Number Fifty Profiles of Soil Health Heroes is Making a Difference in Soil Health in Obion County, Tennessee
by Mike Hubbs, TACD Soil Health Specialist
In 2013, Tennessee NRCS and the Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts (TACD) focused on soil health. In 2014, I was fortunate to be hired by TACD to disseminate soil health information to farmers, partners and NRCS. One way that I decided to achieve my objective was to identify farmers with significant achievements in soil health. Approximately four years ago, I began a series of articles to identify Tennessee farmers for their soil health achievements, Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. During my writing of the first article, I was not sure where these were going. Since then we have completed 49 articles. This article sets a milestone as the 50th Profiles of Soil Health Heroes.
I want to introduce Number 50 of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. John Britt farms in Obion County, Tennessee. I met with John Britt along with Josh Richardson, District Conservationist, Union City, Tennessee on December 5, 2018. Most of the farms that John farms are on State Line road between Tennessee and Kentucky. He shared with me that he has farmed his entire life. John is a fourth-generation farmer. John's father passed away in 2002, and he became the main operator. His grandfather no-tilled in the 1970s. So, John not only grew up in a farming-family; he grew up being conservation-minded.
John is a one-man show on his operation1,400 acres. He produces corn, wheat, and soybeans. Wheat acreage is market driven. He grows a variety of group type soybeans to manage time. He grows 3.6s to 3.9s and then later plants 4.6s to 4.9s. This diversity of group type soybeans helps him spreads the time out for harvest of soybeans and corn. Also, John often focuses on earlier maturing soybeans to assure seeding of winter cover crops by October 15.
I asked John to discuss his nutrient management. He samples by zones annually. He applies chicken litter normally for two years on fields then alternates with chemical fertilizer, all applied according to soil test. He applies 2 tons of chicken litter per acre for corn and 1 ton per acre for soybeans.
He uses variable rate application for lime. He scouts but normally sees benefits by applying fungicides on corn and soybeans. Since incoporating winter cover crops into his rotation, John has reduced residual herbicides. He has seen significant weed suppression of Mare's Tail and Palmer Amaranth.
John described the reasons that he began to plant cover crops. He grew up planting no-till and wanted to enhance it. He also has a conservation ethic and wanted to improve his soil health. Short-term droughts affect yields, He wanted to add soil carbon to mitigate drought. With his desire to apply chicken litter, he can apply litter in the fall with winter cover crops up taking the nutrients and cycling them in the spring.
John has been 100% no-till for several years. However, he has used vertical tillage in certain situations to fill in ruts. John uses the least aggressive angle on his vertical tillage tool for early planting of corn. I did not find any tillage pans that I normally do when vertical tillage is used. Caution, tillage will erase the benefits of increases of carbon from crop rotations, additions of manure, and cover crops. Farmers need to eliminate tillage disturbances as much as possible to increase soil carbon and to improve soil function (soil health).
After growing wheat and cover crops, John tried radishes in wheat in 2012. It was an extreme drought, and army worms attacked the wheat twice. With no competition, the radishes grew to large size. John saw the benefits even in a dry fall. On a pasture field, he planted cereal rye by spinner truck and followed by cutting hay and then planted soybeans. John's current cover crop mix is triticale, wheat, vetch, Austrian winter peas, and crimson clover. John had his cover crops aerial seeded in 2018. He had recently bought an air seeder but due to late wet season, he aerial seeded. In the future, he plans to drill his winter cover crops whenever possible.
John manages a field where the landowner grazes John's winter cover. The key to grazing covers is to graze half and leave half. That is turn the livestock into approximately 10" and remove livestock at 5". Also, it is best to not graze and leave livestock in crop fields during wet saturated periods. The landowner has practiced grazing cover crops for 5-6 years. He said that he yielded corn of 206 bushels per acre after pasture with rye planted in it the first year.
Field at Liberty Church, John planted with light vertical tillage cereal rye in 2015, applied 300 pounds of 9-23-30. He aerial seeded rye in 2016 with 2 tons of chicken litter. In 2017, he again applied 2 tons of chicken litter in the fall with aerial seeded rye. In 2018 crop year, he harvested 200 bushels per acre corn for the first time. He let the cover crop grow to 6 feet tall and planted into cover. The excess growth gave better water infiltration and weed suppression.
Normally, John targets covers to terminate at thigh-high with roller/crimper. Of course, this weather related. Sometimes due to wetness, covers will grow higher. For soybeans, the target is 3-4 feet to be terminated with herbicides and with roller/crimper.
We dug into the soil and examined and analyzed the benefits from John's soil health practices. The soil structure was well aggregated. The good granular structure infiltrates more water. This will mitigate short-term drought. As soil organic matter increases, water holding capacity will also increase. John said that due to field taking in water better, he can get to field earlier. The soils in West Tennessee are very erosive. No-till and cover crops reduce erosion. Obion County farms ultimately drains to the Mississippi River, where nutrient losses into the river are a concern. John sees winter cover crops as a tool to reduce nutrient losses both from leaching and runoff. He has seen the soil heal as soil carbon has increased. John also stated germination for his annual crops and his cover crops are much better due to better soil structure.
A field that we examined was in pasture in 2016 and then soybeans, cereal rye for hay, and 2017 corn, 5-way cover crops, soybeans in 2018. Currently, we looked at 2018 5-way cover crops. It was planted later in the season. The radishes are small but growing. The soil had a strong earthy smell and many earthworms. The earthworm is general indicator of the rest of soil biology. Numerous earthworms show that food is available; the fact that cover crops provide a living root to provide carbon exuded from roots. Older residue from previous crop also feeds soil biology. As earthworms work the soil, there will be earthworm casts which is 5 to 12 percent more nitrogen and phosphorus than the soil around casts. Burrows from worms will allow channels for roots and for water infiltration. Some practices that farmers need to follow to increase earthworms are no-till, cover crops, diversity, and scout and reduce inputs. Tillage can physically kill worms, destroy food and cover of worms and soil biology. crop rotations and cover crops provide constant food and carbon exudates. Diversity provides more diversity in biology that helps in policing soil biology reducing pests. Scouting allows the crop rotation and covers to be more natural with less inputs that may be harmful to soil biology.
Some fields showed some unique benefits. One field in particular was a new field that John recently rented. The field had a compaction problem. The previous operator ripped the field in two different directions, thus double tillage passes. Rye was planted in wet soil. Since the ripping the field was no-tilled two years. In 2018, John took over the field and grew soybeans and produced 70 bushels per acre irrigated. He recently planted 5-way cover crops in the fall of 2018. The covers were aerial seeded on October 25. Corn will be planted in spring of 2019.
Another field in Kentucky was planted to cereal rye in September 28. The field earlier had been tilled and experienced compaction. After 3 years of rye, soil was showing aggregation and no compaction. John also added more carbon by adding chicken litter at the rate on one ton per acre because 2019 will be in soybeans.
We finally examined his mother's field. The field has been in cover crops for 6-7 years. The soil structure was granular in soil structure. Again, the good soil structure has come from 30 years of no-till and 7 years of winter cover crops. This field had much better aggregation compared to the previous field that had a history of ripping. The soil had an extreme sweet earthy smell indicating the strong presence of antinomycetes. Again, diversity of plants, roots continuously growing, and lack of disturbances from tillage all promote soil biology in both quality and quantity.
With this article being available for several readers, I asked John what other farmers considering cover crops need to know. He said people beginning cover crops need to go into it for the long-term. Soils did not degrade overnight. It takes time to regenerate soil function. Increasing soil carbon with no-till and use of cover crops increase productivity, water infiltration, nutrient cycling, plant support, and filtering and buffering. With better soil functioning, farmers can be more productive and profitable.