders on a tour of agriculture in the county.
Burns is on the Zone 8 Texas Cotton Advisory Committee for stalk destruction with the Boll Weevil Eradication Program. He says eradication has allowed farmers in the past two years to make the four or five bolls at the top of the plant they had been losing to the boll weevil.
He’s chairman of the cotton committee for the Blacklands Income Growth Conference for the next two years and was honored for his volunteer work with entry in the Navarro County Agriculture Hall of Fame.
Burns has embraced a lot of changes since 1977 and is open to more as he adds technology to increase efficiency.
“And I’m still waiting for sustained high commodity prices,” he says. “I thought we would see that 15 years ago with population growth.”
Elevated prices last year resulted from speculators and not market forces, he says. But he wonders now if yield potential for many commodities may have peaked. “If so, we may see better prices.
“I don’t know any farmers who expect to get rich,” he says. “We just want an opportunity to farm another year.”