Grant and Don Norwood are the eighth in our series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Grant is 37 years old and is in partnership with his father Don.
Grant is a fifth generation farmer. His great-great grandfather came to the area from North Carolina. The family farm-operation was recognized as a Century Farm in 2014. They farm in the Pleasant Hill area of Mansfield in Henry County, Tennessee. Their predominant soils are deep loess soils, Felliciano Silt loam (formerly mapped as Memphis silt loam) and Loring Silt Loam. The predominant slopes range from 2-8%. These loess soils are highly susceptible to erosion when left bare. Like many West Tennessee farmers, the Norwoods traditionally applied conservation practices that would control concentrated flow-induced erosion with grade stabilization structures and water and sediment controlled structures.
The Norwood farming operation consists of 3,200 acres. Their typical crop rotation is corn, wheat, and soybeans. They use genetic modified organisms (GMO) technology to reduce herbicide and insecticides. Don said that they grid sample in 2.5 acres grids. They practice variable rate fertilizing and liming. They maintain their pH at 6.2 or higher, and soil sample every other year. Don says they are maintaining their structural conservation practices. He says that the structural practices complement the continuous no-till, and recently added cover crops. Of their 3,200 acres, 600 have center pivot irrigation. Both corn and beans are irrigated. They apply UAN solution of 32-0-0 as their nitrogen at 180 units per acre on corn. It is knifed in 6" off row at 3" depth.
Don began no-tilling in 1972. Grant told me that he can barely remember working ground, and that was in 1978. The farm has been in conservation tillage for nearly four decades, and continuous no-till for approximately ten years. They currently use row-cleaners, but use no down pressure.
Grant began an interest in soil health over ten years ago. It started with attending a soil conference featuring nationally known soil health advocates Gabe Brown from North Dakota, and Dave Brandt from Ohio. The conference whet his appetite to study soil health articles. Grant proceeded to incorporate cover crops into his conservation farming system.
Five years ago, Grant and Don planted 350 acres of cover crops. They began with a strategy to increase organic matter, so he used cereal rye at 30 pounds per acre. He added 8 pounds per acre of crimson clover to add nitrogen and lower the carbon and nitrogen ratio to insure the residue could be easier decomposed. Lastly, the Norwoods added 3 pounds of tillage radishes. The radishes store nutrients and loosened the soil. Grant discussed the importance of farmers doing their homework to get a good stand. Farmers need to be especially cautious sowing cover crops after soybeans. They need to plan for any carry over effects from herbicides that would affect broad leaf cover crops. It is more complicated than simply signing up for financial assistance and plant the cover crop. The Norwoods learned quickly that planting after corn was easier due to earliness of harvest and less carry over issues. They aerial seeded their first year cover crops.
They are now in their fifth year of using cover crops. Their cover crop acreage is now 1,200 acres. Currently their mix is: 30 pounds of cereal rye, 10 pounds wheat, 5 pounds of crimson clover, 2 pounds tillage radishes, and 2 pounds of turnips per acre. Within their corn, wheat, and soybean rotation they have 2/3 of their operation in either winter wheat or cover crops. One third of their crops do not have cover crops or wheat. Currently, they plant 90% of their cover crops aerially, and 10% is air seeded with a drill. Because most of corn crop is followed by a wheat crop, 80% of the 1,200 acres of cover crops follow soybeans. The remaining 20% follows corn.
They tried Austrian winter peas in 2013. Winter cold temperatures limited their effectiveness.That is why they now use multi species. Don said the first year was a challenge. He said the ground (soil microbes) will condition or build up with time. They said the stands improved each year. Their benefits have been numerous and remarkable. Prior to ten years ago, soil organic matter (SOM) levels at 0-6" depth were 1.5%. Currently, their lowest SOM is 2% and several fields exceed 3% SOM. Don says the fields feel differently when you walk across the fields, softer with more give. I was on the farm September 8, 2015. It had rained about week prior to my visit. The temperatures had averaged in the mid-eighties for a week; however, there was plenty of soil moisture. Every time we dug, we found numerous earthworms. We found signs of earthworm casts from night crawlers (Lumbricus terrestris). Night crawlers are not common in West Tennessee in crop fields. Don stated that they had night crawlers in grass fields when he was young. Since there was a source, and no tillage has been done for many years, the night crawlers have moved in, especially after five years of cover crops. The Norwoods said their soil structure is more crumbly and less platy. We dug up many samples and platy structure was weak and becoming more granular. Their yields are sustained or increasing, and water infiltrates better than prior to sowing cover crops. They also said that they do not have much mare's tail anymore. Mare's tail was infested in many of their fields. This has resulted in less application of herbicides.
Other benefits have been reduced fungicide use. They have gone two years without applying fungicide on corn. They apply one fungicide on soybeans and wheat. They no longer put in-furrow insecticide with corn. They said that when crimson clover blooms, they see many lady bugs. Even though some fields recently showed some threshold of insects and diease. Grant and Don did not spray because they did not see any defoliation.
We discussed termination of covers. They generally plant when cover crops are still green usually grasses at flag stage and above 4.5 feet. Legumes are normally early bloom. They terminate after planting and prior to emergence.
I asked them what they hope to accomplish in the future. They want to continue to increase SOM, eventually reduce fungicides, and reduce nitrogen rates on corn. Grant and Don are changing their soils and bettering their profits as well as their environment.