Our 23rd Profiles of Soil Health Heroes is from Claiborne County, Tennessee. He is James England. James farms approximately 1,000 acres, and raises beef cattle. His soils are from dolomitic cherty limestone with slopes from 3-5% on cropland and 8 - 25% plus on pastureland. He grazes 280 total head including 160 cows with calves and replacement heifers. He has 40 fields that are generally 15 - 40 acres each. He has installed 30 water tanks, so he can easily subdivide into smaller paddocks. He also feeds corn and hay to 30 total steers and heifers, and feeds them out to 500 - 900 pounds depending on market prices. He grows 30 acres of corn. He no-tills and uses a multi species cover crop on his corn land. He also plants sorghum-sudan grass for hay. James broadcasts his sorghum-sudan grass seed and breaks the ground with a harrow for planting. He plants sorghum-sudan grass approximately June 1. James cuts one cutting off of sorghum-sudan grass and grazes the rest of the season. He plants winter covers in the fall. I asked James what fields are grazed, and he said all of them. The corn field is grazed in fall and spring when in winter cover crops.
He also has a green house where he produces organic tomatoes. He uses compost for soil fertility. I visited the farm on July 18, 2016 with NRCS District Conservationist, Mike Shoffner and Soil Conservationist, Justin Howard both out of Tazewell Field Office. We talked to James and toured the farm with James' farm manager.
Mr. England also owns a couple of golf courses. He has learned that the key to pasture grass and turf on a golf course is soil health. James has worked with world renown Elaine Engram on soil testing for the soil microbial biomass. He also talked to her about composting. James has developed his own mix of compost. He uses manure from his feed lot where he feeds out steers and heifers annually. He has also followed the farming practices of Gabe Brown, a well-known soil health farmer and an advocate for soil health from North Dakota. He has applied the compost on his golf courses and reduced many inputs.
He uses the manure from his feed lot plus wood chips to make a 2:1 mix consisting of 2 parts wood chips and one-part manure. He also uses sawdust from hard wood sources. Again he uses 2 parts sawdust and one-part manure. He mixes the manure with wood chips for up to 60 days. He mixes the sawdust up to 90 days with the manure. His final product has a nice blend of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium with copper and zinc. The mix has been tested and is approximately a 24:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio. The value of the compost is $90.00 per ton.
He applies approximately one ton per acre of solid compost on corn ground and hay ground. He follows up with second application on corn land. Some of the pastureland has received one ton per acre of solid compost. He also mixes a compost tea consisting of the solid compost water, molasses, and either calcium or boron. This is sprayed on at 15-20 gallons per acre. Most fields receive the compost tea annually.
He realizes that the key to improving soil health is healthy plants growing continuously and utilizing photosynthesis to increase plant production. He has done that by adopting a grazing system consisting of high intensity grazing and short duration. The leaf area from the forages will intercept energy from sunlight and take carbon dioxide from atmosphere and make carbon (sugars). This translates into growth of vegetation with good root growth. Over grazing or continuous grazing stunts plants and loses opportunities to produce carbon in the plant. This is a lost opportunity of utilizing sunlight energy. When plants produce more biomass and cover is left after grazing and roots are healthy, Soil Organic matter (SOM) or soil carbon increases. When carbon in soil increases, more food is available for soil biology, and soil health improves.
He uses two different cover crop mixtures. Before corn in the fall, he plants Graze Forage Radish, 15% of mix, hairy vetch at 50% of mix, crimson clover at 25% of mix, Hunter Leaf Turnip at 5% of the mix, and Winfred Forage Brassicas at 5% of the mix. He grazes the corn field in fall and spring using good grazing management. He does not graze wet, and he pulls the cattle off at 4 inches in height. Good manure distribution is the result of high density over small areas for short duration both on his pasture fields and cropland. The covers are rested in spring to grow and then terminated and corn is planted. The field has excellent biomass from the cover crops and manure distributed evenly.
His mix for pastureland in the spring is spring oats and Gaza Fodder Radish at 25% of the mix, Prestige white clover at 5% of the mix, Winfred Forage Brassicas at 5% of the mix, Grouse chicory at 5% of the mix, Tonic plantain at 10% of mix, Atom Prairie grass at 25% of mix, and Gala Grazing Brome grass at 25% of mix.
James has combined the prescribed grazing to move cattle in to graze at heights of at 8-10 inches in height and over a short duration of about two days. The trampled grass is normally 4 inches in height after removing the herd. This allows for light interception and continuous growth. He also applies the solid compost and compost tea. All of these combinations lead to increased soil organic matter and good diverse populations of soil life, see soil test results below on tables.
James is very soil biology focused. He has tested his soils for PLFA Soil Microbial Community Analysis from Ward Laboratories. The PLFA test measures total living microbial biomass measured in ng/g. The table below shows ratings.
|< 500||< 1.0||Very Poor|
|500+ - 1,000||1.0+ - 1.1||Poor|
|1,000+ - 1,500||1.1+ - 1.2||Slightly Below Average|
|1,500+ - 2,500||1.2+ - 1.3||Average|
|2,500+ - 3,000||1.3+ - 1.4||Slightly Above Average|
|3,000+ - 3,500||1.4+ - 1.5||Good|
|3,500+ - 4,000||1.5+ - 1.6||Very Good|
|> 4,000||> 1.6||Excellent|
James' results show from an intensely grazed pasture field over a short duration of two days and rested for a minimum of 30-45 days. The field has received solid compost at one ton per acre twice, and twice annually of compost Tea. The results are total biomass was 6,153.98. His diversity was 1.571. The total biomass is excellent. The diversity is Very good as shown on Table above. Higher numbers are good. This is important in soil microbes providing functions in soil such as infiltration due to aggregated soils. Soils are made up of dispersed particles such as sand, silt, and clay. Soil particles are aggregated like marbles creating soil voids or pore space. Soils are consolidated in aggregates by soil microbial glues. The void spaces provide ample room for root growth as well as movement of air and water. The good soil aggregation provides soil with the ability to withstand water from rainfall without falling apart and causing soil crust. Soil cover and root growth are essential to good soil aggregation during a rainfall event. Soils with little cover or poor root growth will erode easily and slake (fall apart) when rainfall hits the soil surface.
Diversity is important showing a good balance of soil microbes. An imbalance is unhealthy and normally results in poor soil function such as lower nutrient cycling or disease. James has very good diversity. It is a result of grazing management with equal deposits of manure spread out across the field from intense grazing over short duration. The high quality compost and compost tea provides quality carbon source for soil biology resulting in excellent soil health.
Another measurement from the Ward's PLFA test is Community Composition Ratios. One that I will feature is Fungal:Bacteria. Very poor is < 0.5 and excellent is > 0.35. James' results for Fungal:Bacteria ratio was 0.2386. This is in the slightly above average category. Fungus breaks down harder to break down soil organic matter such as what we see in forests. Having a higher Fungal:Bacteria ratio shows and increase in quantity of soil organic matter and quality. Bacteria dominated environments are in fields that have tillage and low diversity fields or over grazed pastures. The annual applications of compost tea and regular rotated fields over short duration with manure adequately spread due to high intense grazing adds fungal numbers to the soil biology.
James has taken traditional soil tests on his farm. I will show highlights from the A and L Laboratories soil tests. The items shown are soil organic matter in % (SOM), pH, phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K). Levels of fertility are listed as low (L), medium (M), optimum (O), and very high (VH).
Applying compost and compost tea, lime, and prescribed grazing, providing 30-45 days of rest between grazing periods, has resulted in the findings above in the table. The SOM levels are above average. It is noteworthy that many of the slopes are 8 % and greater. The soils are from dolomite cherty limestone with greater than 15% chert. The levels of SOM are extra ordinary for these soils. The other levels show decent fertility with some areas needing more nutrients shown by lows. Areas of optimum and very high do not need any more compost for a while.
While visiting the farm with farm hand assistant and NRCS staff, we dug around on several fields. The fields showed good structure, crumbly. There was earthworm casts present on surface indicating good earthworm activity and a healthly population. The soil had chert in it, but was easy to dig into it showing no compacted layers.
James sees the value of earthworms. He has dug a silge trench and plans to build a roof soon. He will stock the silage pit with some manure and old hay. He plans to grow earthworms, and collect their casts and eventually bag it for market.
James continuously studies and tries different practices to improve his soil health and ultimately produces high quality forage to produce beef efficiently. His pastures consist of cool season grasses such as fescue and legumes such as white clover. He does have fields that have sericea lespedeza and johnson grass. James asked me what he could do better. I noticed the day that I was there, July 18, 2016 that there was fields that had sericea lespedeza and johnson grass growing to the point of needing mowing. It would be to all farmers' advantages to move herd to these grasses in dry weather and let the herd graze these summer growing forages and rest the fescue or stock pile the cool season grasses for fall and winter grazing. This will utilize the summer faorages better without having to mow. James has done a remarkable job in improving his soils.
Improving soil health in pastureland depends on good grazing practices that allow for continuous growth by rotating and resting pastures. James soil testing and feeding his soils and soil biology with compost have resulted in healthy soils that are producing healthy plants and livestock.