For most South Plains Texas peanut growers, 2003 yields dropped below average by about 10 percent due to low rainfall and high temperatures. James Martin and Ted Higginbottom bucked the trend and made normal crops, despite some adverse weather.
“We can't put our finger on it,” Martin said. “We don't know why the crop did as well as it did. I even had some consultants looking at these peanuts, and they don't know why either”
Martin grows peanuts and cotton in Terry and Gaines Counties near Brownfield and Wellman. He and his son Glenn each have separate operations in addition to a partnership where they farm about 4,500 acres together.
Last year, the Martins went heavy on Virginia peanuts, which yielded from 4,700 to 5,900 pounds an acre.
“We were satisfied with yields last year,” Martin said. “Listening to other producers after it was all over and done with, I think (yields were not) consistent. The weather — the hot, dry August and September — affected some growers adversely. We're hoping for a better year next year for everybody.”
The Martins will stick with the same peanut prescription for 2004: a few acres of FlavoRunner 458, but mostly Virginias.
Higginbottom also made an average crop last year.
“We had some rain to start out, but at critical times, like blooming and pegging, we had extreme temperatures and low humidity and that decreases the amount of pegs that actually makes peanuts,” said Higginbottom of Seminole, who grows peanuts, cotton, and wheat on about 5,000 acres in Gaines County
He says cutting back peanut acreage and concentrating irrigation water on fewer acres helped.
Declining water table
Higginbottom and Martin agree water is the most limiting factor to growing peanuts.
“I think most farmers on the South Plains realize how much water it takes to grow peanuts. We adjust and plant fewer acres to have adequate irrigation water,” Higginbottom said. “You need a minimum of four gallons of water a minute per acre. That's a rule of thumb for a good peanut crop.”
Higginbottom plants a half-circle of peanuts and either plants a crop that uses less water or fallows the other half-circle. He concentrates water on the peanuts. He also plants winter wheat on a half-circle and allows cattle to graze, improving profit potential through diversity and using less water.
“Water is our most limiting factor. We can alleviate any problem except that,” he said.
Martin has cut back on peanuts because of declines in water.
“When I first started growing peanuts 15 years ago, we planted a circle or several circles of peanuts. Water has weakened enough that we're growing quarter circles, half circles, and some three-quarter circles. We don't have full circles of peanuts because of limited water,” Martin said.
He irrigates cotton as needed, but peanuts receive most of his water “because they pay better.”
Weeding out weed problems
Both agree that weed control plays a crucial role in success. Higginbottom attacks weeds. He uses conservation tillage to conserve water and soil and plants peanuts into wheat terminated with Roundup.
He uses Prowl prior to planting, and often applies it via chemigation. Once peanuts emerge and have been up ten days to two weeks, he applies Pursuit or Cadre, and if any wheat escapes the herbicides, he hoes or spot treats with chemicals.
“Weeds are a challenge, but we just don't leave weedy peanut fields,” said Martin. “To me, that's part of being a steward and it will increase production if you keep the weeds out. Plus I just don't like to look at a weedy field.”
Martin uses minimum tillage in wheat stubble when possible. He uses Prowl pre-plant. Occasionally escape weeds, usually nutgrass, will pop up in Martin's fields. If the weeds are bad enough, he will spray again, but if it's a minor problem Martin may use an old-fashioned hoe to keep fields weed-free.
Rotation, location, rotation
Rotating crops is a key component of Martin's crop management. “If a field is in peanuts this year, it won't go back to peanuts for three or four years. We leave it out that long to stay away from disease problems. We've got the acreage to do that,” he said.
“I've already seen some people here not heed the warning about rotation and they're already fighting disease,” he said.
Martin is convinced that rotation also improves yields. He said cotton behind peanuts will out produce his other cotton, and the same is true when his peanuts follow cotton. He uses wheat as a cover crop in the winter to prevent blowing dust.
Higginbottom also believes in rotation, but alters his patterns each year.
“I don't really have a set rotation,” he said. “Usually I follow wheat with cotton and follow cotton with peanuts. I do it different ways, but that's the basic one. It depends on my water.”
Higginbottom may shorten rotation because he prefers to use more water on peanuts. He sees added benefits and says he can always see an advantage to crops that follow peanuts because they pick up residual nitrogen and organic matter. “You definitely get a kick in your cotton, there's no doubt in my mind,” he said.
Since the Martins began growing peanuts 15 years ago, they've seen first-hand benefits to rotating with cotton.
“We've benefited from being in the peanut business. We had some lean years for cotton when prices were weak, and peanuts helped us get past all that,” Martin said.
Higginbottom agrees, knowing several crops spread his risk.
“You don't have all your eggs in one basket. Some years are better for cotton and some years are better for peanuts. Sometimes when cotton gets cheap everybody switches to peanuts. I try not to do that and try to keep a pretty even mix,” he said.
“There's not another crop that's been introduced to us that equals the cash value of peanuts or cotton,” Martin said.