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Casey Hook Targets the Top Tier in His Farming Operation

10 Up & Comers: Casey Hook

Ever heard the quote by the late race car driver Dale Earnhardt that second place is just the first-place loser? Well, that’s how Casey Hook approaches farming.

“I want to be at the top – not second best to anyone,” says the 27-year-old Lake City, Arkansas, farmer. “We’re getting into a situation where people in our country expect things. I never got participation trophies. I had to win to get something.”

The competitive fire that burns inside Hook was honed growing up on his family’s farm in northeastern Arkansas. Growing up, he vacillated about whether he wanted to farm.

“Coming out of high school, I decided to give it a shot,” he says. “I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity.”

In 2009, he rented 40 acres of dryland cotton from a family friend.

It wasn’t the smoothest of starts – drought and nematodes snuffed yields – but it wasn’t the worst either.

Things got better. “That second year, I got some irrigated land and planted rice and hit a good price,” he says. “I was able to capitalize on that.”

In the meantime, he attended Arkansas State University majoring in agricultural business.

“I stayed close to home and went to school full time while farming,” he says. “I was able to juggle both.”

Since then, he’s expanded to the point where he normally grows soybeans, rice, corn, and cotton across 1,400 acres. He still works closely with his father, Mike, but they farm under two separate land bases and business entities.

He’s quickly made his mark. Hook took second place in the 2015 Grow for the Green Yield Contest in Arkansas, racking up a 94 bushel-per-acre soybean yield. The winner that year? His father, Mike, with a 95.3 bushel-per-acre yield tally.

Hook is aiming higher. “There is always room for improvement,” he says. “Don’t ever think you are too big to change.”

Both Sides

Farming was zooming on the upside when Hook began farming, and it’s now zoomed back to the downside.

Net farm income in 2017 is down 50% from its 2013 peak, says Nathan Kauffman, assistant vice president and Omaha branch executive with the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

“I have seen both extremes of the economy,” Hook says. “It’s a whole lot more fun to make money, but tough times force me to watch my budgets. Tough times have taught me to buckle down and analyze everything to a tee.”

That applies to his crop lineup. “My favorite crop is soybeans,” he says. “I have had the most success with them.”  

Markets, though, call the shots.

“They tell me what to do when it comes to the bottom line,” he says. “Typically, I will plant a year of soybeans following a year of corn that’s followed by a year of cotton.”

In 2017, though, Hook isn’t planting corn.

“I can’t eke out a profit at $4 corn (per bushel),” he says. “Everything that would have been in corn is in soybeans this year. I was lucky to price some soybeans at $10.50.”

Opportunities and Challenges

Once the rotation is set, Hook aims for the highest economical yields. He doesn’t farm rich black soils like those in Iowa or Illinois. Although his soils tend to have lower organic matter content, though, they have good internal drainage. This makes them conducive for irrigation on precision level fields.

“I’m blessed with a 5- to 20-foot deep water table from the Mississippi River Valley alluvial aquifer,” he says. “It replenishes during winter, so water is there in the growing season.”

There’s a downside, though. On soybeans, for example, a quick canopy and abundant irrigation water fuel disease.

“I have run into a new disease called target spot, which affects both soybeans and cotton. It starts from the bottom of the canopy and works its way up. So, when I'm driving down the road at 40 mph and don’t get in my fields, it can sneak up before I know it.”

Lodging is another concern.

“I have terrible lodging problems in pushing my beans,” Hook says.

To help minimize lodging, he’s experimented with ways to stack the first 7 to 8 nodes of a soybean plant early. So far, though, he hasn’t found any technique that works consistently. He’ll keep trying, though.

Seed selection is a top way to minimize lodging. “I want to make sure I have a variety that doesn’t have too much growth early on,” he says.

Relative maturities range between 3.9 to 5.3, with most varieties falling between 4.6 and 4.9. “I have on-farm trials and look at strip trials in my area that are done by seed companies and universities,” he says.

Hook also plants soybeans on the thick side. “The way I plant is three rows on 38-inch beds, rather than single rows,” he says. In this configuration, seeding rates are 150,000 to 185,000 plants per acre.

Products and Strategies

“I use products in my (yield) contest plots to see if they are economical to use across on my farm,” he says. “The next year, I use them on about 25% of my acres, and if they work, I use them across the farm.”

One tool Hook uses on soybeans to manage disease is a fungicide application applied at R3 (beginning pod). He often stacks the fungicide with growth stimulators like BioForge and micronutrients based on tissue samples in order to curb midseason maladies.

It’s not all products, though. One key to boosting soybean yields is early planting.

“By planting earlier (by April 20), I’m able to push the flowering period longer,” he says. “The longer the plant is flowering, the more it has a chance of setting pods.”

Nematodes also pose a hurdle, as they plague both soybeans and cotton. Besides soybean cyst nematodes (SCN), he also has root knot nematodes in cotton. Ways to manage them include planting a nematode-resistant variety and/or using in-furrow seed treatments.

For example, using new treatments like Ilevo on fields prone to high SCN infestations. Foliar products have also been used to supplement fields treated with seed treatments.

Proper nutrient application is key. When he grows corn, Hook applies nitrogen (N) to his crops via split applications.

“I start with some preplant, sidedress 32% N, and then come back at tasseling,” he says.

Another challenge Hook faces includes variable soils. Precision farming data collected on individual fields help him target which crops and techniques to aim on these soils. Rice comes into the picture on heavy gumbo soils. On these soils, he plants one year of rice and one year of soybeans.

High nighttime temperatures are a hurdle that still stymies Hook.

 “If I run into 85˚F. temperatures at night, I can’t prevent that,” he says.

High nighttime temperatures hurt pollination, especially on corn. As with soybeans, early planting is one way to dodge the worst of these high nighttime temperatures.

Markets also can be out of control, although sound marketing strategies can remove some of the sting from them.

“I don’t get too greedy,” he says. “I don’t hit the top every year, but I try not to hit the bottom. I watch market trends and five-year averages. I try to hedge a certain percentage at a time and, hopefully, I end up with a profit.”

Nothing Half Way

While not farming, Hook enjoys duck hunting. “In the summer when I do have free time or when it rains, I enjoy going to the lake and hanging out with friends and just relaxing,” he says.

When he returns to farming, though, he’s all on task.

“I won’t attack anything half way,” he says. “That’s not the way I was brought up.”

Casey Hook is featured in Successful Farming magazine10 Up & Comers article on pages 46 and 47 in the June/July issue.

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