King Cotton's coronation was a relatively recent affair on Kevin Hoke's northeast Arkansas operation. Cotton wasn't unknown to him, but treating it as top dog was. Several years ago, Hoke downsized dramatically and went almost all cotton.
“Truth is, when I was growing up here, my father farmed cotton to get rice ground,” says the Jonesboro-area farmer. “Around here, rice was where the money was. That meant the cotton was treated like a stepchild.”
In the mid-1980s, after a stint in the Navy, Hoke returned home to find his father retired and his farming brother moving into another line of work.
“When they got out of farming I had to reconsider what we'd been doing. I knew that cotton was draining resources — it wasn't a focus. I walked into the Extension office here and told (Craighead County agent) Andy Van Gilder, ‘I don't know diddly about growing cotton, but I want to learn.’ He helped hook me into verification programs. At that time, our cotton was making 600 to 650 pounds per acre. Now, we're over 1,000 pounds and it's all attributable to what Extension taught me.”
Cotton is something Hoke admits a “passion” for. But the passion is there “because it's been such a challenge to learn. Cotton is a crop that you just can't tell what you're going to make until it's in the basket. I can look at rice and at least know it's a good-yielding crop. Same is true with beans that are lapped. Cotton, though, can fool you.”
Even while growing grain crops through the remainder of the 1980s and 1990s, Hoke learned to heed timing from the cotton verification program. “Our yields aren't due to the fact that our ground is so much better than anyone else's, although we've precision-leveled much of it and fixed drainage. I just focus on timing applications.”
Hoke admits he's a perfectionist. “I want every weed out, every row watered. It can drive me nuts”
That's especially true with glyphosate-resistant weeds now popping up.
“I was in denial about the resistant weeds. I've used Roundup in various formulations. I even began spraying ditches and sold my mowers. The spraying was cheaper.
“Well, the articles on resistant weeds started showing up in Delta Farm Press. I thought, ‘I'm okay. We haven't seen problem one, so we've got time.’
“Not so. I got caught with my pants down. This year, after burndown, here came the marestail. It got hairy quick. I could see where water had backed out into the field over the winter carrying the resistant seed. We brought in a chopping crew to get rid of it.”
Why the switch to cotton?
“In 2000, I lost an incredible amount of money on our grains crops,” says Hoke. “That year ate my lunch. The bottom fell out of rice — we had 1,000 acres of it — and even with 3,200 acres total we couldn't stop losing money.
“I ended up having to hock one farm, something I swore I'd never do. But I went in to get a crop loan and my banker showed me the bottom line didn't add up. So into hock we went. I said, ‘Now, if I lose money next season, I've got to quit farming.’”
Hoke began making preparations to quit farming or downsize. He hired a financial consultant to help.
At the time, Hoke was farming land “all over the place. I was even farming near the Jonesboro airport. I had to drive equipment into the city and fight traffic to get to the fields. It was a pain in the rear end.”
The financial planner, meanwhile, told Hoke that under prices at the time the only financially feasible crop was cotton.
“So we went all cotton. Of course, the very next year rice prices tripled,” laughs Hoke. “That's how it always is!”
Perhaps against the odds, the switch worked. And there were side benefits.
“Cotton is a bit less stressful,” says Hoke. “With rice, someone was out at the field all week. Our grain bins (180,000 bushels of storage behind the Hoke's shop that are now rented out) had to be maintained. We had to worry with hauling grain around.”
Hoke's headquarters is in the Jonesboro city limits, but he farms three 500-acre blocks away from town.
“That spreads our risk out a little. My partner, John Johnson, and I farm around 1,500 acres. John used to work for me but became my partner when I downsized. Two years ago, we only farmed 500 acres of cotton each. This year, we expanded by half, splitting another 500 acres.”
Hoke's cotton has done well with a 10-year average of 1,000-plus pounds per acre. Current yields have been “phenomenal,” he says — not nearly as erratic as in past years.
About half the 1,500 acres Hoke and Johnson farm is no-till. “We've been using a no-till system for quite a while and have been successful with it. I like that system.
“I've got several fields we haven't done anything to in five years. Typically, those fields are under a pivot. And by saying ‘no-till’ I mean nothing is done except a burndown in February or March (Roundup or 2,4 — D). Behind the planter, we put out something for cutworms. Another shot of Roundup is applied as soon as the crop emerges. Underneath, we usually go just with Roundup until lay-by. At lay-by, we'll go with Diuron or Karmex.”
Hoke is a heavy user of Mepex. “We've tried other products, but Mepex is the one we use because of the price. We put the PGR to the crop — anywhere from 40 to 50 ounces yearly.”
Hoke has also done — and continues — a lot of test-plot work for seed companies. “I keep doing these things because I get to see the varieties on my farm before they hit the market. That's certainly advantageous for us.
“I've always been a staunch Paymaster 1218 guy. A lot of farmers were burned growing it because of high micronaire counts. We never had that trouble and can make that variety hum. Probably a third of our operation is planted in 1218. Now, I also plant a lot of DPL 444. It showed off in our test plots. Stoneville 5599 also looks like a good one for us.”
With the Jonesboro area now in a boll weevil eradication program (which he supports), Hoke says different insect problems have popped up.
“Plant bugs have been giving us fits. One thing we've figured out with plant bugs is to get ahead of them. In other words, we spray a little before thresholds are met. If we let them get to threshold, it takes a lot longer to control them. We need preventive maintenance because the numbers are so high.”
Hoke doesn't skimp on cutworm control. “We learned a long time ago that our two biggest problems in getting a nice stand are cutworms and weather. We can help control cutworms, so we use a pyrethroid behind the press wheel for less than $1 per acre.”
The next technology Hoke is excited about is LibertyLink cotton. He planted 30 acres of it this year.
“The Ignite herbicide smoked a bunch of the weeds out there. It's weak on pigweeds — the company will tell you that — but we were able to get through fine. If the yields are good, LibertyLink will do well. I can't support it 100 percent because it hasn't been harvested yet. But I'm excited about it so far. It looks great.”