Delta cotton growers Ben and his son Chase Downing are standing firm in cotton, but corn acres are creeping up. Both are taking a closer look at this traditional Midwest crop.

In the last two years, corn acres climbed to 25% of their crop operation of more than 3,500 acres. Soybeans made up another 25% while cotton remained king at 50%.

“We're looking at good prices for corn,” says Ben Downing, “plus corn helps us with our rotation. It's a good rotation crop and fits in well with our irrigation program.”

Downing Farms, near Morgan City, MS, has been growing corn for four years, but the expansion of ethanol production has driven up corn prices so it looks good for cotton growers, too. The Downings rotate corn with both cotton and soybeans.

WATER: GET IT ON, GET IT OFF

What makes corn work so well for Downing Farms is their water management system. They use the same irrigation plan for cotton and soybeans. It distributes water evenly to thirsty crops during the hot growing season, and also gets heavy rainwater off fast before flooding can occur.

“We have worked some 30 years to improve our land leveling,” Ben explains. “We level to a 1-2% slope in every field. Then we place our ridges for the rows with GPS so they are very accurate.”

Crops are planted on the row ridges after they've been formed in the spring with A-B lines, then furrow irrigation is used to keep them well watered.

During the summer months, Chase can be found moving the water lines, keeping the system in check and making sure crops get the moisture they need.

“Seems I spent 35 years — all my farming life — redoing those ditches,” Ben adds with a grin. “We started leveling land in the 1960s, by eyeball then. Now we get it right using a laser.”

It's all paying off. In the Delta, 6-in. rains are common and managing drainage is the flip side of the coin to a good irrigation plan.

Accurate irrigation and planting along with fertility, weed and pest control consistently bring the Downings above-average yields.

“By bringing everything into a GPS plan, we have more efficient use of the land,” notes Chase. “We're using every square inch to our advantage, and at the same time we're saving fuel with less wear and tear on the tractors to put rows in.”

Their land-forming approach and auto-steer system have allowed them to use all-wheel tractors. The Downings claim their GPS approach also helps them use fertilizers more efficiently, putting nutrients where they're needed.

COTTON VS. CORN

Ben says growing corn runs about the same as growing cotton in terms of input costs.

For example, the Downings apply 130 units of nitrogen to cotton, and 250 units to corn. However, cotton can be treated up to six times with aerial pesticides and also in the fall with a harvest aid or plant-growth regulator to defoliate leaves.

Corn and soybeans are normally treated with a fungicide for disease protection in late summer.

“Acre per acre, corn inputs and cotton inputs run about the same,” he adds. “But today, with all crops, you really have to watch cost inputs. For example, cotton profit margin is less so you have to learn how to cut back without cutting your throat.”

To help improve profit margins, Ben and Chase watch markets closely for forward pricing opportunities. “When we can make a profit, we'll book part of the crop,” says Ben.

What the Downings really like about adding corn to the rotation is how well it fits with the overall harvesting plan. They harvest corn in August and up until Sept. 15, then switch over to soybeans for several weeks. By then cotton is ready, and picking normally runs until Nov. 1.

“With corn, we're able to have a longer harvesting season, which is a more efficient use of our labor and equipment,” Ben points out.

The Downings plant corn — full-season hybrids — by April 1 at a population of 2,000 plants/acre.

STARTED IN 1975

Ben started farming with his uncle, Sam Thompson, in 1975 and has built the land base from there. Today, he and his wife Kay and Chase and his wife Crystal are all involved in the operation. Their farming practices have not gone unnoticed.

Ben was named Young Farmer of the Year in his county in l983, and in 1998 he was named to the National Soybean Leader Program (one in each soybean state). He and Kay flew to California and took a tour of the Chicago Board of Trade.

Two years ago, Chase was named Young Farmer of the Year in the county, and is now following in dad's footsteps.