Sounding very much like a successful football coach, southwest Georgia farmer Mike Newberry says the best strategy for producing peanuts efficiently is to stay on offense.

“We have to do everything on time, and we have to do it right the first time,” says the Early County grower. “You start to spend extra money whenever you're forced to play catch-up. If a problem does arise, you must react quickly. You have to play offense instead of defense.”

Newberry played enough offense this past year to earn him the 2003 Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award for the Southeast Region.

A fourth-generation farmer, he grows peanuts, cotton and corn on Hillside Farms. It has proven to be a good crop mix, he says, for a three-year rotation.

“Our crop acreages haven't changed much over the years, driven as they are by rotation. We try to keep the acres split evenly among the crops. On a lot of our land, we have grazing for cattle behind the peanuts and corn,” he says.

Efficiency and high yields wouldn't be possible, says Newberry, if not for irrigation. The majority of his farmland is under 18 center pivots.

Newberry was one of a handful of farmers instrumental in the development of the expert computer system for irrigating peanuts now known as Irrigator Pro.

“Our experience with the system goes back to 1987, when it was known as EXNUT. We were some of the beta testers, and that was a good experience because we were able to provide initial input on the system's design,” he says.

Irrigator Pro, he explains, uses soil temperature and rainfall frequency and amounts to determine when and how much to irrigate. Two-inch soil temperature and rainfall are recorded and entered into the program throughout the growing season.

“We're going one step further than merely looking at water use and water application. We're actually double-checking and refining that information with the use of soil thermometers,” he says.

Newberry's peanut crops consistently average 5,000 pounds per acre, but he doesn't see that as a major accomplishment. “I don't feel as though we've done a whole lot by making 5,000 pounds per acre. We have irrigation, good land and a good climate. We ought to be making 5,000 pounds per acre. But I was proud the year when we made 6,100 pounds per acre.”

Keeping fixed costs to a minimum, such as those for equipment, also has played a role in Newberry's quest for efficient peanut production. “We're a fairly small farm, and we have a lot of equipment for the acreage, but it's all older equipment. Our newest tractor probably is 10 to 12 years old, and we've bought used equipment over the years.

“Having enough equipment allows us to do things in a timely manner. And, even though we don't have new tractors and other implements, we haven't had any major repair problems.”

Newberry plants the Georgia Green variety in twin rows, and his peanut acreage is 100 percent conventional-tillage, for now.

“We've had a little experience with minimum-tillage peanuts, and it was very positive. Many of our peanuts are behind grazing, and that ground must be broken. But I think we'll find a place in the next year or so where we can go in and plant minimum-tillage peanuts behind cotton.

“Our equipment isn't set up for conservation-tillage peanuts, but we might could go behind cotton where there isn't so much litter.”

Most of Newberry's corn and cotton is strip-tilled, except where grazing is done in the winter.

“We have situations where we have to run a harrow. We won't ever gain any organic matter until we can go to a full conservation-tillage system and get away from turning over the ground every third year to peanuts.”

Like other Georgia growers who follow the University of Georgia Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus Risk Index, Newberry is planting peanuts in mid-May. And, while he sees the risk index as a valuable tool, he worries that peanut harvest is being pushed back too far.

“A mid-May planting date means that we don't start digging peanuts until later in September. When Oct. 1 rolls around, we need to be further along in getting our peanuts picked. We need to be picking peanuts in September and cotton in October, not peanuts in October and cotton in November and December.”

Nonetheless, the risk index is good and it works, he says, and that's especially important on his farm.

“Our farm has an unusually high incidence of tomato spotted wilt virus. We've been about two years ahead of everyone else as far as the progression of the disease.

“We've proven that it has nothing to do with our cultural practices. There just are no easy answers. Twin-row peanuts have made a difference, and strip-till peanuts would make a difference.”

For other diseases of peanuts, Newberry uses a program of chlorothalonil with Folicur or Abound.

“We start early and stay on time with fungicide applications. We probably spend more money on fungicides, but you can't cut corners when you're trying to make 5,000 pounds per acre. We try to stay on a 10 to 14-day schedule. Abound and Folicur need to be put out during the heart of the growing season.”

For controlling weeds, he puts out Sonolan preplant incorporated, in addition to applying Strongarm in some of his fields. He goes back and burns down with Gramoxone Max, Basagran and 2,4-DB.

“We try and do that second treatment as late as possible, but prior to blooming. We don't use Strongarm in fields where we have heavy yellow nutsedge pressure.

“In those fields, we come back with an ounce of Cadre with 2,4-DB in that same time frame with our first chlorothalonil application. We have to minimize our use of Cadre because of the cotton rotation.”

Newberry says the transition to a new government program for peanuts was cumbersome, but he sees ultimate advantages for his farming operation.

“Under the old program, we were planting an average of about 3,500 pounds of quota per acre, but our yields were in the 5,000-pound range. Sometimes, we were growing as many as 1,500 pounds of additional peanuts, and we weren't getting much for those. Under the new program, the average price we're receiving for the entire crop is very good.

“Those extra pounds we were growing under the old program brought us less than $300 per acre. Under the new program, we should always get at least the loan amount out of our peanuts.

“This new program isn't bad for us.”

Newberry's peanuts are being sold directly to shellers in various forms. “In the past, we were going through a marketing group, and we were participating in some of the shelling profits. We'll get back to that, but everything isn't in place for us to do it this year. I'm part-owner along with several other growers in a buying point affiliated with Damascus Peanut Company.

“We'll never own a shelling plant because of the fixed costs involved, but we will be able to share in the profits of shelling peanuts. That's how we'll need to market peanuts in the future.”

phollis@primediabusiness.com