Bill Parker is our 10th in the series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Bill is Chairperson of the Lauderdale County Soil Conservation District (SCD) Board of Supervisors. He is also an officer of the Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts (TACD), serving as secretary. Bill's father also served on the local Lauderdale County SCD Board of supervisors, showing a family line of conservation minded farmers. Bill takes every opportunity to influence others for the cause of conservation. He invited the field staff from Lauderdale County and Haywood County both NRCS and District employees to join us the day that I interviewed him (October 13, 2015). We examined his soil and discussed soil health strategies. Bill has asked me to do the same in March of 2016 with farmers from Lauderdale and Haywood Counties.
Bill's home headquarters is in Durhamville, Tennessee, the south part of Lauderdale County about 5-6 miles north of the Hatchie River. He farms approximately 50 percent of his operation in Lauderdale County and 50 percent in Haywood County. His operation is approximately 5,000 acres, about 1,000 acres are under center pivot irrigation.
Bill is from a long-line of farmers. The original farm was purchased and farmed by Bill's ancestors in 1830. Bill is a sixth generation farmer. He has two sons farming with him making them seventh generation farmers. Bill farms some Hatchie bottoms and creek bottom lands, but the predominant acres are uplands on loess soils. These soils are Loring Silt Loam and Felliciano Silt Loam (formerly mapped Memphis Silt Loam). The slopes are rolling 2-6 percent and highly erodible.
Bill began farming in 1975 using four wheel drive tractors to pull chisel plows and disks. He used conventional tillage in his early farming history. He began farming rotations of corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton. He began experimenting with no-till soybeans in late 1970s. He gradually moved into no-till with corn and wheat. He was one of the first adopters of no-till cotton, beginning in the late 1980s. As time passed, Bill was in continuous no-till by 1990s, except to repair ruts or small erosion areas and wet spots. One of the traits, I've noticed in our profiles of heroes series is that the crop farmers were one of the first or their families were the early adopters of no-till. Another trait, especially in West Tennessee, is that most of the profiles of heroes began with the use of structural practices to combat concentrated flow induced erosion on the highly erodible soils in West Tennessee. Bill also follows that mold. His great-grandfather began building terraces. Most of Bill's farms have a series of terraces with pipe-outlets and water and sediment control structures. One can see a progression of conservation on Bill's farming operation, concentrated flow structural conservation practices, to continuous no-till, to diverse crop rotations, and to cover crops.
In the 1980s, Bill planted cover crops after cotton. At defoliation, he would broadcast wheat using a broadcast spreader. Prior to no-tilling his cotton, he would drill his cotton using a grain drill and harvest using a cotton stripper. This significantly reduced sheet erosion. Eventually local gins began discounting stripper-cotton. The discount price and the introduction of Round-up ready cotton spread the no-till technology across West Tennessee. Bill is now using Genetically Modified Organisms' seed (GMOs). Bill has always been in corn, wheat, soybean, and cotton rotation with cotton being a minor crop as far as number of acres. In the last three years, Bill has not produced cotton. He plans not to produce any wheat for the 2016 crop.
The Parker farm uses variable rate technology for applying nutrients and lime. Bill takes the soil samples. He formerly used 2.5 acres grids, but now uses 5 acres grids. He samples every three years. Nutrients are applied based on crop removal. His analysis is based on prior year which provides flexibility regardless of crop to be planted. Generally, he applies 180 units of nitrogen for corn. He applies 100 units at planting and side dresses 80 units after emergence to 4". He also uses a starter in furrow at planting of 10-34-0 plus zinc.
The rest of this article will focus on two farms in the Nutbush community (unincorporated) of Haywood County, home of Tina Turner. I will designate these farms as Solomon and Tolliver farms. Bill took these particular farms over in 2011. Both farms had a 30-year history of continuous cotton. Bill being the conservationist that he is, influenced the farmers to no-till cotton the last five years that they operated the farms. When Bill took over, he installed terraces and water and sediment structures to handle the previous concentrated flow erosion. He planted wheat on the Solomon farm in the fall of 2011 and soybeans in 2012. Corn was planted in 2013, and back to wheat and soybeans through 2014. Corn was planted in 2015. On the Tolliver farm, Bill has planted four consecutive years of corn. This is to build soil carbon (soil organic matter) as well as for economics. Bill also enrolled 4,000 acres in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) in a 5-year contract. For 300 acres each of the years, he is using cereal rye and crimson clover cover crops. He is also practicing water management on the center pivot irrigation, and drift control, electronic emitting tip and agitants for drift.
This is the first year that a cover crop was planted on the Solomon farm. I was on the farm on October 13, 2015. The cover crop had been planted couple weeks previously. The field was dry but the cover was 2-3 inches in height and growing well. Digging in the soil showed some platy structure. Bill has no-tilled the field for four years in corn, wheat, soybeans rotation. He just harvested his second corn crop off the farm and planted cereal rye and crimson clover. He planted 60 pounds of rye per acre and 15 pounds of crimson clover per acre. We expect the cover crops to increase levels of SOM and also change the platy structure to granular structure. All of these changes will increase infiltration rates.
On the Tolliver farm, Bill has recently planted his fourth cover crop. In 2012 and 2013, Bill planted a five-way mixture of 30 pounds of cereal rye, 8 pounds of crimson clover, 4 pounds of Austrian winter peas, 2 pounds of tillage radishes, and 20 pounds of wheat, all per acre. In 2014 and 2015, Bill has planted 60 pounds of cereal rye and 15 pounds of crimson clover per acre. Bill is concentrating on building soil organic matter (SOM) due to the many years of continuous cotton grown on both the Solomon and Tolliver farms.
Bill is following the four principles of improving soil health. He is keeping the soil covered by utilizing residues and growing a cover crop, reducing disturbances by no-tilling, and also keeping roots growing by growing a cover crop along with his annual crops. He has some diversity by growing a cover crop with his crop rotations. Bill is being conservative due to economics. He plans to diversify more with covers as he can reduce inputs.
Bill is noticing less pig weed and mare's tail due to his recent use of cover crops. He recently reduced herbicides on five acres near a garden on the Tolliver farm. He did this to lessen the risk of drift toward the garden. What he discovered in one year of trial is that there were no differences in pig weed numbers in the 5 acres not sprayed compared to adjacent acres that were sprayed for pig weed. Mare's tail is also controlled. Also on another farm near his home, he reduced 50 pounds of nitrogen (N) per acre on his corn crop for an eight acres strip. There were no significant differences in yield. The savings on N per acre is $27.50 with N costing 55 cents per pound of unit. The savings on pig weed control on the five acres is $26.00 per acre. This provides a savings of $53.50 per acre with these two trials. As Bill's diversity increases and more legumes are brought into the cover crops with also some brassicas, Bill can see more benefits from covers and reduce more inputs.
Soils are drastically changing visually on the Tolliver farm, where he has grown four years of cover crops. The soil is much darker on the Tolliver farm compared to the Solomon farm (both farms are in Loring Silt Loam). The structure at Tolliver farm is still platy but less so than Solomon farm. Structure breaks up into granular quickly at Tolliver farm. Did not see any earth worms. It was very dry. However, I did see biological activity evidence. Soil test did not show significant differences, since changing to rotations and cover crops. Bill did recently change from 2.5 acres grids to 5 acres grids. Sampling sites were in different locations. From the soil test three years ago, pH was average of 5.6, phosphorus (P) was optimum as an average at 82 pounds per acre, and soil organic matter (SOM) was 2.3% on the average. Cation exchange capacity (CEC) was 10.7 meq per 100 grams of soil. Estimated nitrogen release (ENR) was 89.3. Basically no differences this year with CEC being the same, SOM being 2.4%, and P and potassium (K) very similar. ENR was slightly higher at 92.5; pH was also higher at 6.0. In three years, Bill will have similar grid size and taken from the same location. He should see significant differences.
Currently, Bill is planting 700 acres cover crops. As Bill sees more financial benefits from his cover crops, he plans to increase to 2,000 acres in the near future. He wants to continue to use covers to reduce mare's tail and pig weed. He also wants to see improvement in increasing SOM. Bill is interested in acquiring a roller/crimper for the Soil Conservation District. The district would rent to farmers to promote more use of cover crops. His final goal is to increase diversity with bringing in a brassica and possibly another legume. These additional cover crop species will loosen compacted areas and reduce his carbon-nitrogen ratio and should see more earth worms as well as more nitrogen produced, thus giving Bill opportunities to reduce chemical nitrogen fertilizer inputs.