MONROE, NC – When you farm close to 12,000 acres of double cropped corn, wheat and beans, you have to pay close attention to every detail. When you raise several varieties of those crops – with each variety demanding its own management approach – you’ve got to be focused and attentive.

Driven and detail-oriented are certainly apt descriptions for the three-generation operation of Marion, Rusty and Campbell Cox, a father-son-grandson operation east of Charlotte. In addition to crop farming, the farm also raises upwards of 40,000 hogs and has other businesses as well, such as cleaning out local poultry houses.

With that much complexity in the scale of the operation, the Coxes’ operational strategy is one which is “basic rather than elaborate,” said Rusty.

“Yet we still prioritize being acute and precise,” Campbell added. “Three years ago our farm goal was ‘back to basics.’ We spend a lot of time and energy on basics. If the soil pH is not right, micronutrients won’t help.”

As part of their operational review, the family evaluated their equipment, starting with planting equipment. “If you don’t start off right,” Campbell said, “you can’t fix it mid-crop.”

After an extensive review, they decided to go with Horsch planters. “They have 700 pounds of down force,” Rusty said, which is important when planting beans into wheat which yields 80 – 100 bushels/acre. Union County soils with their high clay content can be very hard when dry.

The Coxes take into account the soil type when planning out their agronomic schedule. For example, while their corn stands average a population of 26,000 – 28,000 plants/acre, the range varies from 18,000 – 32,000 plants/acre, based on soil type, variety and time of planting.

Each year the farm plans multiple varieties of each major crop, including some experimental varieties, as part of a constant drive to improve. The corn varieties are primarily DeKalb; the soybeans and wheat varieties primarily Asgrow and USG.

“Every single field requires different management,” Campbell said. “Selection of variety, fertilizer rates – each step is very important.”

The farm is entirely dryland farmed and almost entirely no-till. Last year had sufficient rainfall to permit corn to average 187 bushels/acre, above the typical 120 bushels/acre.

Cox Brothers Farms succeeds by going back to basics

Rusty and Campbell Cox check the maturity stage of wheat in one of their fields. Photo by Karl H. Kazaks

“I’ve got to give a hat tip to the Extension services,” Rusty said. “They’re an integral part of our operation. Their information is very helpful in making our day-to-day decisions.”

In addition, consultant Paul Bodenstine of Virginia’s Ag Systems is an important sounding board for the farm. “He is a real wealth of information,” Rusty said.

The farm employs about 20 local residents. “A farm is no different than any other successful business,” Rusty said. “All team members have to be team players.”

The farm was founded in the early 1960s when Marion Cox, who was born a few miles away, bought his first 75 acres. In the early years, in addition to cereals and beans, the farm raised cotton as well as chickens and turkeys.

For many years, the farm ran as a partnership between Marion and his brother Bobby, with help from Rusty and Bobby’s son Robby – and the extended family. At one point the farm included more than 16,000 acres. But a few years ago the two branches of the family decided to operate separately.

“The most important person is Mama,” Rusty said of his mother, Delano Cox, who together with Rusty’s sister Sonya oversees the farm’s extensive administrative duties.

While Marion is of retirement age, he’s certainly not slowed down. A recent visit to the farm found him on a trackhoe, stumping recently logged ground, getting it ready for farmland.

Rusty’s no stranger to tractor time himself, having been farming since he was 8, running a disc harrow on a JD 5020.

One thing that’s crystal clear to Rusty is that the farm’s profitability “only comes from efficiency. We make every step count with every team member.”

And they make sure every piece of equipment is the right piece of equipment for their operation. In addition to studying every available type of planter, the Coxes searched every make and every model to find the most productive piece of equipment for them. For harvesters, they decided to stay with CLAAS, for that line’s ability to get the most tonnage into the grain bin. “We want every kernel in the grain bin,” Rusty said.

In 2010, when CLAAS was releasing its new Lexicon series in America, the company shot a promotional video on the farm.

Other memories on the farm stem from challenges – such as when, on Sept. 22, 1989, Hurricane Hugo flattened the farm’s grain facilities, its feed mill, several poultry houses and an equipment shed. This spring the farm suffered twin disasters. On May 14, a fire in the hog operation destroyed a farrowing house and nurseries, leading to loss of over 5,000 hogs. A week later a tornado tore down an equipment shed on the farm.

“We’re familiar with tough times here,” Rusty said. “But I still love it. You have to.”

by Karl H. Kazaks