For the first time in nearly 30 years, Lynn Jackson may take a vacation this summer.
This will be the first year since 1973 that he hasn't spent most of his time from May through July pampering a cotton crop.
“Cotton has always been a major part of the operation,” says Jackson, who farms in partnership with his son Mark near Commerce, Texas. “We've always sort of thought that if we weren't growing cotton we weren't really farming.”
Economics and efficiency have changed their minds. They've switched cotton acreage to soybeans.
“Soybeans are a lot easier to grow,” Mark says. “We need a lot less equipment and a lot less labor.”
“This is a transition year for us,” says Lynn. “We've been growing soybeans for about 10 years but we've never depended on them as we will this year.”
They've planted 850 acres of soybeans, complimenting 970 acres of wheat.
Mark says economics favor soybeans over cotton. “Cost of getting seed in the ground is about the same,” he says, “because we use Roundup Ready soybean varieties and the tech fees are fairly high. But we need a lot less equipment, and we don't have to manage the crop as closely after we get it up.”
“We can pretty much plant soybeans, spray Roundup and leave it alone,” says Lynn.
“Considering the equipment and labor costs, it's considerably cheaper to grow soybeans,” Mark says. “For one thing, we don't need as many tractors.”
Markets favor soybeans as well. The Jacksons say the loan rate, $5 per bushel, is better than for cotton. And any loan deficiency payment improves the return.
“We get some dockage if the beans are not as mature as we like,” Lynn says. “We can get docked for green matter, but we always get docked for cotton. They clip us for color, staple, etc.”
Yields also have been good. “We had a great crop in 1994,” Mark says. “And we had a good one last year. A lot of fields made 40 bushels per acre, and we averaged 37 over the entire farm. One 230 acre field averaged 45 bushels per acre.”
An early start is the key, they say. “We like to start planting in March,” Mark says. “We finished planting this year around April 16. By mid-May, some were already dropping blooms and beginning to make beans.”
Lynn says late-maturing soybeans have better yield potential but rainfall late is much less certain.
“We plant 3.9 and 4 maturity group varieties and they seem to do well,” he says.
“If we get rain right, we can plant late and make a good crop,” Mark adds, “but we prefer to plant early and take fewer chances.”
Lynn says soybeans show more tolerance to spring cold snaps than cotton does. “With a cold spring rain, cotton would be history,” he says, “but soybeans come right back.”
When they started planting soybeans back in 1991, they used only conventional varieties. “Roundup Ready has made a big difference,” Mark says. “We used to use a lot more herbicides; now it's just Roundup, with maybe some Cyclone just ahead of the planter.”
They apply Roundup or Cyclone as a knockdown before planting and then rely on Roundup to take care of in-season weeds.
“We like to wait until the weeds emerge and then get as many as we can,” Lynn says. “If we have grass, however, we go in early. Grass can choke out the beans and hurt yield potential.”
They say Roundup takes out most all their troublesome weeds. “It suppresses morningglory and nutgrass,” Lynn says. “That's about the only two we've found that Roundup will not kill. and it knocks them back so they are not competitive.”
Conservation tillage also helps, Mark says. “We plant in 20-inch rows, usually in crop stubble. Soybeans do well behind wheat and in old bean stubble. It's not quite as good behind cotton.”
Wet conditions kept them out of the field this spring so they used a fertilizer spreader to “sling seed out on some acreage,” Mark says. “We broadcast the seed and then cut it in.”
“We had to be extremely aware of seed size with the fertilizer spreader,” Lynn says. “Even a small difference altered the seeding rate significantly.”
They increased seeding rate on the broadcast beans, anyway.
They say broadcast offers an option during adverse planting conditions, but they prefer planters. “We make better yields with the planters,” Mark says. “This year, the row beans are twice as big as the ones we broadcast.”
They say a $1 per acre investment in inoculant pays off. “Some farmers are leaving that out, but it seems like too good an investment not to apply,” Lynn says.
They've also learned a tip about VitaVax. “Don't add the inoculant while the VitaVax is still wet,” Mark says. “It may kill the inoculant.”
Lynn may not be completely convinced that cotton has no place on his farm. “I can't say we'll never grow cotton again,” he says.
“But the cotton equipment is for sale,” Mark adds.
Relying mostly on soybeans, they agree, lets them farm and “have a life.”