Fayette County Farmers Saving Dollars and Improving their Productivity by No-till and use of Cover Crops
Our Profiles of Soil Health Heroes number 49 are Holt and Randal Tapp from Fayette County, Tennessee. I met with Fred Walker, District Conservationist, NRCS, Memphis, Tennessee, whom is acting in the Somerville Field Office, Sonny Jewell, County District Soil Conservation Technician, Somerville, Tennessee, and Holt and Randal on October 23, 2018. Holt and Randal shared how they are improving their soils with cover crops.
Like many farmers, the Tapp brothers progressed in conservation due to economics and labor. They described the amount of time involved in field preparations when they formerly used tillage and produced wheat for grain and a cover crop. They formerly produced wheat. The brothers would use 3-4 tillage passes to prepare seedbed for wheat. In their corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton conventional tillage system would use 3 tractors with 400-600 hours each season and would consume 16,000 gallons of diesel. Compared to now, they use 6,000 gallons on similar number of acres. Using $2.60 per gallon as price of fuel, they are now saving $26,000 dollars by switching from conventional tillage to no-till.
Holt and Randal began reducing tillage in 1990. They began with no-till soybeans. Due to weed pressures, they still used several tillage-passes for cotton. The brothers practiced rotational tillage on corn. In 1994, they progressed to 100% no-till as earlier mentioned due to labor, economics, and also erosion. They currently farm corn and soybeans in rotation. Their cropping operation consists of 2,100 acres. They grow group 4.3s to 5.1s soybeans. Their population is 150,000 plants per acre. They plant corn at 32,000 plants per acre for dryland production. They plant 36,000 plants per acre for irrigation corn. Holt and Randal produce 115 acres of irrigated corn.
They soil test by sampling 2.5 acre grids every other year. They apply lime, phosphorus, and potassium by variable rate. Holt and Randal have not made any changes on the amount of fungicides they are applying. They use Round-upTM and DicambaTM for their burn down. They will also use GramoxoneTM on escape weeds in their later soybeans. They are planning to use SelectTM next year for additional grass control. On their insecticide program, the Tapp brothers said they have made a slight increase since going to no-till and cover crops.
With the Tapp brothers been no-tilling for 22 years, I asked them what led them to begin cover crops. They wanted to improve their soil and get to the next level and also reduce erosion. Paula Gould, County District Secretary and former NRCS District Conservationist, Hannah Goff both influenced them to begin cover crops. Holt and Randal remarked since they have begun using cover crops, maintenance and repair work on terraces are no longer needed which is significant in labor and savings.
Their transition with cover crops had some challenges, especially with planting of soybeans due to height of covers. Their covers were killed at a shorter height with corn, and they had no problems planting corn. When beginning cover crops, farmers should plan to terminate covers at knee to waist height until they are comfortable planting in high covers.
Holt and Randal plant their cover crops in standing cash crops by aerial seeding. They plant aerially due to labor and crop maturity timing. They plant covers in corn when corn shuts down approximately August 15 - 20. They fly on cover crops in September for soybeans. They terminate cover crops 14 - 21 days and plant crispy prior to planting. The brothers plant in standing covers. Farmers should plant crispy or green. Planting covers in between those stages can result in more wrapping.
The cover crop mix is cereal rye, crimson clover, wheat, purple top turnip, and Daikon radishes. Holt and Randal have gone to multi-species cover crop mix to add diversity to their operation. Diversity above ground provides diversity below ground with soil biology. Higher quantity and better-quality soil biology helps soils function better. Soil structure is granular due to better soil aggregation which increases water infiltration. Disease pressures are reduced with plant rotation and cover crop diversity. Farmers are experiencing better yields especially during dry seasons (2016). Holt and Randal mentioned they feel like their yields are better even in wet seasons. Weed suppression is better with weeds like Mare's tail and Palmer Amaranth. Holt and Randal also have noticed increases in wildlife with observable increases in rabbits, turkeys, and quail.
As we visited fields with Holt and Randal, I quickly noted their enthusiasm to learn more about the effects of cover crops on their soil. We examined earthworm castings by getting on the ground looking under a magnifying glass. We dug in the soils to see better aggregated soils. We smelled stronger earthy smell which is the result of actinomycetes producing geosmin, the organic compound that gives the earthy smell. all of these factors are reasons farmers should consider adding cover crops to their operation.
Holt and Randal are improving their soils and their overall farming operation by following the principles of improving soil health. They protect their soil by minimizing tillage. Tillage breaks down aggregates and removes residue that protects soil from falling raindrops and erosion. Tillage also destroys food and habitat for soil biology. Besides minimizing disturbances, farmers need to keep the soil covered. Soil biology has food and habitat, and temperatures of the soil is buffered by cover during hot and cold temperatures. In addition, growing continuous roots provide carbon continuously to soil biology increasing numbers of soil biology. The last principle is diversity. Diversity as earlier stated provides higher quality of soil biology. Diversity also causes soil biology to police themselves preventing a certain number from over populating leading to disease.