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Incredible Soil Changes from Thirty Three-Years of No-till and Thirty years of Cover Crops
As I begin writing this article, I cannot believe this is number 30 in our series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. This one is special because I met this farmer over 30 years ago, when I was a District Conservationist with what was then the USDA Soil Conservation Service (SCS) now the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). I was District Conservationist in Jefferson County, Tennessee from 1981 to 1987. It is a pleasure after 30 years to visit and write about Jay Moser, our 30th Soil Health Hero. In the mid to late 1970s, I also remembered nominating the Jay Moser Farm as Conservation Farmer of the Year when I was District Conservationist. It is easily to see why Jay was Conservation Farmer of the Year.
I made my initial visit with Jay on December 21, 2016. The day was a very cold 23 degrees during the visit. I made a follow up visit to take some photographs on February 13, 2017, 52 degrees. Jay has been in the liming business since 1978. Jay is owner of Mossy Creek Mining and markets his lime through Tennessee Valley Resources. Jay sells lime across the state of Tennessee as well to five other Southeastern States. Jay is owner and operator of his 2,000 acres farming operation in Jefferson County, Tennessee. Due to owning some mines, Jay as access to ground water in the mines, and has 3 central pivot irrigation system. He can extract water at 2500 gallons per minute easily applying 3/4" of water per hour.
When I was District Conservationist, I knew the home farm of Jay and his father by seeing the contour strip cropping fields from the main highway from Jefferson City to Morristown. Those strips were laid out by USDA-SCS in the early 1970s. For years, the strips were a landscape marker. The soils are Dewey and Decatur on slopes ranging from 4 to 8 percent. The dark soils when tilled contrasted well with alternating grass strips. In 1984, the Mosers began using no-till. Jay said they quit tilling, and he has been in continuous no-till since 1984.
About the time that I was leaving Jefferson county, in 1988, the Mosers began flying on hairy vetch in a corn-soybean rotation. The strips slowly disappeared as they converted to continuous no-till with cover crops. Since the initial use of vetch, Jay has changed to cereal rye prior to soybeans and barley prior to corn. Jay has been in continuous covers crops with corn and soybeans since 1984. In my travels on several farms in Tennessee, it is the longest continuous cover crops and no-till that I know of in the state of Tennessee.
Jay has studied about adding wheat to his rotation. He does grow some cereal grains for cover crops. Jay has talked about raising some summer cover crops after cereal grains. He also is looking at his chemistry of herbicides to see about adding legumes to his mix. He prefers vetch. His current system is working well, but Jay is always looking at ways to improve his farming operation.
He currently plants his covers soon after harvest by broadcasting seed with spinner truck using diammonia phosphate (DAP) fertilizer as a carrier. He uses a Phillips Harrow (30 feet wide) at the least aggressive angle to provide seed to soil contact. Jay is limited with labor at planting and harvest and must be efficient. He seeds 2,000 acres of cover crops and needs to do it efficiently. He terminates cereal rye at about knee high and plants late group 3s and early group 4s soybeans. He terminates barley about the same height and plants corn. He terminates covers about two weeks prior to planting. He also plants some barley for seed and uses seed for cover crops. Jay has two-twelve row Kinze no-till planters. The planters are equipped with a lead coulter, double disk openers, seed firmer, and spike closing wheels at 30" rows. For soybeans, he uses a splitter row at 15" with v closing rubber wheels. Jay does not use row cleaners. Jay plants 32,000 plants per acre on dry-land corn, and 34,000 for irrigated corn. He plants 140,000 - 150,000 plants per acre in soybeans.
A recent farm that Jay purchased (Manley tract), Jay planted 400 acres in the fall of 2015, of sunflower, daikon radish, rye grass, vetch, and crimson clover. Jay wanted to provide cover for his first-year crops. Even in the dry year of 2016, Jay averaged between 50-60 bushels of soybeans per acre.
Jay has also applied gypsum (calcium sulfate) on 1,500 acres. The gypsum flocculates the soil which improves aggregation and soil structure, resulting in better water infiltration.
Jay's 400 acres under pivot irrigation averaged 268 bushels per acre. In 2015, his dry land corn averaged 220 bushels per acre. To illustrate what Jay's long-term no-till and cover crops are doing, Jay told me in 2015, they missed applyingnitrogen (N) on12 rows of corn. So, 12 rows did not receive any nitrogen. The rest of the corn received 200 units of total N. When he harvested the area without N, he measured it and it weighed out 159 bushels of corn without N. That is amazing in itself. Another example of the system helping yields, with no significant rain in 2016, the farm averaged 125 bushels in corn and 50 bushels in soybeans which is exceptional for the amount of rain received. The system is working.
Jay soil tests on 10-acres of grids. His farm normally tests high in potassium (K) His pH and been stable at 7.0 for five years. One of the amazing benefits of Jay's long-term farming practices, is the fact that Jay has not needed to apply lime in five years. Keep in mind Jay owns the lime and can easily afford to apply it. Another amazing fact is that he also has not applied any potassium in five years. His soil organic matter levels average between 3.5 to 6.2 soil organic matter at 0-6" depth.
We are not use to these high levels of soil organic matter in agroecosystems. With high percent of soil organic matter, Jay's CEC levels range 12 - 15. The higher CEC provides more negative sites to hold calcium and potassium. The roots from the covers are also up taking more nutrients such as potassium and calcium. Jay applies phosphorus by soil test and applies 40 units of N at planting for corn with additional 160 after planting at V4 - V6 growth stage. Jay is seeing a major economic impact by savings in potassium and lime. His yields are very consistent due to the high levels of soil organic matter.
His mom's place is in Dandridge Tennessee. It is approximately 90 acres. The soils are less fertile, Dunmore silt loam. Jay recently planted rye grass, radish, vetch, and crimson clover in late August. There was not a summer crop that year. The previous year had been in soybeans. Following the cover crop, he planted dry-land corn. He yielded 240 bushels per acre. His mom's place soil organic matter is over 4%.
His recently purchased farm (Manley tract) has soil organic matter of about 1.5%. Another farm that he bought 3 years ago, Courtney Place is 2%. Jay said that his home farm was about 1.5% in soil organic matter when he began using cover crops. All of Jay's farms that have had 20 years or more of no-till and cover crops are 3.5 - 6 %. The soils on his home place (700 acres) are very dark, the structure is granular at surface and sub-angular blocky down to 6". The soil was full of earthworms when we dug in the soils, February 13 in the evening at about 52 degrees Fahrenheit. I did not see any tillage pans whatsoever. The Philips harrow that barely scratches the soil is not disturbing the soil any more than a no-till drill. The soil penetrated easily with my shovel down to 6". Based on earthworm activity and soil structure, I am sure that water infiltrates well. Jay's long-term farming practices make the cropland soil look more like soil that has been under long-term pastures. Jay's commitment to not disturbing his soil, keeping the soil covered, keeping a live root growing, and adding some diversity to corn-bean rotation has radically changed the soils. Jay's farm and his soil changes set the bar for what others may achieve using the same principles. It takes time and persistence by no-tilling and use of cover crops to achieve the levels of soil health that Jay Moser has achieved. His soils are making a difference in his profit margin too.