Elvis Bellar is eleventh in our series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Elvis is unique in that he is a new farmer. He was crops specialist for American Cyanmid Chemical Company for three years. He was crops specialist for Montgomery County Farmers Cooperative for eleven years. He began as a farmer in 2005. Elvis has his bachelors of science in Agricultural Economics from the University of Kentucky. Elvis is a Robertson County Soil Conservation District Board of Supervisor. This profile is featuring his farm in Montgomery County, Tennessee. He also farms in Robertson County, Tennessee, and Todd County, Kentucky. He produces corn, wheat, soybeans, and tobacco. His cropland totals 450 acres. He also manages a 650 acres cow/calf operation. This profile will feature his cropland management. Elvis is shown signing an EQIP contract with Kevin Hart, NRCS District Conservationist, Clarksville, Tennessee.
Elvis' predominant soils in Tennessee are Baxter Cherty Silt Loam, Mountview Silt Loam, and Dickson Silt Loam. In Todd County Kentucky, his predominant soils are Pembroke and Crider Silt Loams. Elvis applies nutrients by broadcasting. He currently applies 150 units of nitrogen (N) for corn on Tennessee soils and 200 units of N on Kentucky soils. Elvis applies fertilizer and lime according to soil test results. He maintains a pH of approximately 6.0.
Since Elvis became a full-time farmer in 2005, he has used his experience as a crops specialist and has always practiced no-till for his corn, wheat, and soybeans. He uses tillage for tobacco. We discussed with him about converting to no-till tobacco in the near future. He is considering purchasing a no-till tobacco transplanter. Currently, his rotation is one year tobacco followed by corn, wheat, and soybeans with three years to four years of rest before the next tobacco crop. I asked Elvis what motivated him to add cover crops to his no-till rotation. He attended a state soil health meeting over three years ago. He was influenced by nationally renowned soil health specialist, Ray Archuletta, NRCS, and Indiana grain farmer, Ray McCormick.
Elvis was following many of the principles of improving soil health, such as keeping the soil covered by using residue management, reducing disturbances by no-tilling, and adding diversity with his crop rotation system. Cover crops would be the final ingredient to add more diversity and keep roots growing. He is in his third year of using cover crops. Currently, 95 acres are in cover crops. The remaining acres of his cropland are in wheat during winter.
Elvis uses an airplane to aerial seed his cover crops. He flies on early prior to harvest in corn, which is early September. He flies on in mid-September for soybeans at early leaf drop. His seeding mix and rates for the last three years are 25 pounds per acre of cereal rye and 16 pounds crimson clover per acre. He currently terminates the cover crops at approximately 18" - 24" in height. His planter is a 7000 John Deere with Martin row cleaners. He does not use row cleaners for planting soybeans. He uses 26 ounces of Round UpTM after planting with an ounce and half of Lead OffTM for corn and ValorTM for soybeans. Elvis has noticed changes since using cover crops. There is reduced erosion due to more residue and cover. He said that the planter goes into the ground more easily in all moisture conditions. The residues hold more moisture during short-term droughts. The cherty soils, in Tennessee, yield estimates for corn are 80 bushels per acre. Elvis is averaging 110 bushels per acre. The cereal rye has all but eliminated pigweed and mare's tail. Elvis stated that he has cut back fifty units of N on corn. He also has reduced about fifty percent of Round Up by skipping a second spraying.
The day that I interviewed Elvis on his Montgomery County farm, Kevin Hart and I conducted some soil health measurements on the farm. It had been about 4-5 days since the last rain. Temperatures were in the mid to high 50s. It was a sunny day, November 4, 2015. We used the USDA Soil Quality Kit and manual to conduct the tests. All materials and methods were followed according to the Kit manual (http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/soils/health/assessment/?cid=nrcs142p2_053873).
Our first test was for soil respiration. Soil respiration is the production of carbon dioxide (CO2) as a result of biological activity in the soil by microorganisms, live roots, earthworms, nematodes, and insects. A good respiration rate is 32-64 pounds per CO2 carbon (C) per acre day if the soil is stable. If soil is unstable such as after tillage, CO2 will increase then fluctuate to much lower respiration rate showing unsustainable biological activity. Sustained activity is healthy. We used a 6" diameter aluminum ring at 5" depth driven into ground to 3 inches. We capped it off for thirty minutes, recorded soil temperature of 16.8 degrees Celsius and calculated 33 pounds of CO2-C per acre per day. We standardized it to ideal temperature of 25 degrees Celsius and calculated 58 pounds of CO2-C per acre per day showing outstanding biological activity due to proposed increasing soil organic matter (SOM) due to increased biomass from cover crops and low disturbance from many years of no-till.
The second test on soil indicators is for compaction. The indicator is bulk density which is defined as dry weight of soil divided by its volume. We followed the core method described in the USDA Soil Quality Kit Guide. We used a 3" ring that is 5" in length. We drove it into the ground 3" and dug out the sample. We weighed it wet and determined the moisture content. The bulk density is 1.2 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cm3) which is ideal for the texture class. Again, as SOM increases, it makes the soil more porous which in turn provides for better air and water movement.
Infiltration was the third test that we ran. We used the same procedure for respiration with the 6" ring driven into the soil to 3 inches. We poured 1" of water in the ring and monitored the amount of time for 1" of water to infiltrate. We measured 6.3 inches per hour. Again, as SOM increases, aggregate stability improves resulting in better infiltration. Aggregates are able to handle the pressure from water hitting the ground in the form of rainfall. The biological glues hold the soil aggregates together allowing the soil to infiltrate more readily. Conversely, tillage breaks down soil aggregates resulting in soil filling in voids after settling and reduces infiltration rates.
Our last test that we performed was an earthworm count. We dug a hole one foot deep and wide, and counted earth worms. We counted 32 per cubic foot. This would estimate approximately 1.3 million worms per acre in the top foot of soil. According to the USDA Soil Quality Kit Guide, 10 earthworms per cubic foot in agricultural fields are considered a good population. With Elvis' management of producing a diversity of crops and cover crops with legumes and carbon improving plants such as grasses, earthworm populations are thriving.
We also examined the soil just outside an old cemetery. The soil has been in trees and grass since 1905. The soil structure was very similar to the adjacent cropland. The only major differences we could find between the protected area and the crop field was more rocks in the cropland showing more erosion during the last century. Hopefully with no-till now in place plus cover crops, we can stop soil erosion.
Many farmers in Tennessee are improving their soils. Elvis Bellar has learned from others and now is practicing the principles of keeping the soil covered, reducing disturbances, keep roots growing, and adding diversity. The results are less inputs with equal or better yields, better infiltration, more soil biological life in the soil, and soil that is easier to penetrate a planter into the soil, thus, producing a healthier crop. Better soils equals better crops and better profits.