Planting Cover Crops, Improves Soil Function in West Tennessee
Our Profiles of Soil Health Hero number 47 is Brian and Bill Taylor of Hardeman and Madison Counties. It was October 3, 2018 when I met Brian Taylor at the Jackson Fire Department. Brian is a fireman, and he farms with his dad, Bill Taylor. Bill also works off the farm at Jackson Energy Authority (JEA). Their farm is in Hardeman and Madison Counties. As I was interviewing Brian, I was accompanied by field office staffs from both Hardeman and Madison Counties, Brad Denton, District Conservationist and Joey Ferguson, Soil Conservationist, NRCS, Jackson, Tennessee and Adam Willis, District Conservationist and Nearlene Bass, County Soil Conservation Technician, Bolivar, Tennessee. The day was unusually hot for October, reaching the low 90s. Later that day, I met Bill on the farm.
Brian has worked at the Jackson City Fire Department for seven years. He has been farming with his dad for 10 years. The Taylors produce grain crops of corn, wheat, soybeans, and they also produce cotton. Brian is a fourth-generation farmer. He said both of his great-grandfathers farmed. Brian and his dad farm some of the same land that his great-grandfathers farmed. The cropping operation is approximately 1,600 acres. Brian said that they have no-tilled the entire time that he has farmed. Bill began no-tilling about five years prior to Brian joining the operation. Brian says, other than leveling new ground that they obtain, they are 100% no-till. Brian said they obtain many farms that come out of pasture and CRP. From the last few years they would proceed from grass then disk and do-all for leveling and plant no-till for the following 4 years and then transitioned the following 4 years with cover crops.
Their nutrient management consist of soil testing on 2.5 and 5 acres of grids. They hire an agronomist to sample every other year. They apply phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) and lime by variable rate. If prices are lower they apply sometimes by straight rate. For cotton and corn they apply urea in granular form near planting and follow up with 32% liquid nitrogen when cotton germinates and corn is at approximately v-5 to v-6 growth stage. So far, there are no changes with their previous weed and disease control regiment after using cover crops.
The NRCS influenced Brian and Bill to grow winter cover crops. One objective was that they wanted water to infiltrate better than in no-till alone. Bill applied his first cover crop four years ago and both have been growing cover crops for the last three years. They grow 25 lbs. wheat, 26 lbs. cereal rye, 5 lbs. crimson clover, and 2.5 lbs. per acre
of Daikon Radishes and purple top turnips. They broadcast by aerial seeding the cover crop mixture. Brian and Bill use aerial seeding due to time savings and timing with the crops maturing. They plant in standing corn in the middle of August. Cotton and soybeans are flown on in middle of September. This past September was fairly dry, so covers were germinating and reaching about 2-3" in height by October 3. They were completing corn harvest the day we met Brian and Bill. The cover crops will now grow more rapidly with less shade and the soil had plenty of moisture. Farmers considering aerial seeding should wait until corn has shut down, early leaf drop for soybeans and defoliation for cotton. It is also wise to follow weather patterns to anticipate moisture that is predicted somewhat near seeding or at least some time after seeding. Brian and Bill receive good stands by aerial seeding. Broadcast seeding rates should be approximately 20% higher than rates for drilling.
In the spring, they planted corn in green growing cover about mid-April and cotton and soybeans in mid-May. They kill cover crops within three days of planting green. Bill said that they planted in mid-May in standing 6-7' cover. He likes covers higher for better weed suppression. I asked both Brian and Bill to discuss challenges growing cover crops in order to assist farmers who are considering planting cover crops. The response was that they sometimes follow up with extra 2,4-D and dicamba for crimson clover. They had to adjust speeds at planting crops to 3.5 mph to be able to plant into cover crop roots, especially rye. They plant with a 12-row Case double disk openers and air seeder to add pressure to planters. Brian and Bill previously used spike closing wheels and row-cleaners but quit due to the cover crops wrapping around row cleaners. They now use rubber closing wheels. Brian suggested that farmers should start slow. Furthermore, Brian says it is good to know that you can kill covers and establish good stands of crops in covers before going all in. He did say that he has experienced better infiltration. He said that his neighbors remarked that when they flew on covers in corn that they could not see the cover. It is now present and growing well. He said that he did like the yield response of his corn harvest. Bill added "best corn crop I ever had." Brian went on to say that he is seeing quail for the first time in years. He has noticed much less erosion. Brian also noted that it was easier to plant after rain compared to wetter conditions in no-till alone. He also has seen more soil life, e.g., earthworms. Bill remarked that he likes something growing all the time. He also noticed less erosion. Bill especially noticed better weed suppression. Even though they have yet to cut back on any herbicides and fungicides, they are noticing less weed pressure. Bill says they plant better in wet conditions, and he likes the bio-pump in spring removing water by leaving cover growing. Bill's only concern was sometimes crimson clover is persistent in cotton. It was evident that even though I interviewed them separately, they were both equally sold on cover crops.
So why are farmers like Brian and Bill transitioning to cover crops. It adds complexity to farming. You are adding another variable, which is another crop. You have to plan to plant at a busy time at harvest and plan to kill in narrow window in spring and try to reach as much height as possible while balancing early enough time to plant cash crop. Farmers are doing it because their soils are not functioning well. Soil health is defined as the soil's ability to function. Soils that are tilled or even no-tilled do not infiltrate water that well. Erosion is always a threat, especially on loess soils in West Tennessee. Soils without plants growing continuously, lack good soil structure which affects infiltration and ultimately erosion. Soils with cover crops will store and cycle more nutrients. Growing diverse covers provide some rotation effect, thus better yields, especially in dry weather. Farmers can protect soil erosion and losses of soil carbon by following the the four principals: 1. keeping the soil cover, and 2. minimizing disturbances (tillage). They can increase soil carbon by 3. keeping a live root growing, and 4. Maximizing diversity by a conservation crop rotation and multi species cover crops. For assistance on using these four principals, contact your local NRCS and Soil Conservation District's office.
Brian and Bill are seeing results after 4 years. Yields are better certain years. Weeds are suppressed, Soil life is much more prevalent, and erosion is reduced. Soil organic matter is climbing based on what we have seen on other farms. Soil organic matter with extra nutrients are of value. Many have not calculated the exact value, but never the less, value is there. Farmers cannot keep degrading their resources and expect yields to be maintained without much higher inputs. Brian and Bill Taylor are excellent examples of improving soil health and also improving their crop production.