Jay Coker knows managing risks has never been more important, especially in a year that started so inauspiciously.
He’s looking at equipment, crop insurance, marketing and labor for opportunities to mitigate some of the risks on the 4,000 acres of rice he farms in the Arkansas Grand Prairie near Stuttgart, Ark.
The 2019 season started with an extremely narrow planting window. “We planted rice into last year’s stubble with no prior ground work,” Coker says. “We rolled rutted up fields and flooded them before winter and that helped smooth them out. We didn’t burn the straw, which allows the soil to dry out then warm up faster in the spring. It also helps to reduce disease and pest risks.”
Most of Coker’s ground is in rice for two or three years before he rotates into two years of soybeans. He typically floods the zero-grade buckshot ground for duck season, and no-till drills next planting season. “We really rutted the fields last year. After a very late harvest, we came back with cleated rollers that allowed us to work the muddy ground,” Coker says. “That also helped incorporate the straw and smooth out the ruts.”
In 25 years of farming, he has done that with only a few acres, never an entire crop. His land drains slowly. Moist, sticky ground does not like to let go of water. “It’s great soil for producing rice, but man it takes a long time to dry out, and spring rains made it even more of a challenge this year,” Coker says.
Reducing equipment risks
Running heavy equipment can cause compaction and rutting, so Coker uses a combination of tractors — tracked or dual tire configurations. “I’m also running a tracked undercarriage on one grain cart and flotation tires on the other,” Coker says.
“If a farmer buys into a no-till system as I have, especially in heavy clay soils, he might have to wait two or three days after a rain before getting back into the field to lower (or lessen) the risk of rutting during harvest with heavy equipment. With tracked equipment and flotation tires, I can get back in the field much sooner.”
Coker has witnessed more farmers using shallow tillage equipment like a Diamond Harrow, a Turbo Till, or something similar that can be pulled at a ground speed that disturbs only the top 2 or 3 inches of soil while effectively handling crop residue. “I’m looking for economies of scale,” Coker says. “We’re looking for ways to be successful with less tillage so we can plant in a timely fashion.”
Each year he considers burndown products to prevent early spring vegetation from developing, so he can avoid tilling. “This has allowed us to get away from disk harrows, plows and other deep tillage equipment,” Coker says.
In 2018, Coker purchased a tracked Claas 750 combine with a 32-foot stripper header to work in combination with his Case 9230. He is running two years of rice through each combine each season. “This may be risky. I don’t know how many farmers would try to harvest 4,000 acres of rice with two machines, but I spoke with a number of people about the Claas machine and their comments were all positive.
“They [Claas] have a rice package that includes more stainless steel and beefed up, heavier components in high-wear areas,” Coker says. “Rice is the most abrasive grain there is, and I feel like I can get more efficiency out of this machine by not having to replace augers, boots, elevator chains, or other components during harvest.”
Technology helps, too. Coker keeps abreast of everything going on through the Field View application on equipment and combines. “I’m able to use my iPad to see what’s going on with various aspects of my operation,” Coker says. “It’s a digital tool that allows me to view real time harvest data, as well as the location of my equipment. I can analyze yield performance by soil type, by each field, or by the hybrids I’m using. As long as I’ve got a cell signal, I can access it.”
Crop insurance and marketing
Coker also evaluates crop insurance each year, looking for the best coverage he can afford. “The amount of risk we take as farmers is hard for non-farmers to understand,” Coker says. “We’re putting our entire net worth up every year to plant a crop. It’s not a Harvard-designed business plan, and sometimes Mother Nature and/or the markets are not cooperative. Sometimes it comes down to how many dollars an acre I want to tie up in crop insurance.”
Coker says the last two farm bills addressed crop insurance. Today, more acreage is being covered, which he says is a direct result of the government (USDA) working with the Risk Management Agency to create policies farmers can afford. “We can insure almost anything,” Coker says. “Crop insurance can help if we need to replant, or even if we can’t plant. Preventive planting was a big buzzword this year.”
Two of the world’s largest rice cooperatives, Riceland Foods and Producer Rice Mill, are located in Stuttgart, a significant marketing advantage. “For years, rice farmers have cut rice and delivered it green to those two cooperatives,” says Coker, who is the chairman of the board for Producers Rice Mill. “They dry it, store it, mill it, and have marketing programs that allow farmers to sell on a daily cash price, forward contract, or place rice in a marketing pool — which is what a lot of farmers do, and they get advances throughout the year.”
Labor, technology, and communication
Retaining qualified and reliable farm labor continues to plague many farming operations across the country. Coker has used the H-2A visa program for at least 15 years. He and a few other farmers in Arkansas County formed a loosely knit organization to bring in Hispanic workers. The work force has included a father, brothers, a few cousins and uncles.
“Now their children have gotten old enough to participate,” Coker says. “They come over around the middle of March and return home around the beginning of November. I have a full-time crew of great guys with me all year, but the H-2A visa program allows me to supplement labor during the most labor-intensive part of the crop year.”
Coker’s labor needs correlate to planting and harvest. “Some crop years I get by with less labor, some years I can’t. H-2A helps reduce my risk of a labor shortage, and it pays off when I need to get a crop out during a narrow weather window,” Coker says.
Coker Farms spreads out over a 25-mile radius, and technology plays a key role in communication. The operation uses 11 grain trucks and trailers, and four seasonal truck drivers during harvest. Communicating independently with each one would eat up much of his time. “We all have iPhones and Facebook, so we use the Messenger App,” Coker says. “I can drop a location pin to identify the next field I want them to harvest and the drivers know just where to go without making a phone call or typing out directions.”
Coker believes a better way to do anything always exists and he is ready to evaluate that better way anytime the opportunity presents itself. “I think the real risk is not doing something, instead of doing it. If you risk nothing, you risk everything,” Coker said.