Roger Neitsch cites rotation as the No. 1 factor in a peanut base yield of 5,800 pounds per acre. In 2002 he did better than that, more than 6,000 pounds over his entire 300-acre crop.

Close behind his four-year rotation scheme, he lists timing, fertility, disease control, irrigation and minimum-tillage as key ingredients for consistent yields.

It's an efficient system, he says, efficient enough to earn Neitsch the 2003 Peanut Profitability Award for the Southwest region.

Neitsch raises peanuts, cotton, small grains and forage crops in Gaines County, Texas, and says that crop mix provides a good base for a four-year rotation.

“I plant wheat, rye and hay grazer and rotate peanuts and cotton into the mix. I used to plant cotton three straight years and then peanuts, but cotton yields improve with rotation, too.

“Peanuts and cotton share some diseases, especially pythium and rhyzoctonia. Rotation helps limit infection.”

Doing things on time also plays a significant role in high yields, Neitsch says.

“When peanuts need water, they need it now. When they need nutrients, they need it now. When they need an insecticide, a fungicide or herbicide applied, they need it now, not next week. We have to treat for weeds, insects and disease infestations before we get significant damage.

“Whether it's a pesticide spray, fertilizer application, irrigation, planting, or harvesting, delays in peanut production can be costly.”

He says a peanut plant is like an animal. “It's sensitive to needs for water, food and medicine to cure or prevent diseases.”

Wet weather delayed harvest last fall and Neitsch was a bit concerned that late digging might cut yields.

“Peanuts are sensitive to an optimal harvest time,” he says. “Waiting too long may result in significant losses.”

He got by, but he's cautious about scheduling harvest. It begins with timely planting. Neitsch prefers to plant by the last week in April and by mid-September he starts pulling peanuts to gauge maturity.

“I pull some vines along all season to check for diseases and pod fill, but in late September, I need to know how close we are to digging.”

He uses the hull-scrape method to check maturity and likes to dig when 80 percent to 85 percent of the peanuts reach the black hull category.

“I never get as many as I want to fall into that range, and if I have immature fields, I'll wait to dig. But we don't wait too long and risk freeze damage.”

By October he's keeping a close eye on weather patterns. “If we have a forecast for a lot of warm, dry days, I'll let an immature field fill out a little more. Planting to harvest usually runs 160 to 170 days. When peanuts are mature, I dig as soon as possible.”

Neitsch says harvest losses can be significant, 10 percent to 20 percent under abnormal conditions, substantially more with severe weather or disease problems.

Irrigation timing also makes a big difference in yield potential. All but one of Neitsch's systems are LEPA, spray units. He says drag hoses do not provide the consistency he wants.

“Some years dragging hoses works well and some years it doesn't. High temperatures and drought index play roles in irrigation efficiency.”

He also believes nutrients are more available to plants with a sprinkler system.

He likes to have adequate moisture available early, just after emergence. “If we have good moisture in the soil profile, we may cut back a little, but if it's hot and dry, young plants will not do well without irrigation.”

He says water is a limiting factor throughout most of the West Texas peanut region so he's careful not to waste it.

“We give our wells as much rest as possible. We need to provide plenty of water during heavy fruiting, especially if conditions are hot and dry. I like to make at least one 1-inch application a week beginning at pre-bloom.”

Bloom, pegging, and vine growth are peak water demand periods, so we may increase frequency. “During fruiting and pod set, I may run the system every four or five days. If I wait more than five or six days between applications, I'll see crop damage, especially with 100-degree to 105-degree days.”

He says peanuts can recover from some drought stress, “but it's not beneficial to yield. We lose something.”

Disease pressure also requires prompt attention. “We spray for leafspot only as needed and that's seldom. Rhyzoctonia and pythium are more common.”

He uses Folicur and Abound. “Folicur does a good job as a foliar treatment. Abound is a good bet for pythium, which is a problem in some fields.”

He says if a farmer waters peanuts enough to make good yields, conditions will be conducive for pythium.

“Normally, I'll get by with one full rate of Abound to keep fields clear of pod rot. Fields with low spots or more pythium pressure may need a shot of Ridomil.”

Neitsch says even in arid West Texas conditions any farmer who pumps water every four or five days will eventually get some pod rot pressure. “It pays to know field history. If we see just a little, we'll treat it.”

Neitsch says peanut fertility poses some interesting questions. “I've seen a number of different fertility levels in peanut fields and no difference in yield, even in the check plot.”

He usually adds 120 units of nitrogen, 60 units of phosphorus, no potassium and 15 to 20 units of sulfur.

“I'll leave out a spot as a check and can see no yield difference. I'm convinced that peanut fertility is not as important as we think. And if the plant is not using it, we're wasting it.”

But that's where the head scratching starts. Neitsch is not comfortable leaving nutrients out of his peanuts and figures that maintaining a uniform fertility program across all his fields keeps levels up for subsequent crops.

“If the peanuts don't need it, it's still available for the cotton,” he says. “I'd be afraid to grow a crop without any fertilizer. One of my goals is to maintain a balanced fertilizer program, and I hate to deplete nutrients out of the soil.

“When it's depleted, we will not make as good a crop after a year, even with added fertilizer, and it takes a while to replace nutrients.”

He sees advantages with nitrogen and uses anhydrous when possible.

“I can always tell where I have application problems with anhydrous,” he says. “I'll see yellow plants in poorer soils but may see no difference on better land.”

He likes minimum-till peanuts. “With reduced tillage I can produce a better yield than in conventional systems and with less water and wind erosion.”

He likes to plant peanuts into wheat stubble. “I harvest wheat, leave the land out during the summer and plant peanuts into standing stubble the next spring. That's ideal. I also plant rye or wheat as a cover crop, terminate it and plant into the residue.”

After he plants peanuts, he says, the next time a plow comes through will be to dig them.

Excellent herbicides, he says, makes reduced-tillage peanuts feasible. “We get good weed control so there's no need to plow.”

He uses Prowl pre-plant. He'll also use Cadre for purple nutsedge and morningglory problems.

When he has conventional peanuts — as he does this year because he had ground that need deep breaking — he incorporates a yellow herbicide. “I'll use Sonolan or Prowl. I don't want anything too hot that might injure young peanuts.”

He applies Pursuit after cracking or at early emergence and then again two weeks later, before bloom. He takes care of escapes with 2-4, DB.

Neitsch says 2002 was the best of the 23 crops he's made since he started farming in Gaines County.

“I've had fields that produced more than 6,000 pounds per acre before, and I even had one that made 7,000 pounds of Virginias one year, but I've never averaged three tons over the entire acreage before (6,640, to be exact). It was a good year.”

He says growers who irrigate peanuts have to make at least two tons to make a profit. “Anything less and it's hard to make any money. Yields as low as 3,600 pounds lose money.”

He says the new peanut program will work well for his operation. He had quota peanuts before, some that he bought and some he leased every year. He figures cost of the quota ran about $200 per ton per year, about the difference in price supports compared to the old program.

“We had a bigger risk with quota peanuts,” he says. “We had a lot invested and we couldn't give them anything but our top priority.”

He's still convinced that cutting corners on peanut production is a false economy.

“If we had not made good yields the past few years, we would have been in trouble,” he says.

He doesn't take all the credit, however. “We've been blessed with good yields and I don't take credit for it. The good Lord watches over me.”

He also credits full-time employee Ben Tiecheroeb. “Ben's been with me for 11 years and he knows peanuts. He's patient and understanding about production problems and timing. He also takes a lot of pride in building equipment we need.

“He made a super-hopper that replaces a lot of small carts at harvest time.”

Neitsch also credits his wife Cynthia. “She takes care of all the business and leaves me free to do the scouting, schedule irrigation and other on-farm management chores. This is a pretty good example of a working family farm.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com