On a warm, cloudless, day last October, Coley Bailey Sr. opened the door of the tractor driven by his son, Coley Jr. and over the radio chatter and whine of machinery, announced, “We’re processing 1,100 pounds of seed cotton a minute.”

Heads nodded. Smiles went up all around. Then it was back to the field for Coley, Jr.; his boll buggy was needed just around the tree line.

Efficiency is such an overused word in agriculture these days, one hesitates to use it to describe Coffeeville, Miss., farmer Coley Bailey Jr. winner of the Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award for the Mid-South states.

So, let’s just say he choreographs the entire picking operation from start to finish.

A one-minute or less picker dump while still on the row is considered a worthy accomplishment. Splitting a boll buggy load between two modules, on the other hand, constitutes a serious lack of forethought. A wasteful wait for the picker driver is the ultimate no-no.

But, tarping 24 modules a day with three pickers, three boll buggies and two builders — well, that’s moving some cotton!

A slogan coined by Coley, Sr., and repeated as frequently as needed, sums up not only their picking operation, but the philosophy that guides all operations on their farm, from the day cotton is planted until the stalk cutter buttons up the harvest: “We want to keep making those cotton pickers turn around.”

The Baileys farm 3,350 acres of cotton in Yalobusha and Grenada Counties. One of the farms, 900 acres just north of Grenada, was once owned by James K. Polk, the 11th president of the United States and has been farmed for over 170 years.

Mostly dryland cotton producers, they work hard to insure that no water on the farm goes to waste. They accomplish this with no-till, a wheat cover crop and various conservation projects.

Coley Jr. discovered the benefits of a wheat cover crop quite by accident. In 1998, he had just converted his cropland to no-till. Only a few years into farming on his own, he had rowed up 100 acres of highly erodible land and was out of compliance. A Natural Resources Conservation Service representative told him if he planted a cover crop on the land, he could get back in compliance.

He planted wheat on the field, but that spring, after he’d killed the wheat and started planting cotton, he thought he had made a big mistake.

“We couldn’t see the row because of the wheat stubble,” he says. “But, five days later that cotton was up, and in two weeks it looked better than the rest of my cotton. At harvest, the cotton where that had been wheat cover picked 1,100 pounds and the cotton right next to it picked 950 pounds.”