Always open to innovation — that’s Chris Couch. He loves to kick the tires on new farming technologies to see if they can save him money or make his 6,500 acre west Tennessee family farming operation more efficient.
He’s been farming full-time since 2001, and partners with his father, Joe, and his uncle, Ken. “I grew up in a baby carrier inside a tractor cab,” he says. “I attended UT Martin for a while one spring, but when it got time to harvest cotton, I couldn’t stand it any longer — I had to come home. My heart has always been on the farm.”
Couch Farms started increasing acreage in the early ‘90s, when some of the older farmers in the area began retiring. They knew the Couch family, offered them the opportunity to rent their land, or gave their landlords recommendations on the Couchs’ behalf.
The family operation grows cotton, corn, soybeans, and wheat, and also owns part of Mercer Gin at Mercer, Tenn. Their farm in Madison County has a few creek bottoms, but is replete with rolling hills and fields lined with lots of big trees. For the most part, pivots aren’t practical because of the numerous gullies and ditches running through their farming landscape.
“We’re fortunate to get ample rainfall,” Chris says. “We irrigated only about 500 acres, and if you look at a soil map of our fields, it looks like a tie-dyed shirt.”
INFORMATION AND INNOVATION
In 2004, when Chris was 15, his father agreed to look at a new sprayer. Joe Couch had always been a smart, common sense farmer, but he was old school, and technology wasn’t his forte.
When the ag equipment representative brought the highboy to the farm to explain how it and the guidance system already installed on it operated, Joe was skeptical. But after seeing what it could do in the field the next morning, he quipped, “We ain’t takin’ it off — I don’t care what it costs!”
“From that point,” Chris says, “I saw how innovation could improve the way we farm.” Swath control, or variable rate, was eventually added to the sprayer. That year, the Couches planted 4,000 acres of cotton, and when pest pressure escalated, they saw how valuable the technology could be from a cost perspective.
“We usually buy enough chemicals to cover a little more than we think we need, just to make sure we don’t run out,” Chris notes. “The first time we ran the sprayer with the variable rate control system, we came back to the shop with over 200 acres worth of chemicals left in the tank. Savings from that one application more than paid for what it cost to have the variable rate technology installed. We haven’t blanket sprayed since.”
Variable rate is also used on their planter, and there is a running joke between the three family farmers that if they ould benefit from installing it on their bush hog, they would.
VARIETY SETS BASELINE
A few years back, Chris got a call from Tyson Raper, assistant professor of plant sciences at the West Tennessee Research and Education Center at Jackson, about in-field variability and work on adjusting it within a testing program.
Raper was looking for a few acres to conduct small plot research on everything from varieties, traits, and seed treatments, to herbicides, herbicide tolerance, and insecticides. “Chris gave us carte blanche on 15 acres for small plot research,” he says. “In 2015, I received funding to conduct an in-depth replicated variety trial study, so Chris’ childhood schoolteacher and current Madison County Extension Agent Jake Mallard, and I again approached Chris about conducting the trial on his operation.”
Dr. Bob Nichols, Cotton Incorporated, who partnered with the cotton specialists to fund the project, says, “Seed is a grower’s biggest cost each season, and variety sets the baseline for annual returns by fixing potential yield and fiber quality.”
Raper and Mallard knew Chris was a self-taught techie, but when they all sat down to discuss a suitable site for the trials, Chris’ propensity for innovation paid off. “He pulled up all of these great yield-trend and soil maps he’d been accumulating,” Mallard says. “It made our field selection decision much easier.”
Raper’s goals for the project were two-fold: He wanted a producer who could commit the time it would take to plant, monitor, treat, and harvest the trial, and he wanted to test a large number of factors on a wide-cross section of environments.
“Tyson and Jake made it so easy because of their excellent planning,” Chris says. “I’ll bet we planted eight varieties over the 36 acres in under two hours.”
In previous non-replicated research, Raper had to combine variety performance data from multiple counties to account for field variability, but this trial and the data it provided made it possible for him to give growers a stand-alone recommendation. “Some varieties perform well on bottom-type acreage,” Raper says. “Others do better on rolling ground.
“The beauty of this project on Couch farms is that they have ground that incorporates these two landscapes, plus a wide array of soils. Producers can take results from this study and feel very confident about selecting varieties for their operation, thanks to our being able to eliminate variability through replication.”
In 2015, the variety trial was huge — 56 acres. In 2016, they dropped it to 35 acres, selected eight different varieties, and planted them with a DV 44 planter on 38-inch rows. The top five varieties, in performance order, in 2016 were Phytogen 444, Stoneville 4946, Dyna-Gro 3385, Phytogen 333, and Stoneville 4848.
“I would come out each week and check on the trial’s growth,” Mallard says. “Thankfully, pest pressure was somewhat low, except on the portion of the trial conducted on bottom land, where at one point we were controlling plant bugs bi-weekly. We always seemed to pick up pests from other crops, especially from adjacent corn.”
Chris doesn’t have the overall weed pressure of some areas in west Tennessee. He rotates diligently and goes heavy with his burndown, uses residuals, and his dad is adamant about hand-pulling pigweed if he spots one from the road.
“Because my neighbors farm like I farm — proactively and with precaution, we just don’t have that much pigweed pressure, and we want to keep it that way,” Chris says.
He has a vested interest in this innovative research partnership, and watches the trial’s progressive development throughout the growing season, how it reacts to certain inputs and environmental changes — and he learns. “I’m taking information from those 35 acres, comparing it to my cotton, and making notes for 2017,” he says. “I don’t like to farm from the cab, using yield guess-o-nomics.’ Some varieties that you think would smoke the others just didn’t do it. Have the last two years of this research influenced my operation? Are my variety decisions being influenced by Tyson and Jake’s research findings? Absolutely!”
Chris is conservative when choosing varieties, and selects only those that, on average, will perform well in a wide range of environmental influences and soil types. Every acre of the 1,855 acres of cotton he produced in 2016 was planted to a top-performing variety in the 2015 replicated field trial.
“Cotton seed varieties have improved dramatically over the last decade,” Chris says, “and I have seen a lot of producer shift in adoption to some of the newer trait-specific varieties. While these may be good varieties, I believe what’s going to pay at the end of the year is fiber quality, yield potential, and yield stability — not specifically traits. To make sure competition drives the market, I believe emphasis needs to be placed on those three key aspects of a variety, rather than the traits placed into it.”
INNOVATION IN CONSERVATION
Couch Farms’ average field is around 30 acres, but it’s common to have many separate fields making up one 200 acre farm. The fields are not delineated with bar ditches or fences, but are usually lined with mature trees whose huge overhanging canopies limit direct sunlight and inhibit plant growth.
“It was costing me the same amount of money to try and raise a crop in those areas of marginal ground as it was in the middle of the field,” Chris says. He started working with the local FSA office and NRCS representative to take advantage of a provision of the Conservation Reserve Program that pays landlords to let a renter plant borders around the edges of the field.
He worked with the state biologist to devise a mix of native grasses that would flow through a drill. After making one pass around the field, he came back and placed flags on the inside of the border’s edge to separate the non-emerged grass from the beginning of the 38-inch cotton rows.
“The positive aspects of borders are numerous,” Chris says. “If I’ve got a farm making a 1,000 pound average, I could easily be averaging 1,100 to 1,200 pounds by not having to plant on marginal ground shaded by trees. Take that out, and it’s money in my pocket.”
Couch Farms has been applying variable rate fertilizer, seed, herbicides, and insecticides for so long it has become second nature, he says, but field borders are the most recent innovation they have adopted over the last two years.
“My landlords are hunters, and deer have to walk over those borders to get to whatever was planted last year — corn, soybeans, or wheat — yet another advantage, and one that helps keep my landlords smiling,” he says.
DOWN THE ROAD
Moving forward, Raper and Mallard remain committed to the variety trials, as long as Chris is willing to participate. They all see it as a benefit, not only for Couch Farms, but for every farmer who may profit from the results.
As seed companies urge producers to book their orders earlier to qualify for discount programs, the importance of getting varietal performance research data tallied sooner is paramount. Mallard says he started getting calls for their 2016 data in November.
“One farmer called requesting the data, and told me he had a seed company representative in the harvester cab with him, wanting him to place his 2017 seed order.”
Couch considers his cooperation in supporting the ongoing variety trial program as just another opportunity to evaluate innovation that can lead to profitability — a door he says he will always keep open.
Preliminary data from the 2016 Replicated Cotton Variety Performance Trials may be found at http://bit.ly/2hQ9iPU, or at UTCrops.com