Changing is difficult for most of us. However, the world around us is changing every day. Farming is no different. In today's world, one changes or is left behind. Unfortunately, one may go out of business as a result. Sneed Brothers' farm is our thirteenth edition highlighting Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Sneed Brothers' Farm has grown over recent years to approximately 10,000 acres in their farming operation. I arrived December 9, 2015 a little after 7:00 am and was astonished by the bluster of activity. Many grain trucks leaving the farm, tractors and combines driving by all activity contributing to completing the 2015 crop harvest. This profile will highlight the recent changes that Sneed Brothers have made to improve their profit margin as well as improving the health of their soils.
The Sneed Brothers are grain crop farmers. Their crop rotation system is predominately corn, wheat, and soybeans. This 2015 season was the first in several decades that cotton has not been grown. Ray Sneed stated that he joined the operation as a farmer in 1978, and has grown cotton every consecutive year until 2015. They will add cotton back into the rotation as economics will allow. They also grow 300-1,200 acres of milo (grain sorghum) per year, again as economics dictate.
Six years ago they changed their lime and fertilizer testing and application to variable rate. They are conducting a yield study on the effects of variable rate, especially for phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). They will make adjustments according to yield findings.
The Sneed Brothers farm in Shelby and Tipton Counties, Tennessee, as well as in Crittenden County, Arkansas. Their soils in Tipton and Shelby Counties are predominantly Memphis, Loring, and Granada Silt Loam on slopes ranging from 2 - 12 %. These soils have been formed by windblown loess and are easily erodible. Many of the fields are designated highly erodible and require a certain level of conservation to remain eligible for USDA programs. The Sneeds have been constructing structural conservation practices since the late 1980s. The predominant conservation practices are grade control structures, water and sediment control structures, and grass waterways. Their farm land in Crittenden County Arkansas is mostly alluvial soils on 0-1 % slopes.
As I discussed in my introduction, Sneed Brothers have experienced changes over the years. An example of change is that they are now approximately 90 percent in continuous no-till. Six years ago, the Sneeds progressed from conventional tillage to vertical tillage to no-till on many fields. They progressed to the current level of 90 percent of the operation in continuous no-till in the last three years.
Four years ago, they began using two species of cover crops on fields closest to their operation headquarters in Millington, Tennessee, on the edge of Tipton and Shelby Counties. They seeded 40 pounds of cereal rye and three pounds of tillage radishes per acre. They immediately saw less weed pressure from pig weed, as well as less compaction and better erosion control due to more biomass and soil cover. When I say less compaction, I am talking about how silt loams will seal at the surface and have little infiltration. With the increased cover and root growth from the two species of cover crops, they have seen an observable effect of less runoff and better water infiltration. They have also seen better soil structure from a crusty surface and platy soil structure to one that is much more granular and stable to slacking when rain falls on the protected cover. The day that I visited them, we dug in numerous spots always finding earthworms and signs of earthworms.
Another change this year has been the expansion of two species to now five species of cover crops. Currently, they still have two species on 12 acres, and the five species are on 150 acres. Twenty five hundred acres are in winter wheat for harvest, and the remaining acres are in winter fallow with crop residues on the soil surface. The seeding rates for the five species are: cereal rye at 30 pounds per acre, tillage radishes at 3 pounds per acre, purple top turnips are at 2 pounds per acre, crimson clover at 5 pounds per acre, and wheat for cover at 30 pounds per acre. Previously to this year, the cover crops were drilled. This year they were aerially broadcast seeded by airplane.
The brothers discussed with me a recent experience with cover crops that was not originally planned. They planted an area that had undergone construction of conservation structural practices. They seeded the area, approximately 80 acres in wheat. They maintained the wheat until jointing or approximately 24" in height. The Sneeds sprayed the field with glyphosate and planted non-GMO soybeans in the killed wheat cover. This field always had previous weed pressures from pig weed and sickle pod. As they scouted for spraying, the field scouts came to Sneeds with no recommendation for weed control. The Sneeds not believing the report sent them out again. The report remained the same. During the season, the Sneed Brothers would have treated the field three times for about $39.00 per acre for the three treatments. The cover crop saved them $39.00 per acre over 80 acres. Of course, they are thinking what continuous use of cover crops would save them over hundreds of acres. Their experiences of two species and last year's wheat cover crop convinced them to proceed to the present stand of five species of cover crops.
Sometimes we learn from bad experiences. The key is we learn from them. This year, the Sneeds followed recommendations to fly on their cover crops August 15 - October 15. Knowing that they had brassicas (radishes and turnips) in the mix, they wanted to fly on the cover crop as early as possible, so they selected August 21, 2015 as date to fly on cover crops. Competition and moisture conditions are two variables that most affect stands from over seeding of cover crops. This particular August and early to middle September were extremely dry in the Sneed's area. Also on August 21, the Sneed Brothers flew cover crops on type 5.8 soybeans. The beans at the time were very green and taking up approximately 1 inch of water per day. Even though the area being flown on had irrigation, the beans were growing so quickly they used up the water preventing immediate germination of cover crop mixture. Thy said that areas with wheel- tracks, water and sediment control structures, and ditches around water had excellent stands of the multi species cover crops. The areas where the beans were growing had no cover until after harvest and late rains. The legumes had died, brassicas were low in percentage of stand. The wheat came up sparsely, but the rye is thriving because much of it survived the dryness and is now germinating, especially with mild December temperatures. The field will have good cover in the spring, but will lack some diversity. So what did we learn from this. Planting early is important, but we need to consider the stage of existing crop. The corn was harvested in late August, so it would not have been a concern with the low moisture, no competition from maturing crop. The beans however, were peaking in growth. We need to wait later until soybeans are yellow and are near the stage of leaf drop. Two things will happen, there will be less competition for existing moisture in soil, and leaf drop will mulch over recently broadcast cover crop seed and protect until there is moisture for germination. This will help in achieving good stands of early growing cover crops before winter.
The Sneed Brothers plan to increase their acres of cover crops, especially on sloping lands. They are also interested in wanting to expand cover crops and no-till to their river bottoms in Arkansas. The area currently has little to no cover crops. Thy will introduce change in the area. A change that will improve soil function and ultimately soil health. Another example of change of mentality, was while we were standing on a hill overseeing many acres. The area was the loading area for grain trucks. The area was void of any vegetation and had some mild compaction. In the past, they would have deep ripped the area and prepare for spring seeded crops. They discussed with us about no-till drilling cereal rye instead. The rye will give the soil winter protection and also provide needed roots and increased organic matter to loosen the soil.
The Sneed Brothers have learned a lot on cover crop management through the experiences of two species cover crops with no problems. Then the unexpected results from wheat planted on construction areas ended up as a success both in profit margin and improving soil health. This year attempting to make the seeding better for brassicas ended up being challenging due to dryness and beans being late maturing variety. We need to seed during recommended seeding dates but adjust due to crop growth and moisture conditions. Your local NRCS office can assist you with these recommendations. Sneed Brothers have made many changes in last five years that has made them more profitable per acre as well as improving their most important investment, their soil.