The Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act of 2004
either bought out growers or freed them from quotas and restrictions. The end result: fewer tobacco growers planting more tobacco acres. Just four years after the buyout, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported flue-cured farms had increased in size by 50 percent, and burley farms had increased by 25 percent.
As growers continue to expand their acreage, many have had to start topping earlier than ever so they can top their entire crop in time. When tobacco is topped too late, problems arise that impact yield, labor costs and
quality. Experts advise burley and flue-cured growers to set their tobacco timetables early and accurately to achieve
optimal topping results.
When a tobacco plant starts to flower, it diverts energy from leaf growing and instead focuses on reproduction. “The goal is to short-circuit the seed production by manually breaking out the top of the plant just before the flower begins to open, or chemical topping before the plant can produce flowers, so it can get back to producing heavier and higher-quality leaf,” says J. Michael Moore, professor and tobacco Extension agronomist at the University of Georgia.
A tobacco plant’s flower robs the plant of precious leaf-producing energy, attracts harmful insects, makes it more susceptible to disease and creates tougher stems that make breaking it out more difficult.
A flowering plant also can become top-heavy, leaving the plant vulnerable to tipping over when struck by wind or heavy rain during a storm. Not only can tipping over damage the root system of the crop, but it can also cost growers additional labor, as they will have to hire laborers to stand the plants up again.
Knocked-over plants can cause problems at harvest
as well. “If the plants are not standing perfectly straight, they risk clogging up the machinery and pose a potential danger to [the] operator who has to unclog it,” Moore says.
Timing is Everything
Experts recommend starting early with topping. “The ideal time is when the flower begins to form in the top,” Moore says. “That way you minimize the time the plant spends on producing flowers and seed.”
Many growers hesitate to top that early, due to the increased labor required to cover the field and break out tops when only a portion of the plants have reached the correct stage of growth. However, research has shown that farmers with a good nitrogen fertilizer program in place can capture an additional 25 pounds of tobacco per acre per day if they can top before the flowering phase. “Every day saved without a flower increases the ultimate yield,” Moore says.
How you top depends greatly on manpower available. Removing the tops on a timely basis requires multiple trips across the field as more and more tops emerge from the plant. “I find that using a mechanical topper on a highboy to coincide with the second and third fatty-alcohol applications proves the most efficient use of labor,” Moore says.
The University of Kentucky Tobacco Production Guide recommends topping burley tobacco to between 22 and 24 leaves. For flue-cured tobacco, the University of Georgia Tobacco Growers Guide advises topping at 18 to 22 leaves for the highest quality.
Topping and sucker control go hand in hand. When a flower is removed from the plant, it stimulates additional bud growth, or suckers. Early sucker control can benefit the quality and yield, just like early topping.
Experts advise making the first fatty-alcohol application before the plant has flowered. “The best time to start chemical sucker control is when 20 to 30 percent
of the plants reach the early button stage, or when they show the ball as the top emerges from the plant,” Moore says.
The next application should occur five to seven days later, when you begin to see flowers, and another one five to seven days after that, as the final leaves emerge and suckers begin to grow in these new leaf axils.
Controlling suckers early can help keep the need for maleic hydrazide—and the resulting MH residues in the cured leaf—low later on. Some growers have adopted the practice of applying three fatty-alcohol material applications instead of two before using MH. “If you start earlier with the fatty-alcohol applications, you burn out young suckers and are more apt to get better control with MH and the dynitroanaline materials like flumetralin (Prime+, Flupro, Drexalin Plus) and Butralin,” Moore says.
Adhering to an early topping schedule can mean all the difference, helping keep a grower’s yield up and quality high.
From the Field
Daniel Johnson knows how hard it can be to time topping correctly. Johnson, chairman of the Georgia Tobacco Commission, grows 400 acres of tobacco in Pierce County, Georgia. “Not only do we try to get the tops out early to save yield,” Johnson says, “but the threat of a wind storm would do a number on any tobacco that was not topped yet.”
Johnson says timing can be difficult with labor concerns. “We top with mostly hand labor, so I want most of the tobacco to be ready in the field so that we can get a good flush with one pass.”
A full crew tops what they can on the first round; a partial crew comes back through a week or two later, depending on the progress of the plants, to get anything that was missed. “We try to get out there as early as we can,” he says. “But I need to consider labor costs versus yield.”