Using the Roller/Crimper to Improve Soil Health

Richard (Dick) Hashe is the fourth in our series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Dick is not only a 4th generation farmer, but since 2010, he has worked full time for the McMinn County Soil Conservation District. He handles the administrative duties of the office as well as coordination of District events, such as the renting of District’s equipment to the public. With his dual role as farmer and District Employee, Dick Hashe is an excellent example of a Soil Health Hero.

His ancestors moved down from Lee County, Virginia to Greene County, Tennessee and finally to McMinn County in 1950. The farm was purchased in 1950 and quickly converted to a dairy in 1951, where the enterprise sustained the family until 2009. From 2009 until present, the farm consists of 200 total acres, 115 acres in grain crops, 50 acres in pasture, 15 in woods, and 20 in miscellaneous acres for home, barn, etc.

This profile will focus on the 115 acres of grain crops. The crop fields average 2-5 % slope on reddish-brown limestone soils. He generally produces 20 acres of corn along with 95 acres of soybeans annually. His normal rotation is corn followed by three years of soybeans. Dick soil tests every three years. He maintains his pH at 6.3 to 6.5. His fertility is medium to high, and he applies maintenance amounts of nutrients according to soil test.

In 1969, Dick and his family was one of the first adopters in McMinn County to no-till. They began with 2-row planter with a “subsoiler Pasture Dream” with shoes or points. They understood early the importance of protecting against sheet and rill erosion. They stayed consistent with no-till except for an occasional disking to keep the fields smooth. Last finishing disk was used in 2009. Dick has practiced continuous no-till since 2009. Dick bought a 4-row John Deere Planter in 1982. Other than adjustments to the planter, it is still used on the farm.

While visiting the Hashe farm in April of 2015, we noticed a few fields in little barley (Hordeum pusillum Nutt.) which is a native, annual, cool-season grass that can form dense colonies in some cropland fields in the southeastern United States that are no-tilled

or given minimum tillage in the fall. In such areas, little barley functions as a naturally occurring cover crop that does not require reseeding like conventional cover crops such as wheat. Groundcover and height is comparable to wheat. Dick will eventually seed all cropland fields to a diverse cover crop. However in the meantime, little barley can provide a natural reoccurring cover crop.

In 2010, the area was suffering through a two-year drought. The Hashes’ were interested in trying to infiltrate and retain more water for the grain crops. He also was influenced by a national speaker on soil health and was convinced to try annual cover crops. For 2010, he experimented on 14 acres planting wheat, terminated near boot stage, and planted no-till beans behind wheat cover crop. He expanded, in 2011 and 2012, to 30 acres of wheat cover crop followed predominantly by soybeans and few acres of corn. The system showed an increase of 6-8 bushels of soybeans in yield per acre.

With his interest in improving soil health, Dick purchased a crimper roller for the crop year of 2014. He purchased it from I & J Manufacturing (croproller.com), Gap, Pennsylvania. He transitioned his cover crop in the fall of 2013 to a three-way mix of 60 pounds of triticale, 5 pounds of Crimson Clover, and 2 pounds of radishes per acre. In addition to his desire to increase soil organic matter, Dick needed some additional weed control due to mare’s tail becoming a resistant weed in his previous system of round-up ready soybeans. He was also interested in reducing commercial nitrogen application. Since the three-way cover crop and the roller crimper being used to terminate the cover crop, Dick noted the significant changes.

With his interest in improving soil health, Dick purchased a crimper roller for the crop year of 2014. He purchased it from I & J Manufacturing (croproller.com), Gap, Pennsylvania. He transitioned his cover crop in the fall of 2013 to a three-way mix of 60 pounds of triticale, 5 pounds of Crimson Clover, and 2 pounds of radishes per acre. In addition to his desire to increase soil organic matter, Dick needed some additional weed control due to mare’s tail becoming a resistant weed in his previous system of round-up ready soybeans. He was also interested in reducing commercial nitrogen application. Since the three-way cover crop and the roller crimper being used to terminate the cover crop, Dick noted the significant changes.

With the crimper/roller, Dick grew the cover crop to head stage for more growth to increase organic matter and also to smoother weeds. The roller/crimper provides an even depth of cover. Dick plants in the same direction that he rolls the cover crop. The planter with ripple coulters and double disk openers easily plants in the tall triticale, clover, and radish mix. Dick also observed that a chronic wet spot disappeared during the 2014 crop year. He credits the extra growth and live plants extracting the water out in the early spring and from better infiltration in the summer.

The diversity of the cover and the mulch provides an ideal environment for soil biota resulting in excellent stand and a healthy soybean crop. Dick has learned through his three-way mix that he needs to plant earlier via air. Some of his crops were not harvested until November, so he was limited on acres planted.

He planted some late wheat in November. When we observed his cover in April, 2015 it was decent cover, but not as good as he would like. Dick wants to achieve consistency year after year with aerial seeding to achieve cover in standing crops and increase acreages. He also plans to plant a five-way mix to promote more diversity.

Dick Hashe understands the fundamentals of improving soil health and farm profit: keeping the ground covered, increasing diversity, keep roots growing as continuously as possible, and reduce disturbance. Dick is just beginning to understand his new system. Besides trying to maintain at least 30 acres in cover, he would like to increase to 100% in cover once he can acquire a consistent method to inter seed in standing crop. Dick is not apprehensive to try new agronomy methods. In 2015, he plans to plant his normal 20 acres of corn. However, 10 acres will be planted after wheat cover with 15” rows of soybeans planted adjacent to corn rows. He wants to see if the legume growing same time will provide more nitrogen for the crop with less dependence on commercial nitrogen. He also wants to introduce more diversity.

Besides better yields with less inputs and non-existent erosion, Dick is noticing better structure from a platy structure to a slight platy structure infused with crumbly structure. In every shovel full of soil we dug (approximately 1/3 cubic foot), we counted 10 earthworms. Continuous cover will increase crumbly structure and reduce platy structure resulting in better infiltration.

In contrast to Dick’s management, this picture was taken in a field in McMinn County that had an annual cover crop of wheat that disked under. Note the very strong platy structure which impedes infiltration. While digging we struggled to find one earth worm from three shovels full of soil. 

Even though Dick has encountered challenges of consistently planting an early cover crop, Dick has achieved many improvements in soil health. He will continue to try new proven techniques to improve his soil health as well as his overall farming operation.

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