Byron Seward types on his keyboard and brings up an image on one of the two computer monitors on his desk: some buildings, a parking area and several icons.
“Each of these icons represents a piece of equipment,” he says, “and the purple lines represent where they’ve been this morning. By clicking on this icon, I can see how many hours this picker has been operating, how much cotton it has picked, how much fuel it has consumed.”
Seward and his son, Darrington, cover a lot of ground these days. They farm more than 20,000 acres around their office in Louise, Miss., and programs like the equipment-monitoring software help them stay on top of things.
It’s all part of the attention to detail on production, efficiency and conservation that led to Byron Seward being nominated and selected to be the 2017 High Cotton winner for the Delta region. The High Cotton awards are presented annually by Farm Press and The Cotton Foundation.
“Byron and Darrington are some of the most efficient and innovative farmers I’ve encountered anywhere,” says Peter Peerbolte, veteran agricultural marketer who nominated Byron for the award. “They are on the cutting edge of technology — and they use that technology to great benefit when it comes to stewardship of the land.”
On the day Byron was interviewed, the equipment on the computer screen was at Clarksdale, Miss., more than 100 miles from his office at Louise. He won’t be farming at Clarksdale in 2017, but that’s another story.
The long-distance monitoring of equipment in Coahoma County in 2016 exemplifies how the Sewards use advanced technology to manage a corn, soybean and cotton operation that will be spread across more than 300 fields in the area around Louise in 2017.
“We like the remote display access that allows us to see, in real time, where all our equipment is, how it’s operating, what the yield is, and an extensive array of data that we can use to analyze every factor that influences crop performance and yield,” says Byron. “With this technology, there are no secrets — we can see where all of our equipment is, and how it’s operating.”
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All their data are stored in a cloud-based service. “We have no servers or desktop software on-farm; everything’s in the digital cloud, and all our software is internet-based. We’re fortunate that Delta Telephone Company at Louise has been in the forefront of cellular and digital services, and we’re able to get high speed connections for our systems and devices.”
He admits he may have had a somewhat easier time adapting to the “brave, new world of digital farming” than other producers who have been confronted with trying to move to precision agriculture.
“I became a systems analyst when I went into the Army, out of college, during the Vietnam era,” he says. “So, when they started introducing yield monitors and other precision agriculture systems, it wasn’t totally new to me.”
Thus, Byron began making variable rate fertilizer applications more than 25 years ago, using flags in his fields to show the applicator where to increase or decrease rates. Variable rates allowed them to more closely match the amount of nutrients to the needs of the crop, and to prevent any excess from going into area streams.
These days, son Darrington writes the prescriptions for variable rate applications for their state-of-the-art spreaders and spray rigs. The father-son team even makes variable rate applications of Cotoran, matching them to the different soil types in their fields.
It’s part of their strategy for battling Palmer amaranth. “We are very aggressive in our rotation of chemistries to ward off resistance,” says Darrington. “We applied Cotoran on 100 percent of our cotton, and we use residuals everywhere we can.”
New electric-drive planting systems on individual row units are also enabling them to make more use of variable rate seeding. “We’re planting 24 rows at a time, with each planter unit capable of putting out a different seeding rate than the others,” says Byron.
Cotton has always been a major crop for the Sewards, going back to when Byron’s grandfather began farming in the 1930s. Those could be difficult days, he says. “I remember my grandfather talking about having 6 feet to 7 feet of water in the office in Louise.”
Byron Seward graduated from Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va., in 1970. Like many Vietnam-era graduates, he did a stint in the Army in 1971-72 and became immersed in the brand-new world of computers, which might occupy two or three rooms in those days to provide as much computing power as Seward’s desktop computer generates today.
In the years that followed, the farming operation grew from about 7,000 acres to nearly 30,000 acres in 2016. Darrington joined the operation after graduating from Ole Miss with degrees in history and English. “I always knew I was coming back to the farm, so I wanted to take subjects in which I had an interest.”
In the early 2000s, they began growing corn and rotating it with cotton. They learned that the corn didn’t produce as well in the 38-inch rows for cotton, so they narrowed the spacings to 30 inches. That forced some further adaptation.
“We decided it wouldn’t be practical — or cost-effective — to be switching from 38-inch to 30-inch rows on the number of acres we farm,” says Byron. “But we had learned that when we tried to grow cotton on 30-inch rows, we had problems. If we plant 30-inch cotton in the south Delta, we know we’re going to have bad boll rot, because we had boll rot on 38-inch cotton.”
2X1 SKIP ROW
The solution, they decided, was to plant cotton in a 2x1 skip — that is, 30-inch row, 30-inch-row, 60-inch skip, 30-inch row, 30-inch row, 60-inch skip, 30-inch row and 30-inch row. The pattern meant they had to move the picker units farther out on their five John Deere round-module pickers. But the system has worked for them.
“We decided maybe this would help, because some years we’ve lost as much as a bale of cotton to some form of bacterial problem or other pathogens,” Byron says. “Some farmers plant four rows on 30-inch spaces and skip four rows, but you still have boll rot in the four rows.”
They plant the same number of seed per land acre, about 62,000 plants down the row, he says. “But when you divide that by two-thirds, you’re back to 41,000 to 42,000 to the land acre. Every acre has the same treatment as solid cotton — same seed, same fertilizer.”
In 2016, the Sewards grew 7,500 acres of cotton, about 5,000 acres of corn, and 10,000 acres of soybeans. Until a few years ago, they planted some rice, but decided to drop it and focus on the other three crops.
Besides variable rates for fertilizer, seed and herbicides, they’re also using precision agriculture technology for plant growth regulators and defoliants on their cotton. Yields ranged from 1,400 to 1,500 pounds per acre. “That was good cotton,” says Byron. Varieties included Deltapine 1518, 1522 and 1646.
Soybean yields were good in 2016, but corn yields were down, “so they offset each other,” says Byron. They’ve had a farm-yield average of 220 bushels of corn per acre, with some as high as 260 to 280 bushels per acre.
The cost-price squeeze is having an impact on many producers these days, he says, and low commodity prices make their use of precision agriculture technology more important than ever.
That extends to a monitoring system, Grainsight.com, that they use to monitor grain in the 1.2 million bushels of storage they have on their farming operation near Louise.
They also irrigate about 70 percent of their operation. They have 26 center pivot systems and water the remainder with furrow. They use both electric and diesel irrigation wells, which they can monitor and turn on and off remotely. They also collect information on the water applied and report that to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.
“Farmers I talk to find themselves in a difficult situation, one in which it’s getting tougher to hang on,” Byron says. “We need some relief from these low prices and high input costs to make it easier to invest in new technology.”