Soil Health Heroes

John Britt

Number Fifty Profiles of Soil Health Heroes is Making a Difference in Soil Health in Obion County, Tennessee 
by Mike Hubbs, TACD Soil Health Specialist

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In 2013, Tennessee NRCS and the Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts (TACD) focused on soil health. In 2014, I was fortunate to be hired by TACD to disseminate soil health information to farmers, partners and NRCS. One way that I decided to achieve my objective was to identify farmers with significant achievements in soilIMG 4637new IMG 4655newhealth. Approximately four years ago, I began a series of articles to identify Tennessee farmers for their soil health achievements, Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. During my writing of the first article, I was not sure where these were going. Since then we have completed 49 articles. This article sets a milestone as the 50th Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. 

I want to introduce Number 50 of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. John Britt farms in Obion County, Tennessee. I met with John Britt along with Josh Richardson, District Conservationist, Union City, Tennessee on December 5, 2018. Most of the farms that John farms are on State Line road between Tennessee and Kentucky. He shared with me that he has farmed his entire life. John is a fourth-generation farmer.  John's father passed away in 2002, and he became the main operator. His grandfather no-tilled in the 1970s. So, John not only grew up in a farming-family; he grew up being conservation-minded.

John is a one-man show on his operation1,400 acres. He produces corn, wheat, and soybeans. Wheat acreage is market driven. He grows a variety of group type soybeans to manage time. He grows 3.6s to 3.9s and then later plants 4.6s to 4.9s. This diversity of group type soybeans helps him spreads the time out for harvest of soybeans and corn. Also, John often focuses on earlier maturing soybeans to assure seeding of winter cover crops by October 15. 

Read more: John Britt

Holt and Randal Tapp

Fayette County Farmers Saving Dollars and Improving their Productivity by No-till and use of Cover Crops

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Our Profiles of Soil Health Heroes number 49 are Holt and Randal Tapp from Fayette County, Tennessee. I met with Fred Walker, District Conservationist, NRCS, Memphis, Tennessee, whom is acting in the Somerville Field Office, Sonny Jewell, County District Soil Conservation Technician, Somerville, Tennessee, and Holt and Randal on October 23, 2018. Holt and RandalIMG 4503new IMG 4497newshared how they are improving their soils with cover crops.

Like many farmers, the Tapp brothers progressed in conservation due to economics and labor. They described the amount of time involved in field preparations when they formerly used tillage and produced wheat for grain and a cover crop. They formerly produced wheat. The brothers would use 3-4 tillage passes to prepare seedbed for wheat. In their corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton conventional tillage system would use 3 tractors with 400-600 hours each season and would consume 16,000 gallons of diesel. Compared to now, they use 6,000 gallons on similar number of acres. Using $2.60 per gallon as price of fuel, they are now saving $26,000 dollars by switching from conventional tillage to no-till.

Read more: Holt and Randal Tapp

Brian and Bill Taylor

Planting Cover Crops, Improves Soil Function in West Tennessee

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Our Profiles of Soil Health Hero number 47 is Brian and Bill Taylor of Hardeman and Madison Counties. It was October 3, 2018 when I met Brian Taylor at the Jackson IMG 4371newFire Department. Brian is a fireman, and he farms with his dad, Bill Taylor. Bill also works off the farm at Jackson Energy Authority (JEA). Their farm is in Hardeman and Madison Counties. As I was interviewing Brian, I was accompanied by field office staffs from both Hardeman and Madison Counties, Brad Denton, District Conservationist and Joey Ferguson, Soil Conservationist, NRCS, Jackson, Tennessee and Adam Willis, District Conservationist and Nearlene Bass, County Soil Conservation Technician, Bolivar, Tennessee. The day was unusually hot for October, reaching the low 90s. Later that day, I met Bill on the farm.

Brian has worked at the Jackson City Fire Department for seven years. He has been farming with his dad for 10 years. The Taylors produce grainIMG 4360new crops of corn, wheat, soybeans, and they also produce cotton. Brian is a fourth-generation farmer. He said both of his great-grandfathers farmed. Brian and his dad farm some of the same land that his great-grandfathers farmed. The cropping operation is approximately 1,600 acres. Brian said that they have no-tilled the entire time that he has farmed. Bill began no-tilling about five years prior to Brian joining the operation. Brian says, other than leveling new ground that they obtain, they are 100% no-till. Brian said they obtain many farms that come out of pasture and CRP.  From the last few years they would proceed from grass IMG 4361newthen disk and do-all for leveling and plant no-till for the following 4 years and then transitioned the following 4 years with cover crops.

Their nutrient management consist of soil testing on 2.5 and 5 acres of grids. They hire an agronomist to sample every other year. They apply phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) and lime by variable rate. If prices are lower they apply sometimes by straight rate. For cotton and corn they apply urea in granular form near planting and follow up with 32% liquid nitrogen when cotton germinates and corn is at approximately v-5 to v-6 growth stage. So far, there are no changes with their previous weed and disease control regiment after using cover crops.

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Scotty and Jack Ogg

Progressive Soil Conservation Practices Lead to Soil Health Improvement in West Tennessee

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IMG 4472newMark Carroll, NRCS District Conservationist, Dresden, Tennessee and I met with Scotty and Jack Ogg on October 22, 2018. The IMG 4476newOgg farm is our Profiles of Soil Health Heroes number 48. Scotty and Jack farm in Weakley County. Orren (OP) Parker, Jack's nephew also farms with them. Scotty and Jack shared that Scotty's grandfather was old-school conservative farmer. He would not try cutting edge technology. Jack told me that his dad would not use fertilizer. Jack, on the other hand, was aggressive and believed that you invest in modern equipment and invest in land. Jack understood stewardship. He began no-till in the 1970s. Scotty added that his dad had invested in bermuda grass waterways and sediment basins to control gully erosion. 

As Scotty joined the operation, he no-tilled but other than wheat in the crop rotation, had no cover crops growing in the winter. West Tennessee has loess soils that are easily eroded. Even though most of their farming operation is gently rolling, erosion is a major concern. Scotty shared with me that it was common up to 10 years ago to use a field cultivator to work in the annual rills. No-till alone was not preventing erosion. Besides erosion, Scotty and Jack were concerned about soil organic matter decreasing which correlates to loss in yields. They also were concerned about water runoff and wanted more available water holding capacity. Another concern was weeds, especially Palmer Amaranth (pigweed) and Mares' tail. All of these concerns led them to add cover crops to their crop and pasture operation.

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Willis Jepson

Jepson Family Farms are Overcoming Challenges of No-till and Cover Crops to Improve Soil and Improve Profits

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The best part of my job is that I spend time with farmers and their families not only interviewing them for these articles, but spend quality time digging in the soil with them looking at the changes in their soil from applying conservation practices. The enthusiasm they have is contagious. Willis Jepson of Jepson Family Farms is a prime example of hard working farmers making a difference in farming and changing his soil health. Willis is our 46th Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. He farms in north Robertson County IMG 4119newline near Orlinda and Cross Plains, Tennessee and in southern Simpson County, Kentucky. My visit was on July 3, 2018. Nathan IMG 4125newHicklin, Soil Conservationist, NRCS, Springfield joined me on the visit. Nathan recently received the offer of District Conservationist for Springfield effective in early September, 2018. Nathan has assisted many farmers in Robertson County as well as in Cheatham and Maury Counties to improve their soil health.

I could tell the special community connection when Willis took us to Thomas Drugs, Cross Plains, Tennessee for lunch. I literally thought I stepped back in time such as the drug store portrayed in "It's a Wonderful Life" or a Norman Rockwell painting. It was nostalgic and reminiscent to drug stores 70 years ago. They had a malt shop with a variety of lunch menu that was very tasty. The experience was as good as the food. I say this to describe the environment that Willis Jepson and his family share on a daily basis. It is truly small-town USA. Jepson Family Farm is a large family farm consisting of over 5,000 acres. With double cropping of wheat and soybeans, they plant over 7,000 acres annually. Willis shared with me that he is a 7th generation farmer. His sons will be the 8th generation. The farming operation dates back to 1806. I think this history and the legacy of the farm motivates him to be on the cutting edge to constantly improve his soils and his net income.

Read more: Willis Jepson