Oklahoma peanut farmers have learned some hard lessons from the past three years. One of the toughest: regardless of what a farmer does, sometimes he can't save a crop from weather.

John Clay and his son Steven hope to take some of what 1998-2000 taught them and tweak production enough in 2001 to keep peanuts profitable on their Caddo County, Okla., farm.

The ability to irrigate quota peanuts keeps them in business.

“Those are the keys,” John says. “Our whole operation depends on irrigation. If we couldn't irrigate, and if didn't have quota peanuts, we couldn't survive.”

The Clays run a diversified operation, including wheat, corn, cotton, rye and stocker cattle. But peanuts pay the bills, as they do for many Caddo County farmers.

“In 2001, we'll do everything we can to make a profit on peanuts and try not to lose money on anything else,” Steven says.

That may not be easy. Irrigation, they found out last year, can't guarantee success, even with wells capable of delivering as much as 700 gallons per minute.

“However, we did observe that, in general, the more water we could apply the higher our peanut yields were last year,” John says.

And rotation crops offer little profit opportunity. “We need about a 20 cents per pound price increase to make money with cotton,” John says.

“Where we could apply adequate irrigation water, we made an excellent crop last year,” Steven adds. “The Boll Weevil Eradication Program helps, but it's still hard to pencil in a profit on cotton at current prices.

“We actually do better with corn. Surprisingly, over the last 10 years we have more good years for corn than for cotton. Yields are more consistent and, historically, we've had a fairly good local market. Our basis here is better than in Kansas City or the Texas High Plains.”

Price plunges the past few years, however, have cut deeply into profit margins.

That's why quota peanuts play such an important role on the Clay farm, and why John and Steven will tweak their production system a bit this year to capitalize on what works.

“We thought we learned enough about trying to irrigate too many acres in 1998,” Steven says. “Last year, we only planted half circles of peanuts under pivots with 500 gallon per minute or less pumping capacity, to make sure we wouldn't run out of water.”

They didn't anticipate the unprecedented heat and drought that hit Oklahoma and most of the Southwest from July through September at the peak of peanut water demand.

“We did everything we could to make a crop, and it didn't matter,” Steven says. “We thought we had planned for more than enough water, about twice as much as we would ordinarily have needed. But I've never seen peanuts use as much water as they did last summer. It was still hard to keep up.”

“We started off well,” John says. “We had a wet June with more than average rainfall and the promise of a good crop. From July on, it was all down hill.

“High temperatures came with windy days and low humidity, 10 percent to 20 percent,” John says. “Evapotranspiration rates were the highest I have ever seen, possibly as high as 5/10 inch per day. We could never regain lost subsoil moisture, even irrigating nonstop.”

A killing freeze on Oct. 8 cut the season short. Then a wet, cold October, November, and December compounded the problem and delayed harvest. The Clays were patient and managed to find several days that were conducive to reasonably low combining losses and saved most of their peanuts.

“With the security of having crop insurance, we did not feel pressure to combine on days when harvest losses were excessive,” John says.

They'll stick with the half-circle planting pattern again in 2001, except for one full-circle field.

“We're thinking about planting Georgia Green peanuts under one pivot that can deliver 700 gallons of water per minute,” Steven says.

They tried Georgia Greens in 1998, planted in a half circle with the other half in Okrun. They say the Georgia Green peanuts held up better under limited moisture conditions.

“Georgia Green makes a lot less vine than other runner peanuts do,” John says. “A bunch-type peanut, it doesn't transpire as much as most runner varieties we plant.”

Some processors have criticized the variety because of excessive splits, but “it's great from a farmer's standpoint,” John says.

The workhorse in 2001, however, will be Tamrun 96. “That's all we planted in 2001” John says. “It is a tough peanut.”

Even with higher energy costs, they'll stay with their basic production program. “We will not be the lowest-cost producers in the area, in terms of input costs,” John says. “If we can spend money on peanuts to make more money, we'll spend it. We hope to make the most profit per acre we can and high yields are essential to that goal.”

“We'll depend on our crop consultant for advice on controlling things like sclerotinia and southern blight,” Steven says. “But we'll stay on a preventive schedule for leaf spot.”

Under ordinary conditions, they'll begin spraying in early July and stick to a two-week schedule. “If it turns very dry, we may stretch to 21 days,” Steven says.

They also pay attention to specific field problems. “We may follow a two year in and two year out peanut rotation in new ground,” Steven says, “but in fields with a history of sclerotinia we prefer one year in and three out of peanuts.

They depend on residual fertility from rotation crops on peanuts. “They seem to respond better to residual nutrition,” Steven says.

They'll use a hopper box treatment for early-season thrips control instead of the more expensive in-furrow treatment. “We can hold back thrips a long time with Orthene HB,” John says.

“We need the control,” says Steven. “There is a lot of wheat planted in this area, and as it dries down, thrips move into peanuts. In a short season, we can't afford for peanuts to get behind. We need every week we can get.”

The Clays say peanut farmers have taken some pretty big income hits since the 1996 farm bill was enacted. The combination of reduced quota support rate and escalating production costs cut incomes as much as 30 percent.

Research results may have limited losses in that time, Steven says. “Improved varieties such as Tamrun 96 have been helpful. Tamrun 96 will yield well under adverse conditions with minimal additional inputs. We need similar developments to help us stay profitable.”

“We also need a good crop insurance program,” John says. “We'd like to be able to buy 80 percent to 85 percent coverage without an exorbitant premium. So far, we're limited to 75 percent coverage. Fortunately, costs have been lower because of premium subsidies.”

John and Steven say maintaining some kind of peanut quota system will be crucial to keeping Oklahoma peanut growers in business. In the meantime, they'll do all they can to survive weather, diseases and insects and hope they never see another summer and fall like 2000