This is the first of a series of "Profiles of Soil Health Heroes." Danny Powell, a third generation farmer from Cannon County improved the soil health and his overall 2,800 acres of his row crop operation. Danny began farming some of his current fields in the early 1980s. The fields had low pH, and low fertility. His predominant soils are Dickson/Sango which are inherently low in phosphorus.
Danny planted wheat as a crop on his low fertile soils. Wheat was in dough stage, and he decided to terminate the wheat cover and follow with soybeans, and hence a system of cover crops began. He has followed a cover crop system ever since, only missing some years of cover only due to excess wet seasons.
In the last four years, his cover crops of choice have progressed from only wheat to multi-species cover crops. His current cover crop mixture is cereal rye, Austrian winter peas, crimson clover, oats, and Daikon radish. He has been in continuous no-till since the 1980s.
His crop rotation has been progressing for several years; his crop rotation is corn-cover crop followed by soybean-cover crop. Besides cover crops, Mr. Powell also applies chicken litter to supply nutrients and to increase soil organic matter. Mr. Powell uses yield monitoring GPS to track yield results and samples soil by grids/zones. Satellite imagery is used to adjust rates. Mr. Powell monitors his soils to achieve optimum fertility while protecting the environment by not over applying nitrogen and phosphorus.
Mr. Powell has observed anecdotal changes in his soil from no-tilling, from cover crops and leaving crop residue, and providing continuous root growth. The changes are increases in soil carbon and increased aggregate stability resulting in more visible infiltration, and essentially no sheet erosion. Soil life has increased, especially with more evident earth worm numbers. He also has witnessed significant increases in yields with no increase of inputs other than his cover crops. The video below shows earthworm activity and excellent soil structure.
Mr. Powell advises farmers that may follow this system to treat the covered ground differently from tilled soil. They should take more time than normal in setting the planter wheel. He uses cast iron closing wheels to assure good soil to seed contact in heavy residues. Danny stresses the need to slow down to assure the planter is planting at proper depth during the planting process. Seed depth is essential for a good consistent stand. Danny also increases his planting population by 5-8%. When planning a cover crop or multi species cover crops, he uses 3.9 type soybeans instead of type 4.8. The 3.9 type beans mature 2-3 weeks earlier allowing for an earlier harvest. It is essential to plant the cover crop mixture early enough to establish a stand early to assure good winter cover. When harvesting, Danny assures even distribution of harvested corn and soybean residue.
With cover crops being an important component in his soil health improving system, Mr. Powell recently purchased a 30 foot air drill specifically to drill cover crops and continue to improve their establishment. The increase in overall acres of cover crops plus the complexity of planting multi-species cover crops, convinced Mr. Powell in this investment. In 2014, he is seeding over 1,000 acres of multi-species cover crops.
Mr. Powell credits his entire system which begins with a simple two-crop rotation made more diverse with multi-species of cover crops. Different species within the two year rotation naturally reduce pressure from weeds, insects, and disease. Additions of cover crops smother young weed seedlings from germinating as well as providing allelopathy, which is a natural herbicide that kills young weeds germinating. No-till protects all of the benefits from the crop residues and cover crops, so soil organic matter increases along with improvement of other soil health indicators. A balance of nutrients and additions of organic fertilizer from chicken litter provide more food for soil biota as well as additions of soil organic matter. Monitoring the nutrients prevent any water quality threats as well as assuring excellent quality of crops and covers. Mr. Powell has improved his soil health and overall farming operation. Better soils mean a better environment along with better profits.