Timeliness and attention to detail can make all the difference in a smaller scale farming operation. A strict adherence to this philosophy is one of the reasons Fenn Farms of southeast Alabama has been chosen as the Southeast Region winner of the 2005 Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award.

“We have to pay attention to timeliness if we're to get that extra yield and grade that'll help keep us in business,” says Lee Fenn. Lee farms in Barbour County, Ala., with the full-time help of his son, Will, and the part-time help of his son, Jim, an Auburn University graduate who lives in Blakely, Ga., and works with Universal Blanchers LLC.

“We have to take a realistic snapshot of what our deep sandy soils can produce. Based on this assessment, we develop a detailed budget of all anticipated expenditures from fertility needs to drying costs before any land preparations begin.

“Together, the three of us monitor these very closely throughout the year, and we won't vary from this budget unless we all agree that the added expenditure provides a payback,” says Jim.

“Daddy and I get tired of hearing Jim talking about not being a budget-buster, but our farm has definitely benefited from the three of us scrutinizing each expenditure,” adds Will.

Fenn Farms grows about 100 acres of irrigated peanuts annually under their two center pivots. The other 100 irrigated acres that these pivots cover are managed under a bahiagrass/cattle rotation. They farm 185 dryland acres that are rotated between peanuts and cotton.

The dryland acreage helps to spread fixed costs while the irrigated peanuts are the “money makers,” says Lee. “We have 175 brood cows on our farm, and we're moving towards having the entire operation in bahiagrass, cows, and peanuts — that's our ultimate goal. Our current irrigated rotation is two years of bahiagrass followed by two years of peanuts.

Bahiagrass rotation

“For many years, we have worked closely with the Wiregrass Experiment Station's Dallas Hartzog and Ron Weeks doing on-farm research in these fields on every aspect of peanut production. We have learned many valuable lessons from Dallas and Ron, but the most important one has been the significance of a bahiagrass rotation. The University of Georgia Peanut Team's John Baldwin and John Beasley have given us some good tips on how to quickly establish bahiagrass under our systems, which is important in terms of our cows,” he says.

Future plans call for adding another pivot that will cover an additional 100 acres, if the budgets allow, adds Jim, with a longer term goal of having a rotation that includes four years of bahiagrass/cattle followed by two years of peanuts.

“Right now, with the uncertainty of the upcoming farm bill, we have decided to go with a two-and-two rotation, as least until we get a better handle on this system. We first began this intensive management system back in 2002,” says Jim.

The move towards irrigation came from Jim's experience in working with Universal. “At UB, our business is the custom processing of peanuts, so we work closely with the shelling and manufacturing segments of the industry. I saw firsthand how the industry was moving towards high-quality, irrigated peanuts with low foreign material. To stay in the business, I knew that we had to have the ability to irrigate and produce a high yielding, high-quality peanut crop that would generate a large return per acre. Otherwise, we were out of business.

“Since we began irrigating, our grades have averaged 76 to 79 with 2 percent LSK and less than 1 percent foreign material. Quality is a priority because the increased dollars per ton add to the bottom line. I understand the importance of removing as much foreign material as possible at the farm level and how that helps create a safer, foreign material-free product for our consumers, which is a positive for the peanut industry as a whole.”

Irrigation advice

Jim credits one of his friends, Drew Collins of Edison, Ga., for providing a wealth of knowledge that helped them get started on the right foot in irrigated production.

“Drew stressed the importance of using Irrigator Pro to provide the right amount of water at the right time to maximize yield and grade. He also mentioned his success with Senninger's i-Wobs and the importance of matching soil type and sprinkler package to maximize absorption and minimize runoff and compaction.”

“We took the information from Drew and worked with Auburn University's Ted Tyson and the folks at Henry Farm Center to customize our irrigation pond and pivot setups,” he says.

Fenn Farms irrigates peanuts by closely following the recommendations of Irrigator Pro, a computer-scheduling program developed by the National Peanut Research Laboratory in Dawson, Ga. They give much of the credit for their 5,000 to 5,500 pounds-per-acre average yields to the combination of Irrigator Pro and i-Wobs.

“This sprinkler package is the next best thing to natural rainfall,” says Lee. “We have minimal compaction and runoff, and that's important on our sandy soils. We also get a lot more absorption. It's a very efficient package.”

The Fenns follow the University of Georgia Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus (TSWV) Index when planting, trying to plant as early in the “minimum point window” as possible. “We like to be as close to the front end of the planting window as possible because of nematodes in our sandier soils. We also use the full rate of Temik as a safeguard against nematodes,” says Will.

Like most other peanut producers in the Southeast, the Fenns are planting Georgia Green, but Jim says the next new variety needs to possess the traits desired by all segments of the industry.

Variety need

“Each year, you see and hear of more impact from TSWV on Georgia Green. As you can see from our average yield and grade, it still performs well. However, each staple variety that we have had since Florunner has become more disease susceptible with each growing season. The success of the industry as a whole hinges on identifying a variety that the grower can successfully grow and obtain a maximum yield and grade, that the sheller can successfully shell and store, that the blancher can successfully remove the foreign material and the skin from, that the manufacturer can successfully process into an edible good, and that the consumer will purchase and consume on a repeat basis.”

The Fenns plant 100 percent of their peanuts in twin rows. All of the irrigated peanuts are in conventional tillage.

“We've had success with strip tillage in dryland situations, but we understand that we must utilize conventional tillage on the irrigated acreage because the cows create a great deal of soil compaction during their time on the winter grazing. Also, it would be impossible to create a well-prepared, level seedbed for optimum stand establishment. Prior to planting, we go in and deep turn the land with a bottom plow. We utilize the Auburn University Soil Testing Lab to monitor our pH and fertility levels. We field cultivate and then apply our lime and/or fertilizer. We plant after incorporating these soil amendments with another pass with the field cultivator. We try to minimize our trips across the field to keep down fuel costs,” says Will.

Treatment schedule

About 30 days after planting, they go back into the field with a treatment of Cadre, Ultra Blazer, and Bravo. “Ten to 14 days later, we'll go back with 1 ? pints of Bravo. If it's the first year out of bahiagrass, we'll go with two treatments of Abound at 18 ounces. The second year out, we go with two treatments of Abound at 24 ounces. Abound is applied as the third and fifth spray or the third and sixth spray, depending on the weather. Limb rot has been a significant problem for us in the past, even behind three to four years of bahiagrass, and Abound has been a cornerstone of our soil-borne disease control program,” says Lee.

In addition to using Cadre and Ultra Blazer for weed control, the Fenns also use Prowl after planting. If they don't receive rainfall within seven days of the treatment, they water it in with irrigation.

Controlling the three-cornered alfalfa hopper, a relatively new insect pest to peanuts, has been a major factor in the success of Fenn Farms. Lee credits Barbour County Extension Director Charlie Mason with helping them recognize the damage being done by the insect.

“Some growers, when they drive by and do a windshield check, might be mistaking damage from the three-cornered alfalfa hopper for TSWV. We treat them on an as-needed basis per Charlie's recommendations. I would say we average treating about three or four times a year with Karate Z. It might look like TSWV from the truck, but upon closer inspection, you can see the girdling caused by the three-cornered alfalfa hopper,” says Lee.

Hull-scrape chart

Will also credits Charlie and his willingness to assist in testing their peanuts on the hull-scrape chart as a key to their success. “We start charting our peanuts at 110 days and continue this once a week until digging. With Irrigator Pro, the peanuts stay on schedule and a uniform taproot and limb crop are generally ready between 130 to 138 days. You don't see the split crop that we sometimes experience in our dryland.”

The success of the 2004 crop will always be special for the Fenns. Lee was diagnosed with a compressed C4/C5 vertebrae in early May and basically lost use of his right arm due to nerve compression. With Jim and Will helping him into and out of the tractor, he planted the crop the last week of May and then underwent corrective surgery. Will ran the day-to-day farm operation with Jim providing technical/budget support. Lee was not able to get back onto a tractor until late August, but he regained his form and was able to dig the best crop of his career in early October.

As for the immediate future, Jim sees 2005 as a “survival year” for farmers. “If you can survive this year, you will have done an excellent job because so many things are out of our control. The government doesn't need to take a loss on the peanut program this year, especially with farm bill negotiations coming up,” he says.

The price of peanuts, adds Lee, isn't keeping pace with input costs. “With the price of fuel, fertilizer, and operating costs, the price of peanuts needs to go up. Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of adding on a surcharge when we deliver to the buying point. We've been profitable under this farm bill to this point. Hopefully, the leaders within the industry, as well as our elected representatives in Washington, will negotiate the new farm bill that will keep peanuts profitable so we can put in that third pivot.”

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com