Young, aspiring consultant John Bixler trailed after a Missouri Bootheel cotton grower, constantly talking as he tried to convince the farmer to hire him to scout some of his fields. Bixler was home from graduate school at Mississippi State University trying to cobble a small acreage to start a scouting business. The older man, however, ignored Bixler. Instead, he was frowning at his crew cleaning up some land. They were pulling privacy wooden fenceposts with a tractor and a chain, but kept snapping the posts off at ground level.
Bixler devised a way to win the farmer’s confidence. “Mr. John,” he said, “if I can show you how to pull that post without breaking it, would you please let me scout some cotton?”
The grower turned to Bixler and asked, “What do you think you know, college boy?”
Bixler walked over to a discarded wheel rim off a mule-drawn hay rake lying in the weeds and stood it upright. He placed the chain over the top of the wheel rim and wrapped it to the base of the post. Bixler waved the tractor on. As the tractor moved forward, the force pulled the post straight up, and it clattered on the ground. Intact.
The grower turned to Bixler and grunted, “You can have 500 acres,” and he walked off.
“That’s how I started consulting with John Wescoat,” Bixler says. “And, his New Madrid family has been with me ever since that day in 1991.”
Today, Bixler operates Bixler Crop Consultants from his century-old home near Canalou, Missouri. He started farming full-time in 2000 when his father, Harley, retired. This third-generation grower now farms some 1,400 acres of cotton and corn. For 17 years, Bixler has balanced consulting and farming, and has learned lessons on his farm that help him provide better recommendations to his grower-clients.
SMART MANAGEMENT. Bixler farms on the northern fringe of the Cotton Belt, so his time is constricted. “We don’t have extra time to make up for hiccups,” he says. “From my own farm experience and by attending winter Extension and consultant meetings, such as the Mississippi Agricultural Consultants Association, which I’ve been a member of since 1991, I realized we’re overplanting, overfertilizing and overwatering.”
For example, Bixler and his growers have thinned their stands. It was not uncommon for area growers to have 55,000 to 57,000 plants per acre. Today, seeding rates for both Bixler and his clients have been reduced to 42,000 to 47,000 plants, depending on the variety. Last year, Bixler planted DP 1518 B2XF, NG 3406 B2XF, DG 3385 B2XF, Croplan Genetics 3475B2XF, and ST 5020GLT and ST 4949GLT. He planted 60% non-dicamba varieties.
These efforts reduced planting costs without a resulting drop in yields. “We save about $13 per acre for every 5,000 seeds per acre that we do not use from a technology-fee seed bag,” Bixler explains. “In addition to reducing costs, thinner stands also help us reduce boll rot and the risk of diseases such as target spot and bacterial blight late in the season.” He adds plants will try to outgrow one another if crowded, so thinning helps limit his plant growth regulator rate.
Bixler and his growers have reduced the amount of total nitrogen they use on cotton. In previous seasons, nitrogen rates ranged from 110 to 130 pounds of nitrogen per acre; however, today’s varieties have more genetic horsepower and aggressive potential. “We’ve backed off our nitrogen rate to 90 to 100 pounds, depending on the soil type,” Bixler says. “We apply a small amount preplant but sidedress the majority of our nitrogen around first square.”
IRRIGATION CHANGES. He and his customers have also cut back on water applied to cotton. The majority of acres is furrow-irrigated, although a few pivots are used. “We used to feel that we needed to push the crop with water, so every four days, some of this land was getting water sent down the row,” Bixler says. “I have fields that have had only two irrigations all season. We have essentially reduced our waterings from six to eight per season down to two or three.”
That all depends on soil type and rainfall, he adds. He’s not currently using moisture sensors but feels a lot can be learned about the soil profile by using a probe. Plus, he uses university online tools that take into account various factors, including evapotranspiration.
Irrigation depends heavily on soil type, and the area has an array of soil types that include silt loams, clay loams and even some Sharkey clay loams, he continues. Bixler recalls from his work as an intern for the University of Missouri in the ’80s that different soil textures have different moisture deficits. “Some of this land only has an available 1-inch capacity, so when you’re watering every other 38-inch row cotton, that’s only half capacity,” he explains. “So, when cotton is in its full water-use stage, during the height of setting and filling bolls, we know that if we’re not replacing moisture every so many days, we’re going to get behind.”
PERSONAL TOUCH. Bixler starts walking fields for customers on Friday and finishes by noon Monday. He handwrites the reports and personally hands them to clients on Monday. “I feel that if they hire me, they want to see me,” he says. “Giving their reports on Monday helps them schedule their sprayings and waterings for the remainder of the week. I don’t want to be the holdup as far as irrigating or applying materials like Pix.”
He says he intentionally developed a niche consultant business in which he works for a few clients (eight growers) and covers only about 7,000 acres that he can scout without help. “This consulting business model also enables me to farm,” Bixler adds. “And, farming enables me to refine my recommendations to clients.”
Bixler scouts for his growers, but they are much more than customers. He recounts a scenario in spring 2017 when his father had a knee replaced, which caused them to struggle at planting time.
“All my customers know that I’ll get my scouting done even though I might get behind on my farm,” Bixler says. “I looked up one morning, and here comes some of my customers with three 12-row tractors and three do-alls, and they said, ‘We’re going to plant your cotton today.’ Adding my equipment, we planted all 600 acres that day. That’s the book of business that I have. I love the consulting part, but it has developed into something much larger. Something personal.”
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