Symphony of non-GMOs, biotech and covers helps Arkansas farmer turn a profit
Nathan Reed is rumbling along a levee spine as farmland flashes by in hazy green blocks. He brings up his right hand in an arc and points across a non-GMO landscape of corn, cotton and soybeans. “Money and survival,” Reed says. “This is about the total price picture.”
In 2014, Reed fought for financial breath even after skinning inputs one by one. No matter how he shifted the figures, the pencil always pointed to the glaring expense of biotech seed. With an eye on cost control, he began switching portions of his ground to non-GMO supported by a minimum-till cover crop scheme—and the change led to farm-wide profitability.
With 6,500 acres split across two counties in northeast Arkansas, Reed’s crop roster includes non-GMO corn, cotton and soybeans as well as biotech varieties. When Reed, 37, began farming solo in 2005, the expense framework was relatively forgiving. Cotton sold for 65¢ per pound; transgenic cotton seed was $60 per acre; Roundup smoked weeds; residuals were an afterthought; and Reed paid $120,000 for a new tractor. Fast forward to 2017: Cotton at 75¢ per pound; transgenic cotton seed at roughly
$140 per acre; residuals at $60 per acre; and Reed can’t buy an equivalent tractor for less than $240,000.
When cotton dropped into the high 50¢ range in 2014, Reed had $1.2 million invested in picker equipment. The hard math demanded change and he planted 250 acres of non-GMO cotton varieties developed by Fred Bourland with the University of Arkansas (UA) System Division of Agriculture. Successive years saw steady acreage increases and Reed planted 1,300 non-GMO cotton acres in 2017. He aims for yields at 1,200 lb. per acre on irrigated ground and 1,000 lb. per acre on gumbo and dryland.
Pen to paper, Reed estimates he saves $80 per acre with non-GMO cotton versus biotech. He pays $25 to $30 for non-GMO seed, treats it with Staple LX and sprays for worms, which brings his total to $75 to $80. He then tries to push those savings to $100 to $120 per acre. The cereal rye cover reduces water use by 30% to 50% and saves a significant amount on fertilizer use. Now that Reed is almost all no till, eliminating deep ripping saves $10 to $12 per acre.
“Nathan generally spends $60 to $80 less per acre in non-GMO cotton compared to his other cotton, but sometimes his savings are even more,” says cotton agronomist Bill Robertson, with the UA System Division of Agriculture. “He’s ensuring those savings with cover crops, and reduced tillage make a tremendous difference in weed control and soil health. He does run ragged in the spring and must be Johnny on the spot to keep pigweed under control. Non-GMO forces him to be extra sharp with weed control timing.”
Reed’s silt loam lacks soil structure and suffers from poor water filtration, but cereal rye addresses the problems. On his cover crop ground after irrigation, Robertson can punch down 16" with a soil probe without hitting dry soil. On other farms, Robertson routinely hits dry soil at a mere 5".
Reed’s cereal rye helps non-GMOs with weed control, but also works below the surface to improve soil health, according to Robertson. “It’s pretty simple: Improved soil health in corn, cotton, soybeans or any crop means improved profit,” he says.
Instead of trying to make 1,300 lb. of cotton at 75¢, Reed aims for 1,100 lb. per acre and maintains the same profit line. Due to his buckshot ground, it’s difficult to average 1,300 lb., but he can safely hit 1,100 lb.
“I need a high gross crop to survive. The non-GMO fields compare very closely with GMO fields, but I’m saving costs in combination with cover crops,” he says.
In 2016, Reed teed off with non-GMO production. He boosted non-GMO cotton to 2,000 acres, all blanketed with cereal rye to choke Palmer amaranth. He also planted his entire soybean crop (1,200 acres) in non-GMO and had no irrigated yields below 60 bu. per acre and no dryland yields below 35 bu. per acre.
“I took the things pointing toward profit and expanded in 2016,” he says. “It was more work, but that’s what farmers have to do to stay in business.”
Reed plants non-GMO soybeans on his rougher ground in a rice rotation. He pays about half the cost of biotech seed and gets a premium from Ozark Mountain Poultry (OMP). “I can make 35 bu. dryland beans profitable. If I’d gone the other route, I’d be breaking even or losing at $9.50 soybeans,” he says.
Most of his soybeans are broadcast behind rice in heavy clays to get a fast canopy. He works the ground once, puts out Treflan and lays down a residual to choke Palmer amaranth. Reed pays close attention to the Palmer maxim: Get it early or cut it with a combine. “With non-GMOs, I can still basically kill anything but pigweed, but that’s no different than Roundup Ready crops,” he says.
“I’ve never given the beans a fair shake yet,” he admits. “They’re always on my worst ground.”
In 2017, a wet spring and a flood in early May forced Reed to put in LibertyLink soybeans to safeguard against Palmer, but 75% of his soybean acreage remains non-GMO (800 acres; all irrigated).
Reed doesn’t save soybean seed. “Hauling back and forth for cleaning costs $18 per bushel,” he says. “I pay $23 for new seed and use the cheapest generic fungicides and insecticides I can find for treatment.”
OMP’s premium schedule is based on farmer storage. Reed has grain bins due to a parallel rice history. He holds all his grain, including 650 acres of non-GMO corn. The further from harvest, the higher the premium: His 2016 soybeans didn’t start delivery until June 2017.
Reed is experimenting with non-GMO dryland cotton this year to test low-input yield on rougher land. The non-irrigated cotton needs to yield 733 lb. at 75¢ to break even, he projects: “I’m pushing to make 850 lb., but 1,000 lb. would be great.”
Peak yields aren’t necessarily the best avenue to profit, evidenced by Reed’s operation. “I have nothing against GMOs, but I can’t escape the seed price. If somebody out there is considering non-GMOs and cover crops, I recommend they walk in slowly. Hey, I’ve had some oops moments and I’ll have some more, but it’s not devastating when seed is about $20 per acre,” he says.
“It’s pretty simple to take a pencil and know what you’ve got in a crop,” he adds. “If it ain’t in the black, something has to give.”