Humphreys County Farmer Improves Soil Productivity on a River Bottom Farm
Our 42nd Profiles of Soil Health Heroes is Claude Callicott of Humphreys County. The farming operation is on the Duck River near where Humphreys, Hickman, and Perry Counties come together. I had the privilege to visit Claude and the farming operation with Wayne Coates, NRCS District Conservationist for Humphreys and Houston Counties. We visited the farm on April 24, 2018. Wayne and his family were honored as the 2016 Humphreys County's Conservation Farmer of the Year.
Claude grew up farming with his father, Clint Callicott and his brother, Clayton Callicott. In fact, Claude credits his dad for his desire to farm and to improve soil health. He is a third-generation farmer from Williamson County. They farmed 700 acres in Williamson County. Inheritance tax caused the farming operation to move to Humphreys County. Claude shared that they leased out their farm in 1996-2000. Claude's dad was the County Executive for Williamson County, and Claude was in college at Maryville College. He majored in Mathematics and began teaching and coached football. His experiences as a child farming and his desire to farm were the forces that caused him to select farming as a full-time occupation. He told his dad; "I have to get back on the combine." His dad responded; "get back in there and learn it." Claude wanted to farm on his own. His dad wisely led Claude to form a partnership with him. He said "you need someone to share the stress." Claude reflects that his dad's advice was true. They began in 2002 and farmed together until his dad passed away in 2015.
Claude began farming with a F2 combine, 6-row John Deere planter, a sprayer that he custom built, and a $3,500 grain truck. In 2005, his dad began planting crimson clover as a cover crop. Claude responded; "why would you plant something that will not harvest." I think that is a question many farmers today are asking. Hopefully this article will convince people why consider cover crops. They continued planting an annual crimson clover cover crop for three years. Claude became a believer. He said that previously the no-till soils were weedy and hard. There was some runoff even in the no-till. The cover crop changed the soil tilth, and there was more life in the soil.
He farms 575 acres of cropland. The farm also has 120 acres of pastureland. He has 50 mamma cows plus calves. I asked him about his nutrient management. Claude samples on 2.5-acre grids. He began variable rate application 3 years ago for phosphorus, potassium, and lime. He normally applies 100 units of nitrogen for corn in front of planter. He comes back with 100 units based on tissue sampling at v-4 to v-5 stages of corn. He said it depends on variety of corn and the productivity of the soil. Claude says that he does not want to be the limiting factor on crop production. He tends to spends more on nitrogen as needed.
Claude then reminisced that his grandfather grew annual vetch and plowed it under as a green manure crop. His dad hated vetch and grew wheat as a cover crop. With that background, they jumped into cover crops and grew wheat and crimson clover prior to NRCS programs promoting multi species cover crops. They progressed and tried 80 pounds of cereal rye and crimson clover. I could quickly see the dissatisfaction of that rate of rye. They tweaked their mixes to the present mix. Claude plants some covers on his own without any NRCS financial assistance. Before corn, he plants 25 pounds of oats or wheat per acre and 15 pounds of crimson clover per acre. Before soybeans, he plants cereal rye, oats, and crimson clover per acre. He is currently planting cover crops on 300 acres. The rest is in no-till without covers. He hopes to work it out to plant covers on all 575 acres. Timing at harvest and planting by seeding dates are his limitations.
I asked Claude to share how he terminates his cover crops. He had some problems planting green (plant directly in living cover crop). He removed the no-till coulter and replaced the double disk openers in 1/2 the time that the manufacturer recommends. He said one must have sharp double disk openers to cut through the residue and the roots of cereal rye. He also encourages farmers to increase the down pressure when planting. Getting a seed to soil contact is essential especially in heavy residues. Claude also says that he either plants green or makes sure the cover crops are crispy which means planting 14-21 days after termination. He says he has problems if he plants anytime other that green or crispy. The covers are rubbery after termination and up to 14 days.
He has some fields that are receiving financial assistance from NRCS. That seeding mix consists of 23 pounds buck and doe oats, 12 pounds of cereal rye, 11 pounds wheat, 2 pounds of crimson clover, 6 pounds of Austrian winter peas, 2 pounds tillage radishes, and 2 pounds of purple top turnips, all per acre basis. He targets a carbon to nitrogen ration of less than 30:1 ratio.
Claude farms on the Duck River bottoms. He remarked that flooding provides annual additions of top soil and added fertility. It also can cut through riparian areas and cause destructive erosion on highly productive bottom lands. He showed us and described the damage caused by 2010 flood. There is a remaining low place in the field that has changed the drainage pattern in the field. There are also approximately 15 acres of sand deposits up to 1 foot of sand over productive silt loams. He began using cover crops on the bottom land fields in 2011. The covers and the roots anchor the soil and the above ground biomass captures more soil when flooding occurs.
Claude was enthusiastic when I asked him to discussed the benefits of his soil health improving practices. He stated soil tilth as number one. This is due to more soil organic matter especially active soil organic matter being added annually. Soil tilth means more pore space and less bulk density of the soil. With cover on the soil surface and added carbon to the system, there is no significant soil crusting. Each year, getting a stand of cover crop is easier. The planter can cut into the soil easier. Secondly, he mentioned that rains seem more intense than in the past. By planting green, and maximizing cover, especially before corn, the organic mat infiltrates more water. He sees less runoff. He also stated that the runoff that is evident is clear compared to the past. Third, he has noticed more resiliency when weather is not ideal, especially when he experiences short-term droughts. The better infiltration and water holding capacity are the results of a perceived increase of soil organic matter. Lastly, he credited the multi-species covers for suppressing weeds especially mares tail, and Palmer amaranth.
Claude has progressed over the years on how he plants his cover crops. When they began, they lightly disked and broadcast the seed with a spinner truck. He generally drills all of his cover crops. He mentioned that prior to farming his current land, the field was dead. It had been tilled and was low in soil nutrients. Claude limed it regularly until an acceptable pH was achieved. His dad seeded grass to bring it back to life. Of course, the grass provided rest to the soil, but added needed soil carbon to the system. They proceeded to no-till it with cover crops from then unto now.
Carbon is the limiting factor for soils to function properly. Having a plant and corresponding root growing continuously intercepts sunlight energy and through photosynthesis. The plants then leak from their roots, up to 20% of the carbon produced by photo synthesis. This provides a constant food supply for soil organisms that by consuming the carbon they change plant material to soil carbon or soil organic matter. Soils are aggregated through this process resulting in granular surface soil structure. Better soil structure provided better water infiltration. Also with diverse crops and cover crops, soil organisms are higher in quantity ans quality (more diverse) and nutrient cycling and storage are increased. No-till reduces the disturbances and protects the benefits of increased carbon and protects soil aggregates from being destroyed by tillage. Keeping the soil covered by utilizing cover crops and crop residue provides for a stable environment of temperature and steady food supply. All of these practices result in better soil health of a soil that functions better such as better productivity and better bio diversity, better infiltration of water (returning the water cycle to the field), better nutrient cycling (less reliance on chemical fertilizers), better filtering and buffering, and a better environment to support plants.
Claude is known to try demonstrations or plots to make needed changes that will increase profits and productivity. His farming operation is known locally as "test plot farms." He stays innovative and his dad's influence has made him very soil health-centric. He is currently testing several corn hybrids on his fields. He plants earlier maturing soybeans (group 3.9 - 4.7), so he can plant cover crops earlier. He is interested in growing corn silage for his beef herd. He plans to plant 25 pounds of cereal rye or barley, 10 pounds of oats, 8 pounds of Austrian winter peas, 1 pound of tillage radishes, and 1 pound of purple top turnips in cover crops after corn silage. He is also interested in grazing his cover crops. We discussed never leaving the herd on covers in wet weather. Also, control grazing to take half of height and leave half. Allow the cover to grow prior to termination. The addition of manure and urine will speed up the process of increased soil life and corresponding results. Claude Callicott has demonstrated with his farming system that soil health and better profits are possible.