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.”

Wheat benefits

Since then, Coley Jr., has found there are other benefits from the wheat that’s now planted as a cover crop on all his cotton ground.

“We have a lot more water-holding capacity. Earthworms leave tunnels in the ground, and when the wheat roots decay after we spray Roundup, all those channels seem to hold water. A lot of times, after a two-inch rain, hardly any water will run off the field. Organic matter, with no-till and a wheat cover crop, has gone from .445 percent to over 3 percent.”

The Baileys usually do about five EQIP projects a year using the farm’s excavator and bulldozer.

“We farm up and down creeks, and slowing water going into creeks is what we’re trying to do,” Coley Jr. says. “If we don’t do that, before long it will wash out, and the ditch will be as deep as the creek.

“A lot of what we’re doing now is maintaining or replacing existing structures that were originally put in with shovels. We get the soil and water guys to come in and design it, and hopefully we’ll get an EQIP project. Our landlords really appreciate that we keep their land looking good.”

Another big benefit, he says, is that wheat shades out a lot of weeds. “We have a lot less marestail, and we’ve been fortunate not to see pigweed yet.”

Still, the Baileys aren’t taking any chances with resistant weeds.

“We try to change up chemistries,” Coley Jr. says. “In February, we apply 2,4-D, then in early April, Roundup and dicamba. When we plant, we apply Ignite and get everything cleaned up. So, there are three different chemistries before cotton emerges.

“With the first shot of Roundup over-the-top of cotton, we will add Staple to get a little more residual. With the second shot, we’ll use metolachlor. That carried us through the whole season this year, although we did some chopping this year for some marestail that came through.”

The Baileys plant with two 12-row John Deere no-till planters; 2011 was the first year they used an RTK guidance system for planting.

“The RTK puts us right where we’re supposed to be,” Coley Jr. says. “My planter drivers like it a whole lot better.”

They plant all Deltapine cottons, including DP 1050B2RF and DP 1137B2RF on most of their dryland, and DP 0912B2RF on 300 acres of irrigated ground.

“We’ve always had good luck with Deltapine varieties and good service,” Coley Jr., says. “We grow 10 varieties for them in a variety trial, which lets me get a firsthand look at what’s coming along.”

Environmental win/win

Something unique in the Bailey operation took two years of working with environmental agencies and the Abitibi Bowater paper mill at Grenada, Miss. Under an agreement with the paper mill, the farm takes ash from the paper production process and applies it to their farmland. It provides all of the farm’s fertility needs, except nitrogen.

“It has been a win/win situation for the paper mill and for us, and it really has been a blessing in weathering high fertilizer prices,” Coley Jr. says.

“We had to get the Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency to come in and test soils and do other testing. The paperwork took two years, but 7,500 tons of ash per year that was just going into landfills is now providing fertility for our crops.”

Their cotton is scouted three times a week, which is a bit unusual, Coley Jr. says, but if closer checking of the crop eliminates one or two sprays a season, it’s worth it. “Plus, I like to know what’s going on — I want to know if what we’re spraying is working.”

Joe Worthy, of Clarksdale, Miss., does aerial application work for the Baileys, and their consultant, Ty Edwards, is also gin manager at Yalobusha Gin, where they gin their cotton. They market their crop through Staplcotn.

During the season, they get valuable advice and service from Extension Agents Steve Winters in Grenada County, and Brent Gray in Yalobusha County, Bill Bailey from Crop Production Services in Grenada and their local John Deere dealer, Wade Equipment in Grenada.

Winters, Extension director for Grenada County, has known the Baileys through 22 cotton growing seasons. “They have a cutting edge type of operation,” he says. “If a new technology comes along and they think it might cut costs or increase yields, they’re going to give it a try.”

All of the Baileys’ full-time work crew push hard to keep the pickers turning, too. Billy Earl Jennings, 62, started working for the Baileys in 1976; James Marion, 67, and Darold Marion, 40, in 1995; and Gwenn Topps, 47, this season.

“They take the lead on getting equipment ready,” Coley Jr. says. “They’ve been with us for a long time, and I can depend on them. When we had to plant our crop in six days last spring, they were here at 5:30 a.m., filling up machinery with diesel and seed so we could start running at 6 a.m. We ran until dark.”

The Baileys take care of their workers, too. Each module builder is equipped with a closed, air-conditioned cab.

Challenges of young farmers

“We don’t work on Sundays,” Coley Jr. says. “But, we’re always able to get it all done. When you work 15 hours a day during the week, you need to have some rest on Sunday.”

In the coming season, the Baileys will replace their three 6-row basket pickers with two 6-row module pickers, which should reduce seasonal labor needs and make harvest move even faster.

“I think we can pick cotton with a basket picker as efficiently as anybody I know,” Coley Jr. says. “In good cotton, we can tarp a module every 20 minutes, and build 24 modules a day.”

He uses module size to regulate the influence of yield fluctuation on picking efficiency. As yields increase, the size of a finished module may decrease to accommodate the increased number of boll buggy dumps.

“Our KBH builders with extended rails are capable of building 18-19 bale modules every time,” he says. “We average 16 bales.

“If we had more time, we could keep packing, but the gin doesn’t charge me to come get the modules, so our main goal is to keep the picker going so it doesn’t have to wait on a buggy. We can do that up to about 1,200-pound cotton. If I get much over 1,200 pound cotton, we have to go to 13-bale or 14-bale modules — but, that’s a good problem to have.”

Coley Bailey, Sr., says young farmers like his son face more challenges than previous generations.

“My father managed people, I managed machines, and my son manages technology. But, managing technology doesn’t relieve him from the obligation of managing machines and people too.”

Coley, Jr.’s ability to network is perhaps the best tool he has for facing today’s challenges, his father says.

“He’s a great networker. There is a network of young farmers around who are more willing to share information and ideas than in my generation. He and his wife, Jody, who is a strong part of his partnership, are very attuned to that — more so than I ever was.”

No matter what the yield, time of season or field activity, everyone on the Bailey farming operation is aware of the one rule that guides all activity on the farm — making those pickers turn around.

It’s a philosophy that has served them well.

Coley Jr. has served as chairman of Farm Bureau’s Cotton Committee for four years, and is president of Yalobusha County Farm Bureau. He and Jody have two children, a son, Cole, and a daughter, Mackenzie. Jody, who grew up on a cattle farm, works on the Mississippi Farm Bureau Women’s Committee.