Franklin County Farmer Changes Soil with No-till, applying Cover Crops, and Grazing Cover Crops
I had the privilege on June 12, 2018 to visit the farming operation of Dusty Matlock with LaDonna Caldwell, NRCS District Conservationist along with her staff in Winchester, Tennessee. Dusty farms in Franklin County, Tennessee. Dusty is our Profiles of Soil Health Hero number 44. The area near the Alabama border and some areas in Franklin County farms using conventional tillage. Dusty and some others in Franklin County have decided to farm differently by no-tilling and using cover crops. I asked Dusty if he was from a farming background family. His father was in the auto body business. His grandfather was a full-time farmer, and he operated a cow-calf operation. As Dusty was a junior in high school, his grandfather had a stroke in the fall of 1998. This was beginning of a career altering change for Dusty. He began to assist his grandfather with the farming operation in the spring of 1999. Dusty was given the opportunity to partner with his grandfather with Dusty receiving one-third of the proceeds from the farm. Dusty rented a farm as a senior in high school and built the farming operation from there. Later, his grandfather became disabled due to dementia and Dusty's part of the farm went to 50-50 cash-rent. Most of his farming operation is in the Oak Grove and Estill Springs communities.
Dusty's farming operation includes 1,800 acres of cropland and grazing 450-500 pounds stocker calves. The NRCS has assisted the farm on watering systems. They graze steers up to 850 pounds and heifers are grazed up to 750-775 pounds. They practice some prescribe grazing, that is rotating pastures to provide recovery of forage. They had previously been growing hay with annual wheat. For the last 15 years, they have planted wheat and crimson clover.
About 3-4 years ago, Dusty began using 5-way mix of cover crops consisting of cereal rye, wheat, crimson clover, vetch, Austrian winter peas, and turnips from time to time. He began planting covers in pasture about 12 years ago. Dusty manage grazing covers from the end of February to early March. Dusty says that grazing covers showed some yield benefits after grazing compared to no grazing. The carbon from urine, manure, and slobber could have contributed for yield increase.
Dusty's goal is to plant all cropland acres in cover crops. Due to weather and some annual crops maturing late in season, a few acres did not receive cover crops. Currently, about 150 acres of cropland cover crops are grazed. The cover crop acres in cropland are 1,500 acres. Dusty originally tried cereal rye in 2004-2006. He said his grandfather did not utilize no-till. As Dusty began farming on his own, he started no-tilling due to 1. labor, 2. buying equipment (less investment with no-till operation), 3. less fuel consumption, and 4. less time in no-till. He formerly grew wheat as a crop and double cropped soybeans after wheat harvest. Labor is the reason that he dropped wheat in the operation.
I asked him why he added cover crops in addition to his no-till. He said that he had two major soil health goals. They are water infiltration and improving soil structure. The added plants growing in the winter enhances the no-till. Dusty says that when one farms with no-till and cover crops, one must adapt the planter for different planting operations. He said that his clay-soils have had no slugs, where the silt loam-soils have had some slugs. With wheat no longer part of his operation, Dusty plants a rotation of corn-soybean and cover crops after each crop harvest. Dusty plants maturity group type soybeans ranging from 2.9 - 4.8. He plants crops by soil-temperature and not by calendar, usually beginning April 10th or later. He plants cover crops ranging from first of September after corn harvest to mid-October after soybean harvest.
His prescription for cover crops when grazing is 30 lbs. cereal rye, 150 lbs. wheat, 4 lbs. crimson clover, 2 lbs. vetch, and 2 lbs. Austrian winter peas. For non-grazing, he follows the same prescription except without wheat, and he adds 2 lbs. of Daikon radishes per acre.
For termination, Dusty has custom built rollers on corn planter. He also leases the District's I&J's 30 feet width roller/crimper. He lays down the covers while planting green. Planting green is defined by planting while cover crop is still growing. After crop is planted and rolled and crimped, herbicide is applied within three days after planting. Planting green provides opportunity for covers to grow as much as possible in corn. Also, active roots growing uptakes water until the point of crop planted. Some of the disadvantages of planting 14-21 days after termination, is no active root growth and slowdown of root exudates, and no root up taking water once terminated. Heavy rains during this time period can delay planting due to wet and cool soils in spring if season is cooler than normal.
For planting, he uses a Kinze 3600 with 30" rows with Yetter stalk devastators for roller crimper. Currently, Dusty uses coulter with 13 waves. He wants to change to 27 waves coulter. He uses cast iron closing wheels. He also uses closing seed firmer. Dusty targets 32,500 plants per acre for corn. He has 15" row planter for soybeans on Kinze 3600. His goal for soybeans is 140,000 plants per acre for soybeans.
For his nutrient management, Dusty takes soil samples by zone mapping using soil map units and running Veris electrical conductivity measurement on most acres. Sampling is based on yield data. He samples annually for corn. He applies potassium and phosphorus by variable rate. He also applies lime by variable rate. Dusty remarked that clay-soils on his farm tended to be higher in potassium and need more phosphorus. In contrast, the silt loam-soils need more potassium with less need for phosphorus. Dusty stated that he seeing more balance in pH and nutrients the longer he is in zone sampling and using cover crops.
Since Dusty has been using cover crops, I asked him how cover crops have suppressed weed pressure. He said that he has reduced residual weed control in corn and soybeans. He uses one residual herbicide and burn down herbicide with soybeans.
I asked him about the soil health benefits that he has noticed. He immediately said that soil erosion is reduced. He also anecdotally noticed better water infiltration. His soils are much better aggregated, and thus, soil structure has improved. Dusty said that earthworms are much more numerous than prior to planting cover crops. Dusty said as he drives around the county after rains; he notices soils in the road and more flooding from fields that still use tillage. He said that water running off his farm is clear with much less runoff.
Dusty just acquired a new field in 2018. It was previously in grass and was fairly rough in surface since it had been deforested in the past, and seeded to grass. Dusty used tillage one time on this 45-acre tract. This provided an excellent comparison site. Even though it had been in crops only one year, the soil was crusting and exhibit erosion and runoff. Dusty said due to soil being tilled, he had some problems planting and had to replant. There was tillage resistance that we did not experience in no-till and cover crops. We saw much less earthworms.
So why is improving soil health important to Dusty and other farmers? Tillage breaks down soil aggregates which causes aggregates to collapse during and after rain causing a sealing of the soil. We experience slower infiltration rates and increased erosin and runoff where tillage is used. Farmers avoid damages of erosion and runoff immediately by no-tilling and applying cover crops which can be measured in repairing fields. Other economic losses are in nutrient losses and soil productivity decreases with losses in erosion and soil organic matter. Soil health is defined as the capacity of a soil to function, that is what the soil does. Soil functions include water infiltration, productivity and bio-diversity, nutrient storage and cycling, physical support for plant growth, and filtering and buffering. Cover crops and no-till improve functionality in soils by keeping the soils covered which aids in insulation of the soil from crop residues and living cover, providing food and habitat for soil biology. Crop residue cover and cover crops act as armor on the soil surface and protects against soil dislodging from the impact of raindrops. Secondly, no-till minimizes disturbances which protects soil from being vulnerable from erosion and aggregate breakdown by exposing aggregates from tillage thus, increasing decomposition. Cover crops improve soils by producing more carbon by plants growing during the entire year. Sun light is energy flow and green plants intercept sunlight and converts sunlight energy to carbon in plants. Without green plants being present, farmers miss opportunities to build carbon. Carbon is then leaked out of roots which feeds soil biology aiding in in nutrient cycling and soil aggregation. Diversity from multi species provides quantity and quality in carbon and soil biology which results in better yields in dry years, better water infiltration, and increased nutrient cycling. Farmers can better their soils and profits by less disturbance from no-till, and growing cover crops.