Will and Johnny Robinson Making a Difference After First Year of Applying Cover Crops
I had the privilege of visiting "Gentleman Farmers, Robinson Farms" in Carroll County on July 12, 2017. Joining me to meet with Johnny and Will Robinson were Matthew Denton, Area Resource Conservationist, NRCS, Jackson, Tennessee, Lee Harris, and Ethan Pipkin, both Soil Conservationists, NRCS, Huntingdon, Tennessee. Will and Johnny Robinson are our 34th Profiles of Soil Health Heroes.
The Robinsons live and farm in Lavinia,Tennessee. Their operation consists of approximately 3,800 acres. They farm about 900 acres in pasture with 250 mamma cows with approximately 250 calves. Their cattle are mostly black Angus. Their 2,900 acres of cropland consist of 2,000 acres of cotton with the remaining acres in corn and soybeans. The Robinsons annually soil test. The local Farmers' Cooperative soil test and apply nutrients and lime by precision application. Generally, the farm is high in phosphorus (P2O5) and potassium (K2O). They split apply nitrogen (N) for corn and cotton. They apply a portion prior to planting with urea and side dress with liquid N using a knife applicator. Johnny said that their pH on the farm ranges from 6.3 - 6.5. The Robinsons plant their cotton on 38" rows, corn on 30" rows, and soybeans on 19" rows.
Johnny Robinson began experimenting with no-till in 1978. He assisted Tom McCutchen, the former Experiment Station Superintendent at the University of Tennessee Experiment Station in Milan, Tennessee, on building an 8-row Allis Chalmers no-till planter in 1980. We all know that Milan Tennessee Experiment Station became one of the foremost institution on spreading no-till in the south.
Because of the Robinson's interest in no-till and practicing conservation, they progressed in improving soil health in the fall of 2016 by applying their first year of multi species cover crops. The mix consisted of 26 lbs. of cereal rye, 20 lbs. wheat, 6 lbs. crimson clover, 3 lbs. of daikon radishes, and 2 lbs. collard greens, all per acre. They applied 100% of the covers using aerial seeding. Lee Harris, NRCS said that it was the best cover he saw aerially seeded in Carroll County last fall. Keep in mind that beginning covers in the fall of 2016 was challenging at best. We had some of the driest months of August - November on record. Follow that up with one of the warmest winters on record, and finally a very cool and wet spring. Even though the Robinson were farming multi species for the first time, they achieved excellent stands in significant amounts of cover crop residue.
The Robinsons terminated their covers at thigh-high for cotton. Cotton must be planted at 5/8" to an inch, so they killed it at the shortest height. Their stand, as you can tell, is excellent in the pictures. Also, evident in the pictures is a significant amount of cover from the multi species cover crop. This is significant because there are less farmers using multi species cover crops in cotton compared to corn and soybeans. Farmers like Will and Johnny will influence more cotton farmers to improve their soil health by growing cover crops and no-tilling continuously. The Robinsons also terminated their cover crops for corn at waist high and their covers prior to soybeans at approximately shoulder-high. They generally terminated their covers 14 days prior to planting. They planted in crispy covers. Although the cover was laid down evenly in the cotton, they planted in standing covers. The sprayers and planters laid the cover down fairly evenly.
Even though this was their first year in covers, they have noticed some weed suppression, better water infiltration (anecdotal) and cooler soil temperatures in the summer. When I dug into the soil, we saw some evident soil biology, and platy structure. I expect granular structure in about year three. Residues will begin to decomposed more readily about year three. The Robinsons are out to a great start in improving their soil health.
Soil health is improved by limiting disturbances, especially tillage. Tillage causes losses of soil organic matter by disturbing aggregates and exposing them to oxygen and bacteria. This action alone will increase decomposition of soil organic matter and break down soil aggregates. Growing a green plant and roots continuously are essential to produce carbon through photosynthesis, and thus increasing soil carbon or soil organic matter. Keeping the soil covered protects the soil as armor would. It also insulates the soil keeping it cooler in the summer and reduces losses in moisture. Cover also provides food to soil macro and microbes. Lastly, adding diversity provides diverse food for soil biology increasing quantity and diversity of soil biology. All of the four principles make soils more functional. That is better productivity and biodiversity, better nutrient cycling, better water infiltration, better filtering and buffering, and better structural support for plants.
Will Robinson said they want to continue to find this best combination of covers for their crops, especially cotton. This fall they are planning to aerial seed approximately 1,041 acres of multi species covers. They also grow approximately 100 additional acres in rye grass for forages. Their mix for this fall is planned to be 25 lbs. triticale, 25 lbs. winter barley, 8 lbs. crimson clover, 4 lbs. Balansa clover, and 1.5 lbs. Daikon radishes, all per acre.
Will and Johnny Robinson are on their way to improving their farming operation and the health of their soils by following the four principles of soil health. I am encouraged by their never quit attitude. I expect to see substantial changes in year two and year three. I hope other farmers reading this article will follow their example.