Jepson Family Farms are Overcoming Challenges of No-till and Cover Crops to Improve Soil and Improve Profits
The best part of my job is that I spend time with farmers and their families not only interviewing them for these articles, but spend quality time digging in the soil with them looking at the changes in their soil from applying conservation practices. The enthusiasm they have is contagious. Willis Jepson of Jepson Family Farms is a prime example of hard working farmers making a difference in farming and changing his soil health. Willis is our 46th Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. He farms in north Robertson County line near Orlinda and Cross Plains, Tennessee and in southern Simpson County, Kentucky. My visit was on July 3, 2018. Nathan Hicklin, Soil Conservationist, NRCS, Springfield joined me on the visit. Nathan recently received the offer of District Conservationist for Springfield effective in early September, 2018. Nathan has assisted many farmers in Robertson County as well as in Cheatham and Maury Counties to improve their soil health.
I could tell the special community connection when Willis took us to Thomas Drugs, Cross Plains, Tennessee for lunch. I literally thought I stepped back in time such as the drug store portrayed in "It's a Wonderful Life" or a Norman Rockwell painting. It was nostalgic and reminiscent to drug stores 70 years ago. They had a malt shop with a variety of lunch menu that was very tasty. The experience was as good as the food. I say this to describe the environment that Willis Jepson and his family share on a daily basis. It is truly small-town USA. Jepson Family Farm is a large family farm consisting of over 5,000 acres. With double cropping of wheat and soybeans, they plant over 7,000 acres annually. Willis shared with me that he is a 7th generation farmer. His sons will be the 8th generation. The farming operation dates back to 1806. I think this history and the legacy of the farm motivates him to be on the cutting edge to constantly improve his soils and his net income.
Their soil sampling and maps resulting from soil analysis and yield mapping are impressive. The agronomist on Willis' staff went into detail showing me examples on one tract of 170 acres. They use to sample on 2.5 acre-grids and recently expanded to modified zones tied somewhat to soil map data and yield data. They have collected yield data since the 1990s. Pembroke soil is a good representative soil type of the type of soil that they farm. Slopes vary but most are 2-6%. They calibrate the combine by moisture and varieties being harvested. Besides creating maps, they ground truth the data. Their management zones are categorized by high, average, variable, and lower yields. For example, they apply nitrogen based on 150, 175, and 201 bushels per acre on corn, historic data. On the fields that had been farmed the longest by Willis, many fields have a history of 25+ years in no-till. I am meaning true no-till without use of any tillage implements such as vertical tillage. Willis follows University of Kentucky and Tennessee's recommendations.
To show the complexity of their soil testing and yield maps based on soil analysis, they showed me maps for pH, buffer pH, phosphorus (P), Potassium (K), calcium (Ca), magnesium, (Mg), sulfur (S), boron (B), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), zinc (Zn), sodium (Na), cation exchange capacity (CEC), horologic conductivity (KSAT), and many others including base saturation and Multi Year Yield Analysis (MYAA). I share this to show the seriousness of a large farm and the need to assure best possible yields on a per acre basis. Their overall soil organic matter is over 3.0 %. Their CEC is 6.5 - 11.5 meq/100 grams of soil. This shows long-term commitment of managing soil carbon or soil organic matter (SOM). They constantly tweak applications of essential elements to increase yield, but with the balance of farming with nature to improve natural nutrient cycling.
Jepson Family Farms produce a variety of commodities with the main stay of a corn, wheat-soybean rotation. Dark-fired tobacco is scattered within the previous rotation. Recently, Jepson Family Farms also produce indigo and this year began raising watermelons double cropped with pumpkins. You can visit their web site at Jepsonfamilyfarms.com. With the size and complexity of Jepson Family Farms, Willis has 25 H2A employees for tobacco and watermelons. He has 7 full-time employees. He works with over 24 landowners. Managing the farms with landowners and marketing takes up a majority of his time.
The farm closest to the farm shop has been in no-till since 1998. Another field has been in no-till since 1992. They began with soybeans and then moved to corn and eventually wheat in 2000. Willis credits the improvement in fungicides as the reason they were able to produce no-till wheat. They now experience as good or better yields in no-till wheat. No-tilled tobacco came abiout later due to degrading soils.
Willis took me to a field that had conservation applied on it in 1986. He was 9 years old when the conservation practices were applied. The field was text book conservation for 1986 and even what you saw in the 30s to the 50s. Terraces were laid out on the contour emptying out in nice wide well managed grass water ways. You could sense the conservation pride from Willis and easily see why he is a leader in soil health in Robertson County. Since 1990s, the Jepson family have no-tilled this field as well as all of their fields. The field is a nice reminder of the past as well as the future using no-till and cover crops with the terraces and farmed on the contour.
Willis wanted to improve his soils productivity and began multi species cover crops over five years ago. They are in the fifth season of planting crops into cover crops. They have over 2,500 acres in cover crops and 2,000 acres in wheat. All 2,000 acres of wheat is followed by soybeans, double cropped. They also plant 100 acres of full-season soybeans. The group maturing types of soybeans range from 4.3 to 5.0.
Willis said that they needed to invest in an additional sprayer to manage their cover crops. Willis is committed to using cover crops and no-till. He did share that farmers will have some challenges such as voles, slugs in 2016, green bridges for disease. Willis said their goal is to have 100% of acres in green growing covers or wheat in the winter. The alternative is less productive soils that are not functioning as well and higher inputs to sustain yields. Willis accepts these new challenges to improve his soil health, his overall soil productivity, and his net profits. Before embarking in cover crops, farmers should talk to others and search out the extra need of management. In spring of 2017, Willis began allowing cover crops on select fields to chest/head high and planting corn and/or beans into standing covers. This management has had its challenges, but time and patience will work these issues out.
Jepson's Farm's cover crop mix is 20 pounds of Cereal rye, 20 pounds winter oats, 4 pounds crimson clover, 12 pounds Austrian winter pea, 1 pound of Pasja Hybrid turnip. All acres are no-till drilled. They have abandoned aerial seeding. Willis shared with me that in the past, they would use an airplane to seed their covers. There so many variables, such as at leaf drop for soybeans, you need moisture, and a good pilot. They would have 10 acres perfect and 10 acres with not a good stand. They now drill and if need be, they drill later into November.
The reason for cover crops is simple, to provide an interceptor for sunlight energy and convert sunlight to carbon in the plant through photosynthesis. Eventually the carbon will be converted to soil carbon or soil organic matter. Keeping residues and cover on the soil protects the soil and provides food and habitat for soil biology. Diversity from the multi species improve the quantity and also the quality of the soil biology by adding diversity to the soil biology. Plant diversity equals or results in diversity of soil biology. No-till preserves all of the benefits and protects from increased decomposition of carbon and protects soil from erosion. Water infiltration and nutrient cycling improves as soils become better aggregated.
Willis uses anhydrous nitrogen for his tobacco, corn, and wheat. He said that it is a timing issue. He needs to apply and be done. Willis ramped up the acres about 15 years ago and currently grows 170 acres of dark fired tobacco. Willis says due to the uncertainty of tobacco, they are growing indigo for a local market, and have taken a contract this year to grow 40 acres of watermelons. As stated before, they have become no-till farmers over the last 20 plus years. As they were growing conventional tobacco within their corn-wheat-bean rotation they noticed the tobacco years would degrade the soil. They began no-till and strip-till tobacco about five years ago. Their wheat and corn are no longer hurt in yield since they use cover crops and either no-till or strip-till the tobacco. Willis says there is a little yield drag on tobacco but the overall goal for all crops is worth it. He says due to the time in tobacco, they cannot take time to split apply nitrogen on corn. He said with the complexity and size of his operation, he has to put down nitrogen once. In a less complex operation, he would split apply his nitrogen.
Willis says that one major benefit from five years of multi species cover crops is the suppression of mare's tail and pig weed. The cover chokes out much of the germinating seedings, and allelopathy, a natural process secreted from decaying rye will kill other weed seedlings. They use to use a mutivator in strip-till tobacco, but due to soil degradation they no longer use it. Willis terminates the cover crops at about thigh-high for tobacco. He plants in standing covers. He will allow greater heights in soybeans and corn.
Indigo is set similar to tobacco using both no-till and strip-till. The strip-till setter has a ripper that disturbs 4-6" in width of soil. The contract for indigo wanted them to till the crop, but Willis says he will grow only if he can no-till or strip-till it.
Tobacco companies are down to about 2-3, so they control the tobacco. Willis and others in Robertson County have begun to expand into indigo and watermelons due to the tobacco market. They have installed 20 bee hives near the melons. They have also bordered the melons with buckwheat. Willis compares the income from water melons with tobacco. The day that we were there, the melons were getting close to harvest. For ground preparation for melons, they tilled with a rotary harrow 5' centers and left 5' on each side. They laid the plastic and drip irrigation. Again, they are trying new crops but trying to no-till as much as possible. This will continue to research and development for them. Willis said that the melons require 1 application of fungicides per week due to wetness.
On managing 170 acres of tobacco, he shared that if he continued to tilled, he would not be able to readily rotate the tobacco. They would be too many stones uplifted and yield drag for corn, wheat, and soybeans. Because of no-till and cover crops, he can rotate the tobacco among his other crops. He variable rates his P, K, and lime. Corn and tobacco receive nitrogen based on yield mapping. Tobacco is planned to be set from May to June 15. They spread it out for labor purposes. No-till is latest where strip-till is used with earlier tobacco. If year is dry, they would no-till more of the tobacco. They use an Italian made no-till planter by C&M.
Because of the length of time, that Willis has no-tilled, and in addition has used five years of cover crops, the soil structure was granular with some platy structure when covers are killed a little shorter in heights for tobacco. Other fields where they allowed the covers to grow higher had better soil structure. Fields where the covers were higher for corn and soybeans had better soil structure. I dug in a field that went to boot stage on rye planted in corn. The soil structure was very good. There was a good strong earthy smell. They were numerous earthworm casts. The previous crop residue was showing signs of quicker decomposition. Weed suppression was apparent. Willis said that those were the benefits that he wanted. He wants to continue using cover crops and no-till to increase his SOM and improve water infiltration. He said erosion is much better controlled allowing him more flexibility to grow crops such as indigo, watermelon, and tobacco.
As we were finishing up our visit, Willis took us down by the Red River. He said a man from water quality division of TDEC said that the Red River is the cleanest that it has been in 30 years. That is a testimony for no-till with cover crops and the good job that the entire community of farmers in the watershed have contributed. There are no longer a major problem of erosion and runoff due to soils not functioning. Like other farms in the community, the soil on the Jepson Farms are infiltrating and cycling nutrients, and weed control is better with less inputs. The Jepson Family Farm is not the biggest operation but it is a big operation for a family farm. Willis credits the no-till, cover crops, diverse crop rotations as reasons he can farm and improve soil health and his bottom line. I hope many farmers reading this article will try cover crops and no-till to improve their soil health along with the ecological health of the water around them.