The past three years have been difficult for southwest Georgia peanut producers Jeff and Jerry Heard. But with a long and storied family history of growing peanuts, the Heard brothers have persevered and maintained an efficient, high-yielding operation.

“We're growing 700 acres of peanuts, 700 acres of cotton and 700 acres of corn. That's an ideal rotation for peanuts,” says Jerry. “Rotation probably is the most important thing we do to cut costs and maintain high yields.

Rotation also helps to keep disease pressure at a minimum.”

The Heard brothers are continually looking for ways to be more efficient, but there aren't many remaining. “There are no more corners to be cut. If there are, it's something we don't know about yet,” says Jerry.

The brothers are the 2002 Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award winners for the Southeast Region. They'll receive the honor at the Southern Peanut Growers Conference later this month in Panama City, Fla.

Planting peanuts in twin rows has been a boost both to yields and to the bottom line, he says. “The most immediate advantage of planting in twin rows is better yields. In our first year of planting in 7-inch twins, we averaged 4,750 pounds per acre. This past year, we averaged 5,850 pounds.

Twin rows also give us better grades and help us with weed pressure,” he says.

“We're currently pulling two planters, but we'd like to get it all on one toolbar,” says Jerry. “We took two old John Deere planters - one we already had and another one we bought at a sale — and configured them for twin-row planting. The 7-inch twin rows seem to work better than 9 inches as far as digging goes.”

The Heard's will be planting Georgia Green and AgraTech-201 varieties this year, just as they did in 2001. “The yield is slightly better with AT-201, but there's more pressure at harvest to get them out in a timely manner.

They need to be picked with a lot of moisture in them, and they have a tendency to have more LSK's. We had a beautiful crop of AT-201's last year, but we've got to learn how to manage them better during harvest. We've been very satisfied with Georgia Green,” says Jeff.

The Heard brothers have stuck with a tried and true planting method over the years. “We haven't changed much. We make a trip ahead of the planter, putting out chemicals. Then, we go back and incorporate on the second trip to get the most out of those treatments. Then, we plant, usually starting on about April 24. We used to plant on about April 15, but we backed off some to avoid tomato spotted wilt virus.

“We haven't seen much tomato spotted wilt virus in our peanut fields. I attribute this to planting later, planting the Georgia Green variety and planting in twin rows,” says Jeff.

Water, says Jerry, is the most valuable resource in their farming operation. “Right now, water is more valuable to us than oil. All but 30 of our 2,100 acres are irrigated, and unproductive land has been planted to pine trees.

“We normally water peanuts about once a week, depending on rainfall and temperature. We prefer to keep them wet. We watch the crop closely and don't let the peanuts reach the point of wilting. Last year, we watered two times each week due to drought.”

The Heard's are entering their fourth year of drought conditions, with no end in sight. “It was so dry under the pivots this year that we watered prior to planting to help make the ground firm,” says Jeff.

“If you water immediately after planting, it can send the seed into shock and make it rot in the ground. If we're running behind, we might go ahead and plant peanuts, and then water them during the day rather than at night.”

The prolonged drought and the threat of pending water legislation at the state level is a cause for concern, says Jerry. “We couldn't farm without irrigation. All of our water comes from wells, and we've had to drop the level in a couple of them to maintain a good water supply. The water table definitely has dropped here in the past two years. We're using low-pressure spray nozzles on our center pivots to help us water more efficiently.”

Like other peanut producers in the lower Southeast, the Heard brothers must adhere to a strict fungicide schedule to keep early and late leafspot at a minimum.

“We start on a spray schedule 30 days after planting,” says Jeff. “We spray again 14 days later. On about the third spray trip, we move to a 10-day rather than a 14-day schedule. Our first treatment is with a generic chlorothalonil product. Then, we go with Bravo/Tilt. The third and fifth treatments may be with a product like Montero or Abound.”

Rotation is the best treatment both for disease problems and nematode pressure, says Jerry. “Our nematode problems are minimal, due mostly to rotation. We put out Lorsban and Temik at pegging for added protection.”

The Heard's peanut weed control program will change this year with an eye towards economics. “Last year, we put down Sonalan and came back with Gramoxone and Sonalan,” says Jeff. “Then, we applied Gramoxone and Basagran followed by an application of Cadre. This year, we put down Sonalan and then put out Strongarm and Sonalan behind the planter, ending about 45 days later with a half treatment of Cadre. That'll be a more economical treatment than what we put down last year.”

The Heard brothers keep labor costs around the farm at a minimum by doing most everything themselves. “We do everything on the farm ourselves unless an electrician has to come in and repair an irrigation system or a mechanic has to rebuild an engine or transmission.”

Jerry Heard Jr. and his wife Tammy have four children: Brooklyn, 16; Chase, 9; Will 7; and Walker, 1. Jeff and his wife Janna have two children: Kevin, 8; and Caroline, 5.

phollis@primediabusiness.com