Cover Crops Provide Diversity and Residue to Improve Soil Health
Ricky Essary is the 22nd in our series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes in Tennessee. Ricky farms with his son and son-in-law. The partnership is called Essary and Cherry Farms. Ricky is the chairman of the Hardin County Soil Conservation District. He resides in Milledgeville, Tennessee. Milledeville is unique in that it sits in three counties, McNairy, Chester, and Hardin. Ricky said that he farms in four counties, the three previously mentioned ones with the addition of Henderson County. He said that he farms the four counties all within 4 miles of his home.
It did not take me long to see one of Ricky's passions. It is tractor pulling. He has been competing in open class for over 40 years. He says he began driving then his daughter, and son. He said his daughter had the best feel, and was the best. Their tractor was very impressive. His passion is also evident in his conservation ethic. He believes in improving soil health.
Walter Rickman was his grandfather on his mother's side. He moved into the area and cleared the land with a drag line and dynamite. Mr. Rickman eventually owned 1,000 acres. Ricky tells me that Mr. Rickman owned 4 grocery stores. The children went into the grocery business and were not interested into farming. Ricky's father began farming with Mr. Rickman. After Mr. Rickman's passing, the land went to the children, where Ricky has bought most of it from uncles and aunts.
Ricky followed in his father's footsteps and farmed his entire life. He always believed in soil conservation and began serving on the Hardin County Soil Conservation Board of supervisors in 1983. After Ricky bought his home place in 1979, he was selected as a demonstration farm by the University of Tennessee Extension, the USDA Soil Conservation Service and USDA Farmers Home Administration. He was one of 25 demonstration farms set up across the state. Ricky said that the reason his farm was selected was because of all of the knee-deep gullies on the farm. They assisted him with grass waterways. He also began no-tilling in 1980. In the 1980s, a Chinese delegation visited his farm. Ricky said that they were the equivalent of USDA from China. He had a chance to trade ideas and share what he was doing with them.
I visited the Essary and Cherry farming operation on June 14, 2016 along with Mark Roberts, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) District Conservationist for Hardin County. Cooper Essary, Ricky's grandson was also with us. Ricky shared with us how he began no-tilling. Farmers were growing wheat at the time and having trouble with all of the residue from the stubble. Most farmers in the 1970s were burning the wheat residue. He also shared with me that he saw some farmers burning wheat stubble the day prior to my visit on a nearby farm. He said that because of the stubble, he wanted a way to utilize the residue and plant soybeans into it. He bought a John Deere Soybean Special. Ricky said that another reason was the hill ground would erode very easily. There were many factors that prevented him from continuously no-tilling in the 1980s. Herbicides lacked the chemistry to control the hard to control weeds. He also farmed up to 60% of his operation on bottom land that it was wet nature ground. Weeds were more prolific on bottom lands. He no-tilled the hills in the 1980s. With the advent of genetic modified organisms (GMOs), he began using the new chemistry herbicides and no-tilling the bottom land ground in the 1990s. He has generally no-tilled ever since.
Essary and Cherry Farms are farmed by Ricky, his son Kevin, and his son-in-law, Jason Cherry. They farm 4,000 acres all in the Milledgeville area in 4 counties. Their rotation is corn and soybeans. Ricky quit growing wheat due to economics. The bottom lands were too cold and wet. He lost crops due to being too wet, and some froze out.
They work with the local Farmers Cooperative (COOP) for soil testing. They sample in 2 acres of grids. They use variable rate application for lime and application of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Ricky said that yields have been increasing by approximately 2-3% per year in last 8 years. They also use split application of nitrogen (N). They apply 80 pounds per acre of N at planting using 28-0-0-5. They add the split applied N when corn reaches 16". They have not reduced N as of yet, and apply 220 pounds per acre of total N for corn. They also tissue sample on two select fields. They do have 125 acres of pivot irrigation. They apply 250-260 pounds of N on irrigated corn. They also use exact application for secondary and micro nutrients such as for magnesium (Mg), boron (B), manganese (Mn), zinc (Zn), and sulfur (S). Ricky noted that Farmers' COOP commented that their field have the least of mare's tail and pig weed. Reductions of weeds are some of the benefits of using multi species cover crops.
Their row spacing for corn is 30" rows, and 15" rows for soybeans. They plant their crops green into cover crops, that is they plant prior to desiccating covers. They do this to maximize the growth of cover crops at time of planting to receive as much benefits from cover crops as possible. It also is advantageous to uptake excess moisture from soil during wet springs. After desiccation, the covers will maintain more moisture in the soil and reduce moisture losses. Temperatures are substantially cooler. The day that I was there ambient temperatures were in the high 90s. The crops were needing rain. Most of West Tennessee has not suffered a drought since multi species cover crops became prevalent in last three years. The 2016 year could show many benefits from covers due to early drought signs.
Esaary and Cherry Farms use one application of fungicide on soybeans and one application of insecticide at planting with one follow up. The corn receives 50% fungicide as needed, and 100% of corn crop is treated with fungicide if they scout disease. They use row cleaners on 30" row planter for corn. They use a turbo-till coulter on row cleaners. Corn population is 30,000 for dry land and 34,000 on irrigated fields. They plant 155,000 population of soybeans per acre.
The farm operation has been growing cover crops for 8 years. They traveled to Kentucky and saw radishes growing in 2008. They came back and tried tillage radishes at 8 pounds per acre on 20 acres. They noticed planting in radishes were easier to get a stand. They expanded to 100 acres the following year. They planted annual rye grass and tillage radishes. They planted 15-20 pounds of rye grass per acre and 6 pounds of radishes per acre. They had no problems controlling the rye grass. In 2010 and 2011, they added 1 pound of brassica mix, rye grass, radishes, and wheat. This was the only time they grew wheat in the mix. their thoughts were that wheat tended to dry out the soil.
In 2012, they attended some soil meetings and heard from speakers from North Dakota and as a result of the meetings, they expanded their multi species. They began using combinations of the following species: forage collards, radishes, Ethiopian cabbage, kale, sunflowers, buck wheat, millet, cereal rye, and oats. Essary and Cherry Farms use different combinations with a minimum of five species and maximum of seven species. They used a spinner truck or drill. Since 2013 to the present, they plant 1,300 acres of multi species cover crops. They apply 50% of cover crops using aerial seeding from air plane, and the remaining 50% using a Great Plains no-till drill. Aerial seeding was at early leaf drop on soybeans. They aerial seeded some corn too. They aerial seeded twice. One in late August, and the second one was mid-September. They grow Group 3 soybeans. Their best aerial seeding was early. They drilled in mid-September. They were not as satisfied with aerial seeding. They strive for 20% leaf drop before defoliation of soybeans. Ricky said that farmers need to make sure when drilling, that the small seed is not planted too deep.
Their current seed mix consists of the following: 10 pounds of Austrian Winter Peas, 2 pounds of radishes, 5-6 pounds of crimson clover, 5 pounds of annual rye grass, 1.5 pounds of sunflowers, 0.5 pounds Ethiopian cabbage, and 12 pounds of spring oats, all per acre basis. Essary and Cherry Farms plant their corn green, that is while covers are still growing. They do two thirds of corn this method. The desiccate 2-3 days later. The rest of the corn, one third is planted 14 days after killing of cover crop. They begin planting corn on hill ground the third week of April. They plant for a month. Their bottom land corn is planted early May. In soybeans, they plant all 14 days after desiccating cover crop.
NRCS has been sampling for certain soil health indicators. Data is not available at this writing. However, there are some observable benefits of eight years of covers. Ricky sees up to three percent higher in yields per year, especially the sloping land that had less top soil. Ricky thinks he needs to kill covers later in wetter soils to allow covers to take up more water. He is considering planting green in bottoms. He says the soil is softer, easier to plant. Ricky has noticed much less runoff, especially during torrential rains. He said the ditches run cleaner water. He said what use to be a major problem was erosion. He said that it is more or less eliminated.
Ricky Essary has learned quite a bit about growing covers. He insists everyone should try a small amount and learn from it. He says hill ground should always have covers on them. He says land that floods is more of a challenge. He plans to keep trying different combinations of covers. He is interested in Berseem clover and more rye grass. He is generally switching from Round UpTM to GramoxoneTM to get a quicker kill. Sometimes the slower kill allows the covers to hold back the corn. Ricky's soil is changing. There is some platy structure, but the plates break up readily. There are plenty of bio pores form soil biology. The structure is changing to more of a crumbly structure. Adding more grass will help feed the increasing soil biology and help the structure to change quickly to crumbly and blocky structure.
The Essary and Cherry Farms are changing the landscape in Milledgeville community field by field. Their no-till and cover crops are building soil carbon. The soil is healthier and so are the profits. Better soils make better yields.