It’s summer in the Delta, the corn stalks of Brantley Farming Co. towering over some 2,400 acres in Lonoke County, Arkansas.
This corn, however, won’t feed anybody. At least not directly. This is not the kind of corn you see on the shelf at your grocery store. Like most corn grown in the South, it’s field grain corn used to feed poultry and hogs that in turn feed us and produce the ethanol on which a growing number of cars now run.
About a quarter of the 10,000 acres farmed by Laudies Brantley, Jr., and his son Dow are devoted to corn, the rest used for cotton, soybeans, and rice.
The yellow corn grown by the Brantleys is the first of their four crops planted each season and the first to mature.
The white corn that’s more prevalent in the Midwest is used for human consumption in things like taco shells, bread, and corn meal. (Sweet corn is what gives us glorious corn on the cob.)
Brantley’s rice, cotton, and soybeans are still in a vegetation phase after the corn has matured. “They’re still trying to grow and build their root systems,” he said.
A three-inch-tall cotton plant, he notes, will extend eight to nine inches beneath the surface.
“There’s a lot going on underground.”
A wet spring and early summer made it hard to establish a good root system, but Brantley’s corn is thriving nonetheless. His rice and cotton emerged in early June with the soybeans on their heels.
Brantley expects to begin harvesting corn the last week of July or first of August. He prefers to harvest at high moisture (twenty-four percent or greater moisture) and take the corn to grain bins to dry. Others prefer to leave the corn in the field for a couple of weeks to dry. Advantages of harvesting high-moisture corn include no grain drying costs, increased yields due to less ear drop in the field, greater yield potential, and an earlier harvest.
One acre of corn will produce roughly 32,000 plants. That means the Brantleys are raising about 76.8 million stalks of corn, and that’ll feed a lot of chickens—who’ll feed a lot of people. And of course, they’ll fuel more than a few of the cars parked next to the green E85 pump at the gas station.
King Cotton once defined a region and seduced Confederate senators into thinking they could win a war. But it’s taken a back seat to corn on the Brantley farm and others throughout the Delta.
Cotton is still big in the South: the top producing states in the U.S. are Texas, Georgia, and Arkansas. But the old “cotton belt” that stretched across the Delta into Alabama and Georgia has shifted west to the High Plains south of the Texas panhandle.
West Texas now represents the country’s cotton hub, and the Lone Star state accounts for thirty-eight percent of national production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Georgia is second at twelve percent and Arkansas third at ten.)
“Cotton was a culture in the Delta,” Brantley remembers. “But I stopped growing cotton because I couldn’t make any money. I’m a cotton farmer turned corn guy now.”
Still, cotton remains on the Brantley farm menu.
One fine June morning finds Brantley ferrying two visitors between fields. The heat is not yet stifling, but it’s settling in—summer has arrived.
The cotton plants, while emerged, have yet to split their bolls and reveal the cotton-candy-like fiber that we all associate with the crop. Brantley says a 480-pound bale of cotton will produce around 1,200 T-shirts. Or even better, roughly 313,600 crisp $100 bills. (U.S. paper currency is made of seventy-five percent cotton and twenty-five percent linen.)
Unlike corn, which has distinct male and female reproductive “parts” (the tassels on a stalk of corn are the “male parts”), cotton is self pollinated with male and female parts in the same flower. Once emerged, the plant flowers for three to four weeks before the boll is formed, then it grows for another fifty days or so.
“Cotton is really a methodical plant,” Brantley says. He hopes to get about 10 bolls per plant.
Brantley calls poly pipe one of the top ten agricultural inventions of all time.
“We lay enough pipe to go to the Little Rock airport and back,” Brantley notes. That’s about sixty miles of pipe, by the way.
Poly pipe is a flexible, recyclable plastic pipe that helps farmers irrigate fields through drip irrigation. Brantley uses it to irrigate his cotton and corn fields. It allows farmers the ability to increase irrigation efficiency and affords them better irrigation control.
Introduced in 1974, “poly pipe,” as it’s come to be known, has proven a significant innovation in farming.
“It was a big damn deal,” Brantley says.
It all boils down to meeting the needs of the plant once the seeds are in the ground—weed control and fertilizer, as Brantley says.
Brantley and many other farmers hire consultants during growing season to inspect the fields and tell them which herbicide or fertilizer needs to be applied. And Brantley is quick to laud the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service for all the help it provides the state’s farmers.
The key is being ahead of the game, Brantley points out, and he’s gained a reputation for attention to detail.
“The fear is overlooking something. What do they say? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. You use half the material and do twice as much good,” he says, “if you’re prepared.”
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