Improving Soil Health with Organic Crop Production and Grazing Livestock
Alfred Farris from Orlinda, Tennessee, Robertson County is our 40th Profile of Soil Health Heroes. I had the privilege to visit Alfred's farm along with Nathan Hicklin, NRCS, Springfield, Tennessee on December 18, 2017. Alfred and his lovely wife, Carney, began farming in the 1960s. Alfred shared that his family had been in the lumber business. They owned some land west of Nashville in Kingston Springs. Alfred and Carney began farming in a conventional method with cattle and corn. The Farris family are devoted Christians. Alfred said that they were practicing community Christian living with approximately 250 people who worked and lived on the farm over the years in the 1970s. There was a question asked that changed their farming strategy. The question went something like this "if the land belongs to God,and we are His stewards, why are we using toxic chemicals on His land?" Also, there was a young student living on the farm who was sent to the University of Missouri for an agriculture degree, where Dr. William Albrecht was considered one of the pioneers of modern organic movement. Alfred also visited the Rodale Institute and totally changed his mindset. He wanted to adopt principles that build the soil and cut out chemicals. Compost and cover crops along with livestock were his strategies
Alfred and Carney moved to Uganda in 1980 and spent many years doing mission work and working with displaced refugees. In 1986, they returned from Uganda. They sold the home farm and bought their current farm in Orlinda, Tennessee around 1986. When they bought the farm, they wanted to lease it out to a person that would farm it organically. The Farris family was still traveling back and forth to Uganda as they were transitioning the farm. They began growing cover crops, planted rye prior to soybeans. To bring back life in the soil, they began making compost.
Their compost was made with sawdust and chicken manure. They applied approximately 1,000 tons of compost per year on corn ground for 20 years. Alfred said that his first crop was soybeans after a cereal rye cover crop. He said dealing with the biomass was nearly impossible. He began his endeavor and soon bought a combine. Alfred's friend, Sam Justice, who was working in a factory and also growing organic blue berries helped Alfred in organic grain farming. They worked together for 15 years. Alfred shared that the farm had previously been cropped heavily. There were no fences on the property. Alfred knew that the foundation of organic farming had to be cover crops, rotation of crops, and compost. As they transitioned, they used some herbicides in a narrow band in crop rows. They eventually quit applying chemicals, and the farm was certified organic in 1997 by USDA. Alfred said they learned to live with weeds. He said that to farm organically, one has to choose some tillage (steel) or not farm organically and use herbicides. He was determined to completely transition to organic and some tillage is utilized in his operation.
A unique feature to grain farming organically to build soil health is incorporation of grazing. They built some perimeter fencing with high-tensile wire and used poly wire or aluminum wire to separate paddocks to practice rotation grazing. He also practices a six-year conservation crop rotation system of three years grass, followed by corn, soybeans, wheat, and back to grass. Fifteen years ago, he wanted to no-till his crops. He would disk to transition from grass to his fall cover crop, usually in August and plant his cover crops in September. He bought a 6' pipe with cleats on it and began using it to roll covers on two acres of corn. He began with hairy vetch. The year was wet, and he waited for the corn to emerge. Shortly afterwards, weeds emerged and he used a flamer to burn the small germinating weeds. The rolled mulch was wet, and the flamer worked well. In his second year of using a flamer, he followed the same prescription to control weeds. As you know every crop season is unique and that year it was dryer. With the mulch dry and crunchy, the flamer caught fire to the mulch and the entire field burned up.
Five years ago, Alfred built a roller crimper. He demonstrated his organic no-till at a meeting of the Cumberland River Compact to show ways to improve soil as well as water quality and health. He has continued no-till crops behind rolled covers for the last five years. Alfred cautions that timing is the key to try to plant in heavy cover crop mulches without use of herbicides. For example, one must wait on cover crops to reach flowering when terminating covers completely by rolling and crimping. This on the average is 3-4 weeks later than conventional farming where herbicides are used for termination. Note, many conventional farmers are using roller/crimpers for managing how the covers are laid down plus the use of herbicides for termination, whereas, in organic no-till, the roller crimper is totally terminating the covers. Another timing issue is selection of varieties that mature quicker in the season. Alfred uses purple bounty vetch because it matures 3 weeks earlier than hairy vetch.
His cover crop species varies due to what is following the cover crop mix. Before corn, he plants 25 lbs. oats, 25 lbs. purple bounty vetch, and 10 lbs. crimson clover per acre. Before soybeans, he plants 118 lbs. cereal rye, 54 lbs. wheat, and 7 lbs. purple bounty vetch per acre. Note, the rates are higher because he is depending on higher populations to become a mulch to retard annual weed germination. Again, with organic farming, you learn to live with some weeds.
For his pasture mix, he plants chicory, endophyte free fescue, orchard grass, and red and white clover. He manages his pasture for three years, disks in August, plants cover crops before corn in September, and plants corn no-tilled behind roller/crimper cover crops. He disks in August, plants cover crops before soybeans. After harvesting soybeans, he lightly disks and plants wheat or small grain for a crop. He does deal with some cereal rye in his wheat crop. When growing corn, he lightly cultivates in corn row. He uses a shaving-cultivator with GPS guidance. When planting covers for soybeans, he drills twice to establish cover crops on 3.5" rows. He does that to choke out as many weeds as possible.
Alfred shared that livestock is a must to make organic farming work. His herd size is 91 head. The manure and urine plus the rotations of grass increase soil organic matter during the years in grass. Alfred has built high-tinsile wire around fields. He has installed pipe lines with quick connects. He uses portable tanks. Water is supplied by wells with solar powered pumps. Water is pumped to two water towers and gravity fed to fields to quick connects and portable tanks. Alfred practices regular rotations that basically takes half and leaves half. Normally he removes cattle at approximately 4" in height. As he near transitioning to crops, he grazes closely in winter as he converts to covers. He normally seeds 70 acres of pasture per year.
Besides his pasture, corn, soybean, and wheat rotations, Alfred grows some cover crop species for seed. He has his own seed cleaner. He sells some seed for food. He also sells grass-fed beef. He finishes his beef in 24-26 months. He formerly grazed his cover crops. Because biomass is so important for fertilizer and to choke out weeds, he no longer grazes cover crops. For his crop fields he maintains permanent buffers and boarders. He will cut hay from these boarders.
Most of his fertility comes from cover crops and compost. Compost is supplied from Ohio and is applied on his corn crop annually. Alfred soil tests on a regular basis. Nutrients are well balanced. Alfred shared that his soil organic matter ranges from 2-2.5%. Recently NRCS conducted single ring infiltration tests. The results were on the average of 3.5 inches per hour. As we dug in the soils, we noticed well aggregated soils. This is the result of keeping roots growing continuously and producing high amounts of biomass. Tillage is used in limited manner for preparation of seed beds for wheat, cover crops, and transition from grass to crops. Prescribed rotations with well distributed manure, urine on pastureland, and compost and covers provide high productivity. Alfred pointed out that one field recently seeded to pasture is the first time the field has been in grass in over 100 years. Alfred and Carney Farris have improved their soils the last 30 years by using grass, cover crops, reduced tillage, and use of compost. The results are better functioning soils and better profits.