Center pivot irrigation and the global market have totally transformed the cropping program on one Alabama farm.
Diversification literally takes on new meaning near Benton, Alabama, where Hoffman Rhyne manages about 4,900 acres with his brother, Dan, and nephew, Daniel. In addition to corn, soybeans and wheat, the partners also own and manage a beef operation and a turf business that grows and markets sod to golf courses, landscapers and homeowners.
“We actually operate under two separate farm names,” says Hoffman Rhyne. “The turf is grown underthenameofRhyneFarms, while all the commodity crops are grown under the title Triple R Farms. We used to grow cotton, too, but we’ve since dropped cotton and replaced it with grain crops.
“My nephew and brother primarily take care of the field crops, while I take care of the turf business,” Rhyne adds. “But we meet every day and work together to do whatever needs to be done at the time.”
Ironically, Rhyne says it was the family’s history with cotton that steered them to T-L Irrigation, which is now used on nearly all of their 900 acres of turf grass and approximately one-third of the row crops.
“Up until 2002, we were almost a mono-culture,” Rhyne explains. “At one time, we had nearly 7,000 acres of cotton; plus, we had our own cotton gin that we used to process our own crop, as well as those for other farmers in the area. In fact, that was the only row crop we had.”
During the peak of their cotton production era, Hoffman relates, the brothers leased a farm that was owned by a woman from Missouri who had bought it as an investment. Ironically, the farm already had three T-L pivots on it, since she had brought her own preference for hydraulic drive pivots with her.
“So we got our first experience with T-L pivots in 1990 by renting this farm,” he explains. “And with only one exception, we’ve had nothing but T-L pivots ever since,” he adds, noting that they could easily double their cotton yields with irrigation.
As times changed with the global economy, though, Hoffman and his brother began looking for a crop that they could “put under a pivot that would bring more than 50-cent cotton.”
As a result, the family began converting some of their clean, level cotton fields to sod production, cutting back a little more on cotton each year.
“In 2006, we grew our last cotton crop and, in the process, went from being the largest cotton producer in Alabama to the smallest,” he relates.
While adding more irrigation for the turf crops, the Rhynes found they could also justify more irrigation on their row crops, particularly as commodity prices increased. Consequently, the family now has six T-L pivots on sod and another six T-L units on grain. They would gladly add even more on the Triple R Farms side of the business if they had the access to water. ”
All of the turf grass is irrigated, since it’s pretty much a necessity if you want to grow thick turf,” says Rhyne, noting that they grow and market nine different grass varieties. “However, we are approaching our limit on how much of our row crop fields we can irrigate. Like the cotton, we’ve proven that we can at least double our corn and soybean yields with irrigation. ”
In the meantime, Rhyne says turf grass has its own advantages and drawbacks. On the plus side, he doubts their market will ever be threatened by imports, due to the difficulty involved in transporting sod. On the other hand, growers have to develop their own market, which means Hoffman or his marketing manager are constantly calling on potential customers within a 300-mile radius. Turf also requires a lot more labor and water than row crops or cotton.
“We tried drip irrigation on the turf, but that just didn’t work that well,” Hoffman relates. “We still have about 100 acres that is irrigated with drip tape, but one of the problems with drip irrigation is that you can’t wet the soil surface prior to harvest. It will keep the grass watered, but you can’t moisten the ground, which makes it easier to cut the sod. You don’t want it wet, but about 3/10ths on top is just about right.
“We tried supplementing the tape with a traveling gun prior to harvest,” he adds. “But that was just too labor intensive. So everywhere we can, we’ve just gone with T-L pivots.” The lone exception on the farm, Rhyne explains is a single electric pivot that was acquired as part of a lease.
“It was already on a field that we had leased,” he explains, noting that it belonged to the tenant rather than the landowner. “Consequently, we bought the pivot from the previous tenant.”
A short time later, though, the Rhynes lost the lease to a government pine tree program, leading them to move the electric pivot to the turf farm.
“In all honesty, it’s worked pretty well for us, even though it is a lighter-built unit,” Hoffman admits. “But I just don’t want to keep any more 480-volt machines out here than I have to.
“It’s not that I can’t work on them myself,” he confesses. “When we had the cotton gin, we had around 2,000 horsepower and about sixty electric motors; and I took care of all of those. So I know how to safely work around electric motors … or as safe as you can be with 480 volts. But if there’s a problem with an electric pivot, I either need to call a technician or work on it myself … and I don’t want to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“With the T-L pivots, I can send anybody out there who knows anything about hydraulics … even though T-L pivots seldom need any repairs,” he explains. “And that’s even more important in corn than it was in cotton,” he concludes. “Cotton can recover from a short period of drought, but corn can’t. There’s about a 10-day window where you can make 50 bushels or you can make 200, depending on whether there’s water available.”