Young Farming Brothers Improving their Soil and Profits using Latest Technology and Cover Crops
The Harris Brothers from Chester County are our 21st in the series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Rusty and Jeff Harris are twins and farming partners. They are fifth generation farmers. Their farm headquarters are located at Wayne Harris Road, named after their grandfather. They live in Henderson, Tennessee. Rusty is Chairman of the Chester County Soil Conservation District Board. I had the privilege to visit them on June 2, 2016 along with Brad Denton, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) District Conservationist for Madison and Chester Counties. I also had the privilage to work with Levi Harris, Jeff's son. On earlier visit in March of 2016, I met Hannah, Rusty's daughter. The future farming generation is in good hands with children like Hanna and Levi getting this great exposure of farming to improve soil health.
Rusty and Jeff grew up farming with their dad. Rusty began farming approximately eleven years ago. He was working off farm, when their dad became deathly ill. After their dad died, Rusty began farming full time. He began acquiring bottom land fields with slopes no greater than 4 percent, with the exception of one farm that have some significant slopes. All soils are loess or alluvial soils. The fields are very productive but highly erosive. On the other hand, Jeff started farming full time about four years ago. Out of necessity due to prime farm lands already leased out, he acquired steeper ground, mostly coming out of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Many farmers want to till up CRP lands. Jeff wanted to preserve the soil organic matter that built up during CRP. Landowners saw this advantage of keeping their fields productive and leased their lands to Jeff. Rusty and Jeff have shown a remarkable stewardship. Landowners have been content to keep them in leases. In both cases, the brothers acquired farms that have been managed well for conservation. These soils respond well to their continued soil health improving management.
Farming with their dad, they essentially grew up no-tilling. The family has been no-tilling since 2000. Their dad transitioned from chisel plowing, to disk and do-all, to no-till. Most fields that have been farmed by the Harris Brothers for a while have 16-20 years of no-till history. Their farm operation branches over three counties: Chester, McNairy, and Madison. Their operation consists of 1,700 acres. They produce, on the average, 750 acres of soybeans, 750 acres of cotton, and 200 acres of corn. The Harris Brothers plant wide row corn and cotton on 38" rows. They use a John Deere 1720 planter for cotton. Rusty and Jeff use a Kinze 2600 for corn and with soybeans using splitter rows at 19 inches rows. They also use a Case IH for soybeans, 15" rows. They do not use row cleaners for corn and soybeans. The brothers use Martin Floating row cleaners when planting cotton due to planting shallow compared to corn and soybeans. All of their acres are dry-land with no irrigation. They plant their corn at 24,000 plants per acre. The Harris Brothers plant soybeans at 127,000 plants per acre, and cotton at 42,000 plants per acre.
The brothers are comfortable with the size of their operation. Jeff says it is "quality over quantity", while Rusty added, "we need to do the best that we can with the acres we have." They focus on maximizing on profits instead of just sheer volume of acres.
The Harris Brothers manage their nutrients by annual soil testing. They began in 2008 using variable rate for lime and phosphorus and potassium. The brothers credit the NRCS' Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) for beginning variable rate nutrient management. They have recently reduced total nitrogen application in cotton from 100 units per acre to 80 units per acre. Rusty and Jeff apply 20 percent at planting and side dress 80 percent. They originally applied 100 percent at planting.
They are planning to expand their crop and pest management in cotton by using Green SeekerTM sensor that will produce a map with three categories, high, medium, and low vigor zone. The brothers will apply appropriate amounts of growth regulator and insecticides on cotton. This will reduce use of insecticides and save costs with both growth regulators and insecticides.
The 2016 season is their second with using cover crops. They have always practiced no-till. The Harris Brothers attend a regularly scheduled round robin discussion with other farmers at the Madison County NRCS hosted by Brad Denton, NRCS District Conservationist, Madison and Chester Counties and Matthew Denton, NRCS District Conservationist, Gibson County. The desire to improve their operation's soil health motivated them to plant annual winter cover. They participate in both the EQIP program and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) for financial assistance on cover crops from NRCS. They plant multi species cover crop mix consisting of 30 pounds of cereal rye, 5 pounds of crimson clover, 15 pounds of wheat, 2 pounds Ethiopian Cabbage, and 2 pounds tillage radishes, all per acre. In some fields, they substituted canola at 2 pounds per acre instead of Ethiopian Cabbage. They plant 100% of their acreage in cover crops. Rusty and Jeff plant all cover crops by broadcasting using spinner truck with phosphorus and potassium as carrier.
The brothers plant corn green that is while the cover is green to maximize growth and benefits of cover crops. They terminate cover crops within a week of planting corn. The Harris' use a pre-emergent herbicide and Round UpTM at termination. For Soybeans, they plant green and terminate same day or a day after. They use pre-emergent herbicide and Round UpTM. Currently, they are terminating cover crops toward late March or early April, and plant cotton six weeks later. They are working with cotton specialist from University of Tennessee to see if planting green, 2 weeks, 4 weeks, or 6 weeks after termination makes significant differences. The brothers would like to grow covers longer prior to termination when planting cotton.
Rusty has a field that is the furthermost farm from their farm headquarters, about 15 minutes. They have been planting mostly soybeans in the field. It is adjacent to a lake and has some slopes that exceed 8%. The field has natural covers consisting of little barley, annual rye grass, caley pea, hairy vetch, and hop clover. The cover is easily 36" or greater at termination. I visited the Harris Brothers, and Brad Denton, NRCS /district Conservationist, June 2, 2016. The picture showing the planter in natural cover was taken that day. They planted the previous day. Note the amount of cover. There is no expense in this cover other than in the termination. I noticed the lake was very clear adjacent to the field, even though the slopes are quite steep for annual cropping. The no-till planting and use of natural covers are protecting the soil and water from run-off and erosion.
I asked them about the benefits from the cover crops. They have only grown covers for two years, but the brothers are noticing changes in soil health. They noticed that the fields dry out faster that is one can enter the fields quicker after a rain. Planting green allows for covers to pull out more water during wet springs. Once the cover is terminated, the residue holds more moisture. Soil temperatures are cooler in the summer which translates to less plant stress from hot and dry conditions. They do not have any existing erosion. They are anticipating having a week's more water during a drought. Of course this is speculation and from research trials. Since growing cover crops, they have not experienced a drought yet, but 2016 could be the year to test this speculation and research findings. Their soil structure still had some platy structure, but is showing more granular and blocky (crumbly). They have noticed much more earthworm activity. With the soil covered, they notice no soil crusting. They said that they can plant deeper. Infiltration seems better after intense rains. They do not experience as much ponding after rains. Soil organic matter seems to be increasing, again based on observation. The clean lake at the last site seems to support their perception. They also have noticed that quail and turkies are thriving on their farms. They are also seeing more finches.
Rusty and Jeff Harris have learned substantially about planting in covers the last two seasons. They learned by experiences and through talking to other farmers at the soil health round table discussion every two or three months. They stay in constant communication with NRCS. They experienced in 2016, that canola was difficult to kill the earlier they tried to kill it. I saw many plants in cotton fields which was treated the earliest, fewer in corn fields treated ouple weeks later, and 100% canola was dead in soybean fields that we visited. There seems to be something about the more mature the canola, the easier to kill it based on seeing the Harris' fields. Of course my view is only from a few observations. Due to complications in killing canola and rape by West Tennessee farmers, NRCS is ceasing recommending canola or rape in cover crop mixtures until more research is done. The canola family have some benefits to offer in cover crop mix, but we must explore other alternatives until we can efficiently terminate canola and rape.
Many farmers are improving their soil health by no-tilling, practicing good nutrient management, and integrated pest management. Cover crops are essential to provide more cover and keeping the soil covered. Cover crops provided a growing root normally when plants are not growing. Biomass is increased with growing cover crops which increases soil organic matter. Cover crops intercept energy flow from sunlight increasing carbon produced. No-tilling and following integrated pest management, and nutrient management decreases soil disturbances. Diverse multi species cover crop mixes add to diversity. Diverse plants and roots provide for more diversity in the soil biology which reduces disease pressures. The thick cover reduces weed pressures and the allelopathy from cereal rye reduces germination of many weeds. There are potential to reduce nitrogen on corn and cotton as soil carbon increases, thus releasing more organic nitrogen. Improving soil health for the Harris Brothers means a better environment, but also better productive soils and better profits.