Every Field is its Own Farm

March 5, 2016 02:35 AM
 
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This profitable operation is a tight ship of testing

Three fingers for three farming sons. Shirley Haigwood presses three fingers tightly together and points them in the air. “I told my boys from the start: Three fingers are harder to break than one.”

Shirley, 82, always dreamed of a farming legacy and hoped his sons would follow in his footsteps. 
Dennis, Malcolm and Stan have exceeded Shirley’s greatest hopes. 

Today, the trio run D&M Farms, a tight and unique operation in northeast Arkansas. Dennis handles the cotton, books and accounting. Malcolm oversees spraying and scouting. Stan takes care of seeds and planting. 

D&M is often compared to an on-farm research station. Every aspect of the production system is tested and each plot is broken into soil types. Meticulous and obsessive, the Haigwood brothers only squeeze the financial trigger on soybean dollars when they’re sure the barrel is pointing at the right spot. 

Wedged between the Black and White rivers, the Haigwoods farm 13,000 acres with their nephews on Sharkey clay and silt loam soil. Corn, cotton, grain sorghum, rice, wheat and 6,000 acres of soybeans make up their roster. Regardless of crop or year, most of their acreage rotates into soybeans. 

Tailored Attention

Stan leaves a mocha dust train behind his truck as he rumbles along a turnrow, and checks up alongside the edge of soybean ground. He spills out of the vehicle and wades into a 100-acre field with the keen eye of a man inspecting his lawn grass. The field is a green speck swallowed in a vast soybean sea. But in the moment, he treats the 100 acres as a precious holding—his only ground. Simply, Stan believes every field is its own farm.

Each season the Haigwoods run an array of field trials, constantly testing for new angles to improve their farming technique. Chemical tests, LibertyLink samples, Roundup Ready performance, yield comparisons and more. Stan normally matches up two varieties in every field. “If I’ve got 100 acres, I like a strip with two varieties side-by-side. I like 20 to 30 checks across the farm to test for varieties I want to use next year. It’s a pain for the planting crew, but there’s a reason: We want to find out where to spend our money,” he says.

Keys to Soybean Success

With 6,000 acres in soybean production, the Haigwood family strives to:

1. Use drainage to manage water.

2. Get seed in the ground early.

3. Maintain soil health and fertility.

4. Keep fields clean throughout the year.

5. Choose the appropriate soybean variety for a given location.

“We try to be on the front end of technology and go with bigger, more efficient equipment, and it pays off. Guidance, variable rate, seed advances and more; we don’t want to miss anything,” Dennis says.

“The Haigwoods never stop testing all aspects of farm production,” says Randy Chlapecka, an agronomist with Farmers Supply Association and retired county Extension agent. “They’re sticklers for getting things done but only in the right way. Management decisions are made with total recognition of individual soil types scattered across the farm, and that’s a big part of their success.”

Chlapecka has helped D&M with cotton verification trials; corn, grain sorghum and wheat yield tests; fertility, fungicide and herbicide trials; high-yield soybean trials and much more. Yet, Chlapecka is just one ag professional; the Haigwoods have worked with hundreds more on a vast array of tests.

Beyond yield, Stan chooses soybean varieties based on disease susceptibility and harvestability. A bushy soybean can slow a combine to 3 mph, but a leaner plant might allow harvest at 6 mph. If yields between varieties are relatively equal, he plants the leaner version, combines at 6 mph and reaps time and fuel savings across thousands of acres. “These differences might not sound like much, but they’re crucial to saving money,” he says.

On average, Stan focuses on two to three soybean varieties but drops 10 total varieties across the operation. Every field is broken into soil class categories and he strives for a near-perfect match of variety and dirt. Seed is treated with CruiserMaxx according to field conditions. In 2015, 3,500 acres received no seed treatment. “If it doesn’t need it, we don’t use it. We don’t blanket apply anything—seed treatments included,” Stan explains.

Conducting the planting orchestra is often the toughest part of farming for Stan, particularly when working ground exposed to the whims of spring floods. Ground ready and equipment in position—it’s a blur of moving pieces. The Haigwood team plants 2,000 acres per day when weather and equipment factors align. The brothers plant rice, corn and soybeans simultaneously with equipment overlap.  There is no crop hierarchy, but Stan admits poor timing is brutal on soybean. “Timing is more critical for beans, and I try to get them in the ground earlier than anything else,” he explains. “It binds you up, but that’s the way it is.”

As soon as weather permits tractors to roll, Stan plants at a 140,000 seed population. If a planting window opens April 1, he drops a 4.9 maturity group and works down to 3.5 as planting dates progress. The in-and-out early approach is vital to avoid rutted fields, shorter days and the inefficiencies of November harvest. In 2016, D&M will experiment with Group 2s for the first time. The Haigwoods also grow 100 acres of conventional soybeans every year. 

Timing is Everything 

Malcolm is under the belly of a sprayer beast, preparing for spring. It’s a cold and windy February, but after sprayer maintenance, he walks fields to see what weeds might be breaking loose of dirt. Come planting, he’ll pull purpose from the chaos of spring weather. “The pieces of a farm never stop moving and that’s why you must have prior planning. You plan timing in the off-season,” Malcolm advises. He buys chemicals early to get dollars in line, matches prospective varieties with technology, calls neighbors to check on tentative plantings to dodge drift and never stops eyeballing fields.

Regardless of variety and maturity group, the system would collapse without impeccable timing, a necessity resting squarely on Malcolm’s shoulders. He carries the reputation of a soybean doctor, seemingly on call during all hours of the season. When the acreage asks, Malcolm responds. In a race against time, wind and rain, it’s not uncommon for Malcolm to hit a field at 3:30 a.m. or run two sprayers for 20 consecutive hours for four days in a row to maintain schedule. 

“A lot of people misunderstand the levels of weed resistance in modern farming,” Malcolm says. “Sure, you have to catch a weed as early as possible. However, farmers now have huge acreage to cross, minimal labor and fuel cost worries. It’s extremely difficult to get across big ground in limited time. Timing is critical. Timing is everything.”

FJ_C12_F16149-3
 Flanked by a Cessna 180 Skywagon  he flies when crop scouting, Malcolm  Haigwood checks soybean trash  clumped and piled after river  flooding.

Well after harvest, often in late November or December, Malcolm puts out a three-way pre-emerge mix of glyphosate, dicamba and Valor. The heat- and moisture-activated mix stays robust for two to three weeks, but it will play out too quickly if sprayed any earlier. The mix allows the Haigwoods to come back the following spring with no plant-back restrictions.

D&M operates on the edge of no-till, and began eliminating tillage in 2000 as a means to improve soil quality and save money. When the brothers rotate from rice to soybeans, it’s often necessary to work the soil once, slicking off levees and laying down 60'' beds. No-till is their biggest money saver, alleviating multiple inputs of fuel, equipment and labor, and speeding coverage of ground scattered in Independence and Jackson counties. 

All the Haigwood’s dryland ground is no-till with winter cover crops. However, 75% of their soybean ground is irrigated but sometimes shows no yield difference. “Our non-irrigated beans are planted first and are often better than irrigated beans,” Stan says. 

D&M yields are often in the upper 40s with scattered fields ranging into the 90s. Stan uses a mix of row spacings: 7.5'', 15'', 30'' and 38''. Almost without variation, his highest yields are found on single-row soybeans on 38'' rows. Going to 38'' rows across the entire farm might be a future decision. Uniform rows would take rice out of the rotation but allow the brothers to switch crops at the blink of an eye in response to commodity shifts. 

River flooding eats acreage each season and ensures D&M can’t afford a typical marketing strategy. The number of bushels lost to rising water swings each year. The rivers move the goalposts and the Haigwoods are forced to adapt. “We don’t figure on X amount of bushels because we might have a few thousand acres below water. Therefore, we need most of it in hand before we market,” Stan says.

As young boys, Dennis, Malcolm and Stan trailed behind Shirley’s farming footsteps, hooking up tractors and changing disk blades or wheel bearings. By the age of 10, they were driving an International 856 and pulling a breaking plow full-time. 

Humble to the core, the brothers insist their operation is no better or worse than the next. “Our wives back us and we couldn’t do anything without them. Our crew is awesome and my nephews are the greatest,” Stan describes. “We run our farm according to 1 Corinthians 3:6-10, but particularly verse 7: ‘So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.’”

Every farming day Stan tackles a grind he loves: machinery breakdowns, crop care issues, scouting problems, water concerns and more on an ever-changing list. “I love every day. We treat every field like it’s our only field and do the absolute best we can on it,” he says.
 
Secure Legacy 

Shirley began farming after the 10th grade, motivated by his complete lack of land. He worked 20 acres of cotton, making a crop off his hip—no borrowing money and no interest. Through sheer force of will he clawed acre by acre and at high school graduation farmed 350 acres—the springboard of his sons’ success. He was long fearful of lost legacy, a tale of waste he witnessed repeatedly as a young man on surrounding operations. 

The first generation makes money; the second generation uses the money; and the third generation loses it all. It’s not a maxim, but Shirley says the pattern of lost legacy has played out on many farms. “I saw it over and over,” Shirley recalls. “But my boys? They’ve exceeded expectation far beyond my dreams. God, family 
and farm.” 

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