Virginia grower produces top-yielding nuts

Photo by Rocky Womack.
Sam Cox, a peanut yield champion from Surry County, Va., prepares his land in the spring using this Case DMI combination rig that disks, rips and levels the soil.

Peanut growers take a lot of pride in raising, digging and harvesting their crop each year. Some are known for their top yields and go that extra mile to produce the finest peanuts possible for the public to consume.

No stranger to this group is Sam Cox, a peanut farmer in Surry County, Va. He has won the state’s top yield contest many times, and has accepted the honor again for his 2007 average crop yield of more than 5,600 pounds per acre.

In 2006, the average yield in the state was 3,000 pounds per acre, and with the drought of 2007, the state average could drop to 2,500 pounds per acre, says Dell Cotton Jr., executive secretary of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association, Inc.

Cotton says that because input costs have increased, growers’ peanuts must now yield more than 3,000 pounds per acre. “Most of our below-3,000-pound producers no longer grow peanuts,” he says. “With the cutbacks in acres, better rotations have helped us in yields, which should be apparent if we can once again have a good growing year with adequate rainfall.”

For a peanut grower to remain viable at today’s contract prices, Cox believes the crop must average at least 4,300 pounds.

With the state average in 2007 as low as it was, how did Cox average considerably more?

“Peanuts are a priority crop for me,” he says. “I try to take good care of them. I do the best I can. I don’t start off the year trying to win a contest. I just try to do the best job I can production-wise.

“There’s no question it’s the best crop I’ve ever had,” Cox adds. “I didn’t think there was enough moisture overall to do as well as it did, but the crop was mature.”

Rotation plan

Cox relies on his production savvy from years of growing peanuts. Perhaps his biggest asset in raising high yields revolves around switching from a three-year to a four-year rotation a few years ago—he grows peanuts in any given field every fourth year. After he harvests his peanuts, Cox sows wheat in the fall. He harvests the wheat in June, then plants soybeans in the wheat stubble as a double crop. Once he combines the soybeans, he plants corn the next two years. Then the fourth year, he comes back with peanuts.

The four-year rotation has minimized disease pressure in Cox’s peanut crop, especially the disease Sclerotinia blight, which causes limb rot that can affect pod growth to form peanuts. “I see less disease, but I still see it,” he says. “However, year in and year out, I see less pressure from that disease because I’m planting peanuts every fourth year in the field rather than every third year.”

Occasionally, Cox might plant peanuts in a certain field every fifth year. He believes that field, which holds moisture better than his others, helped him win the 2007 yield championship. The 17.5-acre field yielded about 6,000 pounds per acre and was planted in the variety CHAMPS. Besides CHAMPS, Cox raised the variety NC-V 11 in some of his other fields during 2007. Both are varieties that mature early so he can dig and harvest before the frost in the fall. In all, he grew about 60 acres of peanuts on the sandy soils of his Elberon, Va., farm. He raises peanuts for seed production and hauls them to Wakefield Peanut Co., who handles them for Birdsong Peanut Co. He also produces peanut seeds for seed production for the Virginia Crop Improvement Association.

Timely production

Keeping his peanut production to about 60 acres allows Cox to apply his inputs—which include soil fumigants, fungicides, herbicides and insecticides—in a more timely manner. He starts the season by preparing his land in the spring with a Case DMI combination rig that uses disk blades in front, rippers in the middle that go 11 inches deep to break up the soil and a leveling device in the rear. Attached to the back of the Case DMI unit is a finishing harrow that packs down the soil after it has been broken up.

This machine saves several trips across the field, lessening the compaction of the land. He doesn’t go over the land again with machinery until he fumigates around mid-April with Vapam at a nondiluted solution of 9.5 gallons per acre. The implement injects the fumigant 8 inches into the soil. At the same time, disks bed the soil into rows.

“One reason for this method is to plant your seed on top of the area that was fumigated,” Cox says. “It also gives peanuts a little warmer bed to germinate.”

The fumigant liquid goes into the soil and turns into a gas to either kill or reduce potential disease pressure. In Cox’s case, he is controlling potential Cylindrocladium black rot (CBR).

This fumigation process is done usually two weeks before planting. Using the same machinery during this application process in April, Cox broadcasts 1 pint per acre of Mee-too-lachlor for broad-spectrum weed control, such as yellow nutsedge, red root pigweed and morning glory. The liquid is pumped from a separate tank and is sprayed behind the bedder.

During the second week in May, Cox begins planting between 105 to 110 pounds of peanut seeds per acre. “I like to inoculate my seed, because when we put Vapam down it could kill helpful bacteria,” he says.

While peanuts can make their own nitrogen, Cox believes the added benefit of inoculation to produce more nitrogen enhances the peanuts’ health, which helps them survive possible thrips insect infestation. For additional thrips control, he applies 6 pounds per acre of Temik.

Cox does not directly fertilize his peanuts. “We get enough carryover fertilizer from the prior corn crops for fertility,” he says. “I have plenty of plant growth most every year.”

Around May 19, Cox applies 3.75 pints per acre of Glyfos to control ragweed, morning glory and fall panicum. He also applies 9 ounces per acre of Butyrac 175 for further weed control, and he puts down another application of Mee-too-lachlor at 1 pint per acre. All three applications are mixed in one tank and broadcast spread overtop.

Around June 1, Cox broadcasts 12 ounces per acre of acephate to control thrips and potato leafhoppers. Around June 11, he applies 4 ounces per acre of Cadre for nutsedge control. In mid to late June after the crop has emerged from the ground, Cox broadcasts landplaster, a source of calcium. When the peanut pegs grow down into the landplaster, they pick up the calcium to form healthy pods.

Around July 3, he bands 13 pounds per acre of chlorpyrifos for southern corn rootworm control. About July 17, he applies 9 ounces per acre of Headline for leaf spot control.

Around August 3, Cox uses 7.25 ounces per acre of the plant growth regulator Apogee. “I think after a longer rotation you tend to have more plant growth in peanuts,” he says. “I can do a better job of digging in the fall if I use a plant growth regulator, because then I can see where I’m going down the field. It makes the center of the plant more erect. It’s expensive, but I feel like it is worth it.”

Cox applies a split application of boron. With his leaf spot disease control application, he applies 1.5 pounds per acre of boric acid around August 4, along with 7.2 ounces per acre of the Orius 3.6F for leaf spot disease control. Around August 23, he applies the second 1.5 pounds per acre of boric acid along with another application of Headline, as well as 1 quart per acre of manganese to prevent manganese deficiency and 3 ounces per acre of Silencer for corn earworm control, if necessary. About a day later, Cox applies 1 pint per acre of the herbicide Butoxone 200 for morning glory control.

About September 6, Cox applies 9 ounces of Endura for leaf spot and Sclerotinia blight control, and around September 24 in the fields that he plans to dig last, he applies 1.5 pints per acre of Chlorothalonil 720 for leaf spot control.

By making these timely applications, Cox says he controls diseases and insects, and that helps produce healthier peanut plants, thus increasing yields and earning him the title of a champion peanut producer. “I try to do what I can to keep plant disease to a minimum, especially Sclerotinia blight,” Cox says. “It causes a limb rotting process. Peanuts project from the limb, which is where your pods are formed. If you have a rotten limb, your peanuts have rotted off. The more rotten limbs you have, the less yield you’re going to have. I try to prevent that from happening.”

The author is a freelance writer in Danville, Va.