Dairy Farmer Changing Sloping Land Soil Health with No-till and Cover Crops
Life many times will cycle. This is the case on this particular profile. I began my career in August of 1977 with USDA, Soil Conservation Service in Bradley County. One of the farms that I worked on in 1977 was John Moore. John was a Soil Conservation District Board Member in 1977 and had been on the board since 1968. John is our 41st Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. John is an active Bradley County Soil Conservation District (SCD) Board Member and currently serving as Chairman of the Board. John also has served as Tennessee Association Conservation Districts' (TACD) East Tennessee Divisional Vice President. It was my pleasure to visit John's farm on February 6, 2018 along with Chase Hicks, NRCS District Conservationist, Cleveland, Tennessee.
I ask John to share his family's history of farming. John shared that he is a 6th generation farmer on the current farm. The current farm has been in the family since 1850. John's great, great, great grandfather is buried on the farm as well as two of his two sons. The farm is at Rattle Snake Springs in Bradley County. This is also the beginning of the Trail of Tears. Forty-one acres of the Moore Farm is recognized as a Historic Site. John also said there is speculation of burial grounds of Native Americans on the farm, but are not marked.
I asked John to share how he started farming. John shared that his father was sick, and he began milking or assisting milking as a pre-teenager. His father died when John was fifteen. He took over the farm along with one farm hand. He said that mornings started early at 5:00 am. John would milk and go to school. A year later he would take cattle to sale barn after school and then go home and milk. Adulthood was thrust on him as a teenager.
John and his son currently milks 120 Holstein cows. He has a 65 cow-calf operation. Besides producing corn-silage behind cover crops, he plants wheat in orchard grass for hay. He also plants some wheat-Marshall rye grass for pasture. His current cropland is broken down as follows: 90 acres in corn silage, 215 acres of total acres in corn, and 55 acres in soybeans.
As I mentioned earlier, I met John in 1977. I remember they were practicing some no-till then. John said they were growing wheat as a cover crop prior to silage. Joe Harris, former SCD Chairman influenced John to start no-tilling in 1975 using a Birch 4-row no-till planter. John's grandfather at the time noted that next thing would be planting in new ground (land recently from cleared forest lands). He talked about his first experience in no-till that the field was wet and the result was nutrients were tied up. John has bought three drills over the years. His latest drill is a John Deere 1590 drill. His planters were a 4-row Birch, second planter was International 6-row at 36" rows. His current International planter is on 30" rows, 12-row planter. He can plant 23 rows of soybeans on 15" rows. He would also subsoil and harrow for wheat up to four years ago.
In 2013, he began using cover crops other than wheat. He also used them as cover instead of double cropping. His first cover crop mix consisted of cereal rye, Daikon radishes, hairy vetch, and crimson clover. Since the 2014, his mix has been approximately 41 pounds cereal rye, 18 pounds triticale, 2.5 pounds Daikon radishes, 5.1 pounds of crimson clover, 1.3 pounds hairy vetch, and 1 pound of buckwheat, all on a per acre basis.
We discussed the benefits that John has accomplished. Many of the fields are sloping and the parent material is limestone soils. The soil has turned from a red color to dark brown surface since going to cover crops and no-till without any tillage. Also note the fields what they looked at early in 2015, erosion was present, soils were not aggregated. Now they are very aggregated with good soil structure. Earth worms are very prevalent. John said since 2013, he does not see colored water anymore running off, which indicates less erosion. He also noted that weeds are suppressed. He is saving on weed control, but did not have a specific amount. John kills his covers in early April and plants approximately 14 days later with cover crops being crispy. John also plants in standing cover crops. He normally uses Round-upTM and AtrazineTM. The cereal rye is definitely giving good weed control due to choking out weeds and by allelopathy.
Soil Testing on one field in April of 2017, showed 7.1 pH, 3.2% soil organic matter (SOM). Solvita CO2 from the Haney test is 102 ppm. These indicators show good balance for pH for nutrient cycling. The soil organic matter is increasing. Soils that are tilled in a similar pattern without cover crops are normally below 2%. The Solvita shows an increasing trend in soil biology which is essential to break down carbon to improve soil function such as nutrient cycling and aggregation of soils which affect infiltration in a positive manner. Soils must be aggregated to infiltrate water effectively. Another important soil health indicator is water extractable carbon which is 185 ppm. This shows carbon that is most active for soil biology to consume to aggregate soil and cycle nutrients is increasing. Over 49 pounds of nitrogen (N) and 103 pounds of phosphorus (P) are available for next crop. Haney test also gives a soil health calculation of 13.5. This is an increasing soil health trend. The soil health calculation is based on water extractable carbon, nitrogen, carbon to nitrogen ratio, and active soil biology shown by Solvita CO2. Compared to other Haney tests that I have seen in Tennessee, John is in the middle range.
Picture above shows a demonstration of rainfall simulator at a field day on John's farm in April of 2017. The jar on the left shows water running off a corn field that is annually tilled, note the front jar. John's sample from his cover crops is the jar second from left. Note the front jar has little runoff. The second jar second from the left in the back shows water infiltration from the John's cover crop field. Note that John's sample infiltrated nearly all of the water; whereas the first jar from the tillage sample (back jar) did not infiltrate much water. John's fields are infiltrating almost all water with little overland flow. Picture below shows John's field after he has applied herbicides to terminate cover crops. John planted about 14 days later.
John is making great strides and his soils will continue to improve with continued use of cover crops and no-till. Soil carbon, soil biology, nutrients are all increasing and are more available. This means less inputs and better profits. Also, water is more available for plant growth due to better infiltration rates, less erosion, and runoff.