No-till, Use of Eight-Species Cover Crops, and Integrating Grazing of Cover Crops to improve Soil Health
Ray Jones, from Coffee County, is the seventeenth of our Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Ray said "I have been farming all of my life." I could see and feel the passion in his demeanor and voice. Ray is a second generation farmer. His operation is a mix between grain crops and livestock farming. His total operation is 1,000 acres. He crops approximately 700 acres. He has about 300 acres in pastures. His crop rotation is simple, corn followed by soybeans. Five years ago, he changed his operation by adding winter cover crops to his rotation.
Like many outstanding conservation farmers, stewardship came early in his farming career. His dad bought one of the first no-till planters in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They planted in fescue, no-till corn. They learned the art of no-tilling over time. There were challenges in those days with lack of chemistry in herbicides and the slowness of planting. In the late 1980s, they changed to continuous no-till. Ray stated the following reasons for changing: 1. Planters had improved. New planters allowed them to plant 8-9 times faster than the original planter. His original planter would only plant at 1-2 miles per hour. Their operation really committed to no-till once the planters improved. 2. They saw the need to change due to labor. They maintained their yields by learning the system. There were less costs to no-till. They saved fuel, labor, due to cutting out disking, chisel plowing, and field cultivating. 3. A third factor was improvement of herbicides and plant genetics. Ray said, you could not commit to no-till until you could get a good termination of the cover. 4. They began in the late 1980s and 1990s using cover crops in their rotations. They used ryegrass and crimson clover. Usually one fourth of their crop was in winter cover crops. After ParaquatTM changed to GramoxoneTMchemistry, they did not get a complete kill in winter covers. They quit using winter cover crops, and transitioned to straight no-till in annual crop residues. Their early cover crop work kept them from regressing in yields as they transitioned from conventional tillage to no-till. Ray said no-till was more eficient because tillage took forever to work up the fields to plant.
I visited the farm on April 4, 2016 with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff Adam Daugherty, District Conservationist, and Allen Willmore, Soil Conservationist. Ray is in his fifth year using multi-species cover crops. With his history of farming with his dad using cover crops thirty years ago; it was a natural desire to add them to his operation. He said Adam Daugherty's influence, farming wet spots, and his desire to improve soil health led him back to cover crops. He wanted to be able to make it through wet spells as well as dry spells. He said that benefit alone is worth the shift.
Most farmers as they consider adding cover crops to their farming operation tend to be most hesitant when planting corn in killed cover crops. I want to address those concerns with Ray's experiences. Ray says that he bumps his corn population to 32,000 plants per acre compared to 30,000 without cover crops. He said you need to treat cover crops like a crop in itself. The benefits from cover crops are increased soil organic matter (SOM), more moisture, when the corn needs it, later in season, cooler temperatures in the summer, when you need it cooler, more cover that provides nutrient cycling. He said do not get in a hurry to plant corn. The cover crops need to grow late enough to provide benefits. I think many farmers have done a good job learning to get a good diverse stand by planting early enough only to kill the cover too early and lose many of the benefits. Grasses need to grow longer to increase soil organic matter. Legumes in April are just now nodulating and fixing nitrogen. Ray waits to third or fourth week of April before planting corn. He does not measure soil temperature. He goes by experiences. After a week of 70 plus temperatures, he plants. Ray says that many farmers use the excuse of too much moisture when planting corn in covers. He says another reason to be patient is to let the covers grow and uptake the moisture. Living roots will take up a lot of moisture especially in April.
Ray does not like to plant wet. However, using covers are more forgiving, when he does have to plant wet. There is less side wall compaction. Also, the higher soil organic matter plus the covers will hold up the equipment better with less risk of compaction. Ray said "one needs to use low rate to middle rate of in-furrow insecticide." Low-rate is better for beneficial insects. Ray said that he is learning to let the biology do more of the work instead of just adding more inputs. Inputs take away from his bottom line. Ray said that no-tilling and using cover crops save him $50.00-60.00 per acre from the three passes he use to do to prepare the land. He is saving $10.00 per acre in less use of broad leaf control. The diverse mixture is giving him better weed control. He is cutting the atrazine in half at first spraying and saving an additional $6.00 per acre. He normally plants corn in live cover crop and then terminates within a day - three days. Ray proudly pointed out a 4755 John Deere Tractor (200 horse power). He said that it was a 1991 model. He said because there is less horse power needed in no-till, the tractor only had 2,000 hours.
Ray said after a good year, he was thinking about buying a vertical tillage implement. The salesman backed out of the deal for some reason. He says after four years, "I want to thank him every time I see him." We do not need steel to work the ground. We need roots and the biology to work the ground. Ray says "drilling across the field with seed is better than tillage."
As I said earlier, Ray plants in green cover and kills the cover crops later the same day or up to three days. He says not to go pass 5-6 days for termination of covers after planting. He uses 28:1 up to 32:1 carbon:nitrogen ratio with his mixtures. He does not have any allelopathy problems with corn plants. Ray uses a 32% nitrogen as a carrier for his herbicide tank mix. He currently uses Round-upTM plus a broad leaf control and one follow up with RoundupTM. He grins and says "the second RoundupTM spraying is for insurance." He is currently considering going to new ParaquatTM for quicker kill. He said that he has only had one year of sluggish corn. He had one year of wheat and oats (no legumes or brassicas) and his corn was stunted after planting due to carbon tying up the nitrogen and less balance in his soil biology at the time. He said cool weather slowed the RoundupTM in killing the cover. He wants a quicker kill. Since going to diverse covers, he has not seen sluggish growing corn. He no longer uses row-cleaners. He wants the entire soil covered which results in a more functioning soil. He bought a new planter in 2012 with no row-cleaners. He is always thinking to improve. He is exploring a way to build a roller in front of each planter in order to roll and crimp as he plants.
Ray stated that there are complications using covers, but no more than in tillage farming, just different. He wants to invest in a new GPS, because it is difficult to see the marker when planting. Ray says "you have to be patient when planting in cover crops. I get anxious sometimes when I see neighbors planting early. But when September comes, and I have moisture, it is worth being patient." Ray also said "being bigger is not always being better." He says he can make better profit on smaller acres. He said that he doesn't want to be the biggest farmer, but the best farmer that he can become. He shared that he lost 400 acres from a landowner approximately five years ago. He says that he was forced to do better with less land. He says now that he makes the same amount of grain with the smaller operation. He said "do the best with what you have instead of doing marginal quality with more land." While I was writing this article, Ray planted most of his corn around April 20, 2016.
Ray treats his broad leaf weeds 7-10 days prior to terminating his cover crops. He terminates his cover crops, and plants 7-10 days later. He targets May 1-10 for 3.8 group soybeans, and third week of May for planting 4.6 group soybeans. I asked him about wheat, he responded quickly and smiled, "no wheat." Ray talked about his seeding population. He said that he use to plant 160,000 - 180,000 plants per acre. One season, he accidentally planted 110,000 plants per acre. He said that was his best year ever. He also has planted on 7.5 inch rows and 30 inch rows. He is now setting his planter on 20 inch rows. He plans to plant at 120,000 plants per acre. He does not plan to use fungicides unless weather turns out unusually wet and cool. He saves $15.00 per acre.
He still uses typical soil test sampling methods, 10-15 samples per 10 acres. He has not reduced any fertilizers as of yet, but plans to in the future. His soil tests in 2004 showed soil organic matter (SOM) around 1.34%. In 2014, he sampled two fields with University of Tennessee and his SOM was 2.5% and 2.95%, respectively. He maintains pH around 6.6 to 6.95. His phosphorus and potassium are maintained between medium to high on most fields with one field being very high in potassium. Adam Daugherty, NRCS District conservationist, has been conducting demonstrations and taking soil samples for three years showing changes using no-till with covers compared to no-till without cover crops. Temperatures in summer have shown 10-15 degrees cooler using covers. Infiltration has been up to four times greater. Soil biology counts have shown 5,000 to 6,000 organisms with covers and less than 3,000 without covers. Adam also has shown fungus to bacteria ratios have increased significantly along with diversity of soil biology in covers. Soil Health Haney tests also showed increases in hot-water extractable carbon and nitrogen, and lower carbon:nitrogen ratios. All of this translates to higher quality SOM available to soil biology for nutrient cycling and aggregating soils which leads to better yields and better infiltration rates. Earthworms are very numerous in any shovel count. Also the ease of digging shows with Ray's use of cover crops. Nutrient values from Haney Test show $222.00 to $295.00 per acre that are available in the soil. Ray will soon look to reduce nitrogen and possibly potassium in the future. Haney's Soil Health calculations of 15 and 14 are above average of 7 showing good trends of soil biology increases in respiration and food supplies. All of the above show a healthy trend in soil health indicators. Adam Daugherty, NRCS had Ray to run a comparison. One plot would follow a typical corn recommendation from the University of Tennessee. He applied 190 lbs of N, 65 lbs. of P2O5 (phosphorus), and 80 lbs. K2O (potassium), and yielded 182 bushels of corn per acre. Following the Haney test, he applied 145-60-0 and produced 188 bushels of corn per acre. He produced 6 more bushels per acre with 45 lbs. less nitrogen, five lbs. less P2O5, and 80 lbs. less K2O per acre. Equal to greater yield with less inputs.
COVER CROP GRAZING
Ray is in his fifth year of using multi species cover crops. He now uses a eight-way cover mix. He drills his cover crops around September 20. His mix consists of 0.5 lb. canola, 4 lbs. crimson clover, one lb. daikon radish, 15 lbs. oats, 20 lbs. triticale, 20 lbs. cereal rye, 5 lbs. vetch, and 10 lbs. Austrian winter peas. Ray has been grazing covers for three years. He begins in November at 6-8 inches in height. He always removes the cattle when it gets wet or at 4 inches in height. He ceases grazing 2-3 weeks before planting corn. He leaves livestock on bean land up to mid-April. The grazing stimulates the covers' growth. He also adds manure to his crop fields. He grazes stocker-calves. If anything, he is under stocked. Ray says keeping heights at 4 inches and greater and not grazing when wet has prevented compaction from grazing.
Observations since using covers are increased infiltration rates. The local NRCS office has done several measurements. Prior to cover crops, infiltration was approximately 2" per hour. Recently the staff measured 8" per hour. As shown earlier, SOM has increased by more than one percent. Ray says fields are less rough at planting and easier to plant. Weed reduction has been significant, especially pig weed and mare's tail. The covers are allowing many reductions in spraying of fungicides, broad leaf herbicides, and of course less trips across the fields. Voles have not been a problem. Ray expects to continue to try new additions to his system such as modernize GPS, add a roller or rollers to planters, and use of Paraquat/GramoxoneTM for quicker kill. Ray's continued use of no-till with eight species of cover crops, and integrated grazing has improved his soil health and overall farming operation. Ray ended our interview with another quote, "No use praying for rain, if you don't have a place for it to fall." Ray Jones' soils are ready for the upcoming rains.