Soil Health Heroes

Karl and Alex Forsbach

Farmers in Hardin County Are Making a Difference on Soils that Are Prone to Flood

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Karl and Alex Forsbach farm in Hardin County. They are our 31st Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. They farm below Pickwick Dam near Savannah, Tennessee. The lands are unique in that they may flood from time to time when the Tennessee Valley Authority must flood the terrace soils due to excess rain. Talking to farmers in the area, there are resistances to no-till and use cover crops due to the threat of seasonal floods that will move crop residue in large piles. Flood threats also can drown out cover crops or crops too for that matter. I first visited the Forsbachs and discussed their unique situation in April of 2015. I met Alex my first month as the Soil Specialist for Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts (TACD) at the Milan No-till Field Day, July of 2014. We discussed soil properties that factored into the rainfall simulator showing good infiltration and less erosion. We discussed cover crops and no-till. He invited Mark Roberts, NRCS District Conservationist, Savannah, Tennessee and me to their farm.. We finally were able to meet with him and his father, Karl in April of 2015. They had been using some vertical tillage to anchor the residue hoping to slow the movement of residue when flooding occurs. I discussed the effects of any tillage. Tillage destroys aggregates regardless of depth and leaves a restrictive zone or tillage pan that restricts infiltration. Live roots and soil biology aggregates the soil which leaves voids in the soil that IMG 2501newleads to a granular or sub-angular blocky soil structure. This structure is like marbles in a glass. They fill up the space in the glass, but there are voids or space for air, water, and roots to freely move. That what roots and soil biology do for the soil. Tillage will destroy aggregates and consolidate the soil causing soil crusts and limited infiltration.

We discussed them going to permanent cover crops with their crop rotation on our visit in 2015. I had the privilege of revisiting them with Mark Roberts and David McMillen, NRCS StateIMG 2499new Soil Scientist, Tennessee on March 9, 2017. The day we visited the farm, we were blessed with 72 degrees of early Spring-like temperatures. Karl Forsbach grew up in Germany. He moved to the United States and bought farmland in Hardin County. Alex, his son, attended Mississippi State where he obtained a degree in Agriculture and a Master's in Business Administration. They farm together about 3,300 acres of corn, soybeans, milo (grain sorghum), and wheat. They irrigate approximately 900 acres with central pivot system. They plant corn and milo on 30" rows, and soybeans on 15 " rows. Wheat and cover crops are drilled.

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Jay Moser

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Incredible Soil Changes from Thirty Three-Years of No-till and Thirty years of Cover Crops

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As I begin writing this article, I cannot believe this is number 30 in our series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. This one is special because I met this farmer over 30 years ago, when I was a District Conservationist with what was then the USDA Soil Conservation Service (SCS) now the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). I was District Conservationist in Jefferson County, Tennessee from 1981 to 1987. It is a pleasure after 30 years to visit and write about Jay Moser, our 30th Soil Health Hero. In the mid to late 1970s, I also IMG 2430newremembered nominating the Jay Moser Farm as Conservation Farmer of the Year when I was District Conservationist. It is easily to see why Jay was Conservation Farmer of the Year.

I made my initial visit with Jay on December 21, 2016. The day was a very cold 23 degrees during the visit. I made a follow up visit to take some photographs on February 13, 2017, 52 degrees. Jay has been in the liming business since 1978. Jay is owner of Mossy Creek Mining and markets his lime through Tennessee Valley Resources. Jay sells lime across the state of Tennessee as well to five other Southeastern States. Jay is owner and operator of his 2,000 acres farming operation in Jefferson County, Tennessee. Due to owning some mines, Jay as access to ground water in the mines, and has 3 central pivot irrigation system. He can extract water at 2500 gallons per minute easily applying 3/4" of water per hour.

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Bill Legg

Farmer Says Farmers Cannot Afford not to Build Their Soil Health

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I am Mike Hubbs, Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts Soil Health Specialist. I have been visiting and talking to many farmers all across Tennessee that are practicing conservation practices that improve soil health. I call the series, Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Bill Legg is our 28th of the Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. He is from near Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. I had the privilege to visit Bill on January 11, 2017 along with Mike Tatum, District Conservationist, NRCS, Lawrenceburg, and Tucker Newton, Lawrence County Soil Conservation District Office Director. January 11 was a pleasant day for January. It had rained earlier and was cloudy but a mild 66 degrees. Bill's soils range from 4-6% sloping silt loam soils to bottom land soils with slopes 0-2%. 

IMG 2354newBill had grown up farming and had grown grain crops for many years and in his words, "just broke even." He changed his operation to grazing operation and some forestry. He did not grow annual crops for 15 years. He became interested in rotational grazing in 1996. He began to see the importance of Bio-Diversity. In 2009, he began to read more on the soil food web and soil biology. He also attended a session on the food web. This was part of a Missouri Grazing Field Day that featured soil health changes.

In 2011, he began farming crops again. He is farming on the halves with another farmer, who does the planting and harvesting for him. Bill supplies the land and seed. Bill began using cover crops in the fall of 2011. He wanted to incorporate his livestock enterprise with his crop fields. He now farms 140 acres for grain crops. Bill grows corn and soybeans in rotation and actively grazes his cover crops with his livestock. Bill drills soybeans and cover crops. He plants his corn in 30" rows. He said that his dad talked about growing cover crops back when his dad plowed with mules. They would plant cereal rye and vetch. As Bill researched soil health improving practices, he remembered his father's history with cover crops.

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Jason Birdsong

Persistence and Consistency of No-till and Cover Crops Change Soil Health

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IMG 2312newJason Birdsong from Giles County, Tennessee is our 29th in the series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Jason is a fourth-generation farmer. He said that he has literally been farming his entire life. I had the privilege to visit Jason on January 12, 2017, along with NRCS District Conservationist, Rusty Walker, Pulaski, Tennessee. Jason farms corn, wheat, and soybeans. His farming operation is approximately 750 acres. His soils consist of Armour Silt Loam and bottom land soils, Lanton and Roellen. Lanton and Roellen are poorly drained soils.

He plants his soybeans in 19" rows, his corn on 30 " rows, and drills his wheat. He plants his soybeans at 140,000 plants per acre and hisIMG 2328new corn at 28,500 plants per acre. He works closely with the local NRCS, Giles County Soil Conservation District, and his local University of Tennessee Extension Service. He has conducted experiments with Extension Service on his farm. He is enthusiastic and determined to find this best method and wants to share his results with others. Some of his local findings are the following: soybeans yielded 3.5 bushels more per acre when following a 5-way mix compared to cereal rye alone. They split the field in half with same soil types and planted half in cereal rye and other half in a 5-way mix. In another experiment, Jason used an inoculant for soybeans on his bottom land soils, and showed consistently 3 bushels per acre increase compared to not using an inoculant. On his hill ground, he conducted the same experiment and showed only 1/2-bushel increase per acre using the inoculant. All work on his farm is unpublished.

Jason manages his nutrients and soil pH by grid sampling in 2 acre grids. He formerly applied nutrients based on general removal rates from grains. Now he applies only what is needed by grids and soil test analysis. He is currently applying nutrients using variable rates adjusted by the more detailed soil sampling. He said they have saved thousands of dollars by variable rate application. He has also added variable rate lime application to maintain his pH along the variable terrain of his farm. 

Jason said that his family began experimenting with no-till in the 1970s. With the challenges of getting a good stand, and lack of chemistry of herbicides to control weeds, they practiced rotational tillage. With better herbicides and better technology, he has been in continuous no-till since 2010. In 2010, he researched and read and heard other testimonies on soil health improvements by using cover crops with no-till. He had experienced in the past the hard soils using straight no-till and decided to always use some type of cover crop in his management system. 

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Brad Cochran

                                             Progressing from Single Species to Multi Species Cover Crops to Improve Soil Health                                                                                                                           IMG 2184new

Brad Cochran is the 27th in our series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. I visited Brad on November 4, 2016 with Brad Denton, NRCS District Conservationist, Madison County. Brad farms in Madison, Carroll, and Henderson Counties, Tennessee. Brad has essentially farmed his entire life. He is a second-generation farmer. His operation is approximately 4,000 acres. Brad and his family produce corn, cotton, soybean, and wheat farming operation. In 2016, he did not plant any cotton. Brad grows his corn on 30" rows, soybeans on 15" rows, and cotton on 38" rows. He said up to the 1980s, they farmed like everyone else at the time and used conventional tillage methods. Erosion was just an accepted result of farming.

IMG 2220newBrad's nutrient management plan involves annual grid sampling in 5-acre blocks or grids. He follows a three-year rotation of liming. He limes by soil test and applies it with variable rates. He grows both full season soybeans as well as double cropped soybeans after wheat, which make up 20-25% of his soybean crop. Brad participates with NRCS. Brad now believes in using cover crops. He currently has planted in 2016 3,000 acres in multi species cover crops. Another 1,000 acres are in cereal rye. Brad only receives financial assistance on approximately 1/3IMG 2189new of his acres. He sees the importance of cover crops, and invests the rest with his funds.  

He said in the late 1980s to the early 90s, they began no-tilling cotton with a bushel per acre of wheat for a cover crop. They would aerial seed the wheat via an airplane. In the mid-1990s, he attended a national no-till conference in the Mid-West. That led to his interest in annual rye grass as a cover crop. He said that he remembers his grandfather growing cover crops. Of course, his grandfather plowed the cover under. I asked him what were the driving forces to cause him to go to a permanent cover crop system and use no-till? He said that as he no-tilled his cotton, he saw all erosion reduced as the soil was covered compared to conventional tillage with cotton. He also saw the need to add rotations to his then cotton-dominated crop production system. Adding corn added residues and added more crop biomass which adds to the soil organic matter (SOM). He saw the need from conferences to add cover for erosion control, and to increase SOM. He ultimately wanted to sustain the soil.

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