Soil Health Heroes

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 All work on his farm is unpublished.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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Bill Legg

Farmer Says Farmers Cannot Afford not to Build Their Soil Health


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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Charlie Roberts

Growing Cover Crops to Manage Nutrients and to Improve Soil Health Near the Mississippi River

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My name is Mike Hubbs. I am the Soil Health Specialist with Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts (TACD). I have authored the series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. I introduce myself in this article because I live in north Knox County in a community called Halls, sometimes called Halls Crossroads. In its long history, Halls Crossroads, or as locals call it Halls, has attempted to obtain its own postal zip code. For whatever reason, it has not happened. Years ago, they tried and the post office was going to be named Halls Dale in order not to be confused with Halls, Tennessee. That fell through, and Halls still has a Knoxville zip code. 

IMG 2164newI give you this background because our next Profiles of Heroes, number 26 is Charlie Roberts from Halls, Tennessee in Lauderdale County. Halls CrossroadsIMG 2207newin Knox County is approximately 400 miles east of Halls, Tennessee in Lauderdale County. I say all of this because it has been a common miscommunication. Recently a delivery for Halls in Knox County comes to Halls in West Tennessee. The driver of the truck was absolutely perturbed when he realized that he had to drive an additional 400 miles east because of miscommunication from his home office. So on November 3, 2016, I made my way from Halls in North Knox County to just 14 miles east of the Mississippi River in Halls, Tennessee. I met Charlie Roberts and George Henshaw, NRCS District Conservationist for Lauderdale County at Charlie's mother's place of business, Charlene's Collectibles and lunch at " Just Divine Tea Room." I was surprised by the bustle of activity at Charlene's Collectibles with several women all over the region shopping and eating. I am not accustomed to eating at too many "Tea Rooms;" however, I must say the food was great and plentiful for a man's appetite. I can see why the crowd was there.

I have attended some Soil Health Round Table Discussions with Charlie Roberts over the last two years in Madison County on two occassions. I also traveled with him with the Tennessee's tour of Dave Brandt's in Ohio in August of 2015. I have also seen him at some field days where I presented. I knew about his enthusiasm to learn more about soil health. I also had discussed with him some of his farming experiences. Thus, I am now writing about his sucesses in improving his soil.

With drought and extreme warm weather this fall, I noted the temperature was 82 degrees on November 3, 2016 at Charlie's farm. They have not received any rain in approximately six weeks. Charlie said the last rain was 0.25 to 0.5 inch. Charlie said that he was a fourth-generation farmer. I also met his Dad, Ronnie during lunch. He said that their ancestors made their way from North Carolina to the Cumberland river and then westward to Carroll County. The Roberts made their way from Carroll County in 1920 in seven wagons and traveled for seven days to the Barr Community in Lauderdale County. Their reason for picking up and relocating was the inexpensive land prices and higher fertility of the soils adjacent to the Mississippi River. Their original track of land was the Barr Farm on the Mississippi River.  Ronnie said that Charlie runs the farming operation now. Ronnie helps out from time to time with the farming operation and also at Charlene's Collectibles. Charlie said their original farm was a historical cotton farm. Recently the farm has changed to a corn, soybean, triticale and cereal rye and oats for grain.  They only produced corn, soybeans and oats in 2015 and 2016. The last cotton produced on the farm was 2013. Charlie says they will continue to grow corn, soybeans, oats, triticale and rye in the future. The farming operation is approximately 1,300 acres.

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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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Justin and Javen Fann

Leaving Cover Crops Growing Later in Spring is Key to Quicker Soil Changes

IMG 2142newOur 25th Profiles of Soil Health Heroes are Justin and Javen Fann. The Fann Brothers farm in Warren and Cannon Counties, Tennessee. They are third generation farmers. Their soils are mostly Dixson soils and lays gently on approximately 0-4% slopes. I visited the farm with the brothers, Javen's son, J. Daxton Fann, Trent Hancock, an employee, and Matt Feno, District Conservationist, NRCS, McMinnville, Tennessee.IMG 2121new

As I am writing this article, Tennessee is suffering a drought in most locations of Tennessee. As Matt and I drove up to the farm, I saw green fields of cover crops growing exceptionally. I was pleasantly surprised. Their cover crops growing so well is a testimony to their following soil health principles. They left last year's covers undisturbed (no tillage), the soil is continuously covered, and they planted a cover crop for continuous growing plants with continuous growing roots after cash crop harvest. The cover crop is acting as a solar panel and is intercepting sun light energy and converting sun light to carbon in the green plants. Carbon is then increased in the soil from the biomass and roots. The diversity in the covers and crop rotations are up taking nutrients at different times, and the diversity above ground is improving the environment for soil biology and the soil is improving very quickly.

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