From 300 Acres to 4,000 Acres, Cover Crops and No-till Change Soil Health in Tipton County, Tennessee
I visited the Hopkins' Farm on July 13, 2017 along with George Henshaw, NRCS District Conservationist for Lauderdale County, Tennessee and Acting District Conservationist for Tipton County. "Gentleman" would be the word to describe Glenn Hopkins. He and his family are truly hospitable and gracious. I feel bless to visit this family and to write about their accomplishments. Glenn Hopkins is our 35th Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Glenn's partner and wife is Marcie. Their oldest son is Nathan, 18 years old. Nathan is active working on the farm. He is also active in tractor pulling. Glenn and Marcie also have twin sons who are 13 years old, Mike and Mitch. They assist on the farm. Glenn's parents, Troy and Gail Hopkins also own interest in the farming operation.
Glenn Hopkins is a third-generation farmer from Tipton County, Tennessee. Glenn's grandfather was a cotton ginner, and farmed cattle, cotton, and chickens. He would work the cotton gin in the fall, and the family would farm the cotton. His grandparents began farming as share croppers. Glenn's grandfather died when he was three years old. Glenn shared that he began driving a tractor at age 7. Growing up working on the farm was expected. It also became his hobby along with baseball until he was 10. He farmed until college age. The 1980s were tough for farmers. There were droughts and prices were not that good. Glenn went off to college, but after seeing college was not for him, he went into law enforcement at age 19. He was a deputy sheriff for Tipton County. During this time, Glenn did earn an Associate's degree in law enforcement and was planning to finish a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice at Memphis State University. His father had an injury and required surgery in the fall of 1992. Glenn did not go to school that fall. He stayed on the farm and harvested the crops. He married Marcie in 1994 and began contemplating his occupation for the future. He decided that farming was more conducive for his family than law enforcement. Troy offered him a job farming with him, and Glenn became a full-time farmer in 1995.
Mr. Troy Hopkins became interested in no-till in the 1980s. Troy and Glenn both said the results were not very good because of weed pressures and lack of chemicals. They had a John Deere 4-row planter. They said due to lack of cover in the no-till cotton, the middles would wash away. Their farm is gently rolling to sloping. Their soils are loess and are very erosive. With better weed control from better chemistry in the 1990s, they kept trying no-till. They progressed to applying wheat for cover crop using a high clear range fertilizer buggy as cotton was defoliated. They would terminate the wheat at 8-10" in height. Slowly but surely, they saw changes in the soil; most notably, was less erosion.
In 2007, they began using a do-all and spinner-truck to apply wheat. They would follow up in the spring by no-tilling crops in killed wheat. Even though they were no-tilling, they still disked from time to time. I explained to them that highway departments used a disk when building a road bed. Disking destroys soil structure and increases bulk density or compaction. They have parked their 4-wheel drive tractor and 32 foot disk. They have also bought 40 feet air seeder drill. Their goal is not to hook up to the 350 horse power 4-wheel drive tractor and disk.
They farm 4,000 acres, 1,275 acres are in cotton, 200 acres in wheat and 2,725 acres are in soybeans. Since 2012, they have not grown any corn. Glenn plans to add corn back to the rotation in 2018. He quickly noted that they would plant corn green in cover crops. Glenn says they run two combines in the fall, and no-till drills covers behind the combines. Glenn plants cotton on 38" rows and soybeans on both 71/2 and 15 "rows. corn will be planted on 38" rows.
Their multi species mix was cereal rye, wheat, crimson clover, tillage radishes, and purple turnips. This is the mix prior to soybeans and cotton under the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). They also plant cereal rye and wheat for soybeans not in the program. They began in 2015 with 300 acres. Their plans for this fall is to apply covers on 4,000 acres. Corn ground will be 4 lbs. Balansa clover, 8 lbs. crimson clover, 8 lbs. Austrian winter peas, 12 lbs. cereal rye, 2 lbs. nitro radish, and 4 lbs. buckwheat, all species per acre basis.
For their cotton ground in the fall of 2017, they plan to plant 4 lbs. Balansa clover, 8 lbs. crimson clover, 6 lbs. winter peas, 15 lbs. cereal rye, 15 lbs. winter wheat, and 2 lbs. of nitro radishes, all species at a per acre basis. Their soybean ground will be 2 lbs. Balansa clover, 4 lbs. crimson clover, 30 lbs. cereal rye, 30 lbs. winter wheat, and 2 lbs. nitro radishes, all per acre basis. Most of the multi species will be under EQIP contract. The remaining acres on soybean ground not in EQIP will be planted to Cereal rye and winter wheat.
Glenn attended the National No-till Meeting in St Louis, Missouri in January of 2017. Glenn found out about a Dawn Biologic 2RX Crimper/Roller. The Dawn unit is front-in loaded. Glenn purchased the roller. The roller was designed for flat land and Glenn is making modifications for each attachment in each row to have springs so they can move up and down on sloping land. The unit is 12-row 38" rows. This is the second one that they built for 38" rows. Glenn bought it in January with a promise of delivery in February. Well, when they finally received the right set back bar and units, it was May 23. With the problem of stationary units, Glenn ditched the use of the Dawn in 2017. Modifications are being made for 2018 crop year. They used a rented I and J roller/crimper rented from the Lauderdale County Soil Conservation District to roll their 2017 cover crops.
As most of the readers are aware, Tennessee was very cool and wet in the spring of 2017. With an extremely dry fall in 2016, managing covers in the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2017 after an unusually warm winter was challenging at best. The Hopkins along with many farmers persisted and made it work. They planted early soybeans April 10 beginning with drilling beans at 7.5" rows to crowd out Palmer Amaranth. Ran drill until about May 10. They generally planted green and then killed covers using Dual and Paraquat. Covers were generally waist-high for soybeans. They used the roller crimper for cotton ground. It was wet. They began on May 10 which is later than normal for their cotton planting, but due to wetness, they had to delay. This made the covers higher and thicker at shoulder-high. They managed to get good stands.
Their nutrient management consists of soil testing every 2-3 years on 2.5 acres grids. They use variable rate precision application for phosphate (P) potash (K) and liming if soil test shows significant differences. In their cotton, Glenn split-applies the nitrogen (N) at 45 units at planting and 35 - 45 units side dressed.
I asked Glenn what he would advise other farmers; he said farmers need to change and adapt by reducing inputs and maintain or hopefully increase yields. He knows that his current soil health improving practices of keeping the soil covered, reducing soil disturbances, keeping a plant and root growing, and diversifying the plants will increase his soil organic matter, improve soil structure, suppress weeds, especially Palmer Amaranth, reduce chemical protectants, provide more time to family, church and tractor pulling. Glenn talked about the days when they tilled, he missed out on additional family time. He summarized with a smile that is number one priority was God, family was number 2, and business was number three. With Glenn's accomplishments who could argue.
Troy being from an older generation, have been slower to accept the cover crops and planting in heavy residues. He remarked that he had been to some field days and was impressed with water infiltration test going much quicker into the soil compared to no-till. He is coming along, but admitted the covers in the wet spring challenged his heart a few times. It is great to see their wiliness to change and to go with covers to improve the soil and their bottom line.
Examining the fields, we saw good weed suppression and better soil structure. As the root exudates of simple sugars and proteins feed the soil biology, structure changes from platy (horizontal) to granular. This results in better water infiltration. Almost 95% of soil functions are affected by soil biology. The only way to increase quantity and quality of soil biology is to increase diversity and increase carbon. Carbon production begins simply through photosynthesis. We must have green plants present to capture the flow of energy from the sun. When we have green plants present at all times we capture more energy resulting in more carbon produced through photosynthesis. Fields without green plants are degrading. As root exudates leak food to the biology, nutrients are recycled along with better soil structure due to better soil aggregation. As soil biology dies, nutrients are recycled. As roots and plant parts are left after cover crops are terminated and crops die, carbon begins to be decomposed by soil biology, slowly increasing soil carbon or soil organic matter in the soil. Glenn has learned this, and we saw the results on our visit. This especially noteworthy for farmers growing cotton. Cotton farmers have not adopted cover crops as much as their counterparts growing corn, wheat, and soybeans.
I hope other farmers will take on Glenn's urging that farmers must cut back on inputs and make changes positively to their soil. Glenn has done that and continues doing that by planting cover crops, diversifying his crop rotation and no-tilling.