Red Bayou Bounty

July 26, 2011 08:35 PM
Red Bayou Bounty

Matching irrigation and fertilizer to the ecosystem creates sustainable profits.

The Red River slowly and smoothly snakes its way around the edges of Ryan Kirby’s farm. Named for the red sandstone that lines its watershed, the 1,400-mile river nourishes the fragile ecosystem and alluvial soils of northwest Louisiana. Yet much like a serpent, it has a nasty side. Flooding, erosion, irrigation battles and concerns about farm inputs flowing into the Gulf of Mexico has some farmers cursing Ol’ Red.

Not Kirby. Shortly after college, he followed the river to where his great-grandfather planted cotton in the 1940s. Kicking the red dirt, Kirby looked out over miles of drainage ditches and set his mind to find more sustainable production systems to preserve his family farm.

"Every farmer should work with the local environment, not against it," says Kirby, who with his father owns UNI Plantation, a 2,500-acre farm producing corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat near Belcher, La.

He believes irrigation is the best form of crop insurance in the South. When he returned to farm in 2004, only 100 acres were under irrigation, and the crops—along with profits—were drying up. Kirby has expanded irrigation to cover 1,700 acres, drilling 30 wells that draw water from earth fed by the Red River.

A degree in petroleum engineering and time in the oil and gas industry gave Kirby his foundation in sustainability. While some might argue the oil industry is the last in line when it comes to sustainability, Kirby says his experience in the industry gives him perspective on the environment. Since returning home, he has improved water management, initiated precision agriculture practices and reduced runoff.

His efforts have made UNI Plantation more sustainable, both environmentally and financially, increasing profits by 30% in the last five years. It’s why Kirby was named the 2011 winner of the Tomorrow’s Top Producer Sustainability Award, a contest for farmers 35 and under that is sponsored by Bayer CropScience. Kirby was awarded a Toughbook computer and a trip to Farm Journal Corn College.
Irrigating for Profits. While much of the nation suffered from too much water this past spring, northern Louisiana farmers have been dealing with years of drought. The local farming community raises 20% of the state’s cotton crop, yet Louisiana lags behind other states in irrigation use and efficiency, according to Louisiana State University. This is in part due to concerns about groundwater quality and higher pumping costs.

Now that cotton and other commodity prices have climbed higher, the numbers line up in favor of irrigation, Kirby says. "Soybeans on poorer soils have seen the biggest yield boosts with irrigation," he adds. Overall, on irrigated acres Kirby has gained an average yield bump of 40 bu. more for corn, 30 bu. for soybeans and 300 lb. for cotton.

Kirby started investing in poly-pipe irrigation as soon as he came back to the farm. This form of irrigation does a better job than center pivots of thoroughly saturating the soil profile, but it is more labor-intensive; Kirby must lay the poly pipe every year and swap the settings on a 12- to 24-hour rotation. Much of his land is broken into small fields that had already been precision-leveled for drainage, so poly pipe was a better option than center pivots.

Mindful of the area’s delicate water situation, Kirby uses variable hole sizes in his poly pipe to account for changing elevation and row lengths. This can save up to 25% on water, electricity and diesel costs.

"Irrigation expansion has more than paid off with today’s high grain prices," Kirby says.

Ryan 1089
Tuning into precision agriculture initially saved fertilizer costs, but now Ryan Kirby is finding out it also helps with long-term planning and boosts yield. PHOTO: Neil Johnson

Precision Savings Run Deep. Kirby says the implementation of a full-scale precision agriculture program has returned threefold profits and environmental benefits.

He runs a Veris EC machine to map soil texture and establish management zones based on soil types, and gathers fertilizer recommendations for every management zone. Fertilizer is applied accordingly using variable-rate technology. This spring, Kirby added variable-rate planting to his practices. Yield maps serve as a report card.

Last year, Kirby was able to cut back potash applications to 85 lb. per acre across the farm, compared with a previous average of 125 lb. per acre. This saved him about 50 tons of potash, or $25,000.

He’s also been able to trim nitrogen rates on dryland portions of irrigated fields and maintain higher nitrogen rates in watered areas, saving about 14 tons of 32% UAN fertilizer, valued at $5,000.

The bonus is that Kirby’s yields are among the highest in his area. "I have witnessed some of my weakest fields, with both very heavy clay and light sand, achieve yields I would never have dreamed of," Kirby says.

Sustainability may be just a buzzword for some, but Kirby knows it is a measurable concept. The engineer in him loves to crunch the data derived from the yield monitor when testing different farming practices, such as fertility rates and seed treatments.

This year he is testing something new in his area: he is applying 400 lb. of elemental sulfur in replicated strips across one of his higher-pH fields in an effort to reduce pH. This multiyear experiment could identify a new way to boost yields in Kirby’s environment.

"Ryan is a prime example of a farmer-innovator," says John Knox Jr., branch manager for Helena Chemical Company in Gilliam, La. "Since his return to the farm, he’s used precision agriculture to distinguish productive fields from less productive fields and reduce inputs per unit of production. He has significantly reduced the water runoff and pollutants contaminating the local watershed."

At the end of the day, Kirby doesn’t want to be known as a "do-gooder." He just wants to raise his family and farm profitably in an area of the country that has seen its share of environmental stress. 

Mother Nature Forces Cropping Switch

Ryan Kirby understands the devastation that farmers across the nation have felt this summer from flooding, drought and tornado damage. After farming in Louisiana for six years, Kirby has lived through his share of natural disasters.

Hurricane Rita destroyed roughly 500 bales of cotton on 1,500 acres in 2005. Three years later, Hurricane Ike struck and destroyed 750 bales of cotton. About that time, grain prices began to show some strength and Kirby switched more of his acreage over to grains to decrease his exposure to the inherent risks of cotton. It was a good decision in more ways than just profit opportunities; at least 30" of rain fell during the 2009 cotton harvest, costing his farming operation roughly $150,000 on only 450 acres of cotton.

"Had I planted more acres to cotton in 2009, I may not be farming today," Kirby says. "I don’t intend to completely leave cotton, but I have had to drastically change my acreage mix to survive."

He intends to stick with his current acreage mix even though cotton prices have surged the past year.

"Grains still show as much profitability as cotton, but my experience tells me they are less risky," Kirby adds.

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