Murray Phillips doesn’t get bored — his diverse Frio County, Texas, farm offers plenty of activity year-round. He’s currently growing corn (sweet, white and yellow), cotton, wheat (irrigated and dryland) green beans, spinach, carrots and his favorite crop, peanuts.
“We’re peanut farmers,” he says. “They’re the most acreage I grow.” He’s planting about 2,000 acres this year and expects to average 5,000 pounds per acre if all goes well. “Sometimes we’ll make 6,000 pounds in some areas,” he says.
Consistent yields and attention to production detail earned Phillips the 2013 Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award for the Southwest region.
He farms near Pearsall, Texas, about 50 miles south of San Antonio. Growing conditions here are more like those in the lower Southeast than the more arid West Texas peanut production area.
“We have a lot more disease than they do in the Southern High Plains region,” he says. “We’re more like the Southeast, except we are drier.”
He plants mostly Florida-07 runner-type peanuts with a few Georgia-09s. “Florida-07 is the one I really like,” he says.
He selects varieties for yield and also to help manage disease. “We used to have trouble with tomato spotted wilt virus,” he says. Variety selection and planting in a later window have helped minimize injury from the disease. Most peanut farmers in the South Texas production area — Frio, Atascosa, Medina and LaSalle Counties — plant from mid-May through mid-June.
“We want to be finished planting by July 4,” Phillips says. “If we plant early, thrips come out of the wheat and we can be in big trouble.”
The tomato spotted wilt virus is vectored by thrips, so peanut plants available when those pests emerge from wheat are vulnerable to significant damage.
“In the early 1990s, folks planted in March and April,” he says, “but no one has planted that early in a long time. Sometimes we finish planting peanuts and start harvesting corn the next day.”
He tried twin-row peanuts several years back as an option to reduce spotted wilt damage, but says, “We don’t do that any longer.”
He still uses conventional tillage on all his cropland.
Factors for consistent yields
Consistent peanut yields in South Texas depend on several factors —particularly irrigation, fungicide applications, rotation and fertility.
He typically applies about 25 inches of irrigation to peanuts, all from center pivot units.
“I used to have some furrow irrigation, mostly on cotton,” he says. “I plant some dryland wheat on pivot corners to prevent blowing.”
Rotation is typically a two- or three-year break from peanuts, and peanuts almost always follow corn and wheat, but he may get a green bean or carrot crop between the corn and peanut crop.
“Corn works best in rotation,” he says. “By the time peanuts need irrigation, we’re through with corn.” Irrigation and disease control are his two biggest expenses.
He starts fungicide applications at 45 to 50 days after planting and stays on a 14-day schedule through 100 days. He sees some leaf spot, but white mold is his biggest concern. “Leaf spot is not that big a deal — it can be worse later in the fall. Insects are not usually much trouble. We had some whitefly last year and that was unusual.”
He says peanut fertility is a critical factor, but he doesn’t actually fertilize the peanut crop. “I get the fertility on the corn,” he says. “I fertilize it a little more than I should and that carries over to the peanuts. I don’t fertilize peanuts at all. I almost always plant peanuts behind corn, but may plant behind wheat occasionally.”
Sometimes green beans or carrots will precede the peanut crop. “We have had plows running, working harvested green bean or carrot acreage, just two hours ahead of the peanut planter.”
Peanut harvest typically begins in October. It may coincide with cotton harvest, but he has someone else pick the cotton crop. “I only have about 150 acres of cotton, mostly on Blackland soils. It’s not my favorite crop. I used to plant more cotton, but corn just works better.” Still, he aims for a three-bale average.
“I harvest peanuts with a neighbor — he has four combines and I have three. We put them together and harvest all our peanuts.” He says cooperation allows both farms to harvest peanuts on a timely schedule.
“We may have fields that are ready at different times, so we work together to get them in as they mature. We like to be through peanut harvest by the first week in December. We can’t harvest too early in this area — the humidity is too high and vines are bigger, so we can’t run as fast. We sometimes finish by Thanksgiving.”
Phillips says having a diversified operation means “we never get bored. We usually have about a two-week break around Christmas, following peanut harvest. Then we start planting wheat in early January.”
He also harvests spinach from the end of December through mid-February. He plants carrots in late September and harvest begins in mid-February and runs through April. Green bean harvest was a few weeks off in late April. “Some area farmers were already starting to harvest green beans,” he says.
He’s had challenges the last few years — drought in 2011 and 2012 were hard on crops. “I think 2011 was worse,” he says. “We got some rain in late April in 2012, but it was still pretty dry.”
This year, he had part of his corn crop hailed out by an Easter Sunday storm and had to replant. He expects to fall a bit short of his typical 195-bushel per acre yield because of the replanting delay. In late April, some of his corn was a good foot taller than head-high, but replanted corn was closer to knee-length. And he needed more rain.
“We should make about 180 bushels,” he says, if the season goes well. He was preparing to harvest wheat in early May and expected some fields to yield up to 60 bushels per acre.
Phillips says peanut acreage remains pretty constant on his farm and for most other peanut farmers in the area. “We lost some acreage when the quota system was eliminated,” he says, “but a lot of that has come back.”
Frio, with 12,000 to 15,000 acres of peanuts, is the top peanut county in the area. The area’s sandy loam soil works well for peanut production, he says. “Some soils have a little more clay, but we have a good bit of sandy loam.”
Phillips, who has been farming on his own since 1996, says diversity has been an advantage to his operation. “There are a lot of diversified farms in the area, and I’ve tried quite a few crops, including onions, cabbage and others that I weeded out. Now, I think I’ve tried all I want to try — although something else might come along one of these days.”
In the meantime, he concentrates on peanuts — still his favorite crop — following a proven rotation, fertility, irrigation and disease management system to give him the best opportunity to make good yields.
He expects to maintain acreage at or near current levels, and continue to do what he loves. “I grew up farming and I’ve never wanted to do anything else,” he says. “This is it.”
Phillips and his wife Lisa have an eight-year old son, Braeden, who he expects will want to farm, too.