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.
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From Farming Dust to Improving Soil Health
Neil Delk is a Soil Conservation District Supervisor for the Maury County Soil Conservation District. Neil is 20th in our series of State Profiles of Soil Health. He is from Maury County and farms in Kettle Mills area near Williamsport, Tennessee. Neil grew up farming, but took a break from farming during the time he was drafted into the United States Air force in 1969. He worked some time with the Department of Revenue part-time, and then returned to farming. He supplemented his farming by select timber cutting for 20 years. He retired from timber cutting approximately 8 years ago. In his farm operation he formerly raised cattle and hogs. He grew corn for hogs. Neil transitioned over the years to full-time grain crops.
He shared with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), District Conservationist, Jeff Bowie and myself that they previously "scarred the land." He went on to say, that "we worked the ground like we thought we had to do. We worked it like dust." Neil also said that "we have not tilled in 20 years. It hurts me to till."
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Adding Nine Species of Cover Crop Mixture to Improve Soil Health
The eighteenth in our series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes is Jamie and Ray Weaver from Coffee County. Ray Weaver has been farming since 1971. Ray has been president of Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts (TACD) for the last five years. Ray is a leader in the state for conservation of natural resources. Ray is also Chairman of the Coffee County Soil Conservation Board of Supervisors. Jamie, his son, has been farming with Ray since 2002. Jamie has his Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Science and a minor in in Agricultural Economics, both from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee.
I visited with Jamie along with the Natural Resources Conservation Serve (NRCS) staff of Coffee County, Adam Daugherty and Allen Willmore on April 4, 2016. The Weaver farm is quite diverse. They farm approximately 8 acres in grapes, 600 acres in row crops, 125 brood cows, and direct sale on beef, retail pork, 200 finishing pigs, direct sale, 20 acres sweet corn, and less than one acre in pumpkins. They plan to build a high tunnel and produce strawberries in the near future.
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From Former Mined Land to Productive Soils
On April 26, 2016, I visited Keith Farms with Jeff Bowie, District Conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Maury County, Tennessee. Keith farm is located in Pottsville, Tennessee in Maury County. Keith Farms consist of Father, Ritchie and his son, Chad. The Keiths are our nineteenth of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes.
A portion of the farm is formerly mined phosphate land. The location of the farm is on the Duck River. The farm was cleared of trees and shaped and disked to smooth a few years ago. This is the third year in production. The rest of the farming operation has been no-tilled for seven years. Recent rotation on the mined field has been one year of soybeans and this is the third year of corn. Approximately 335 acres are in center pivot irrigation. Just to make a point how effective Keith Farms are in keeping the soil covered, I have a picture below in the photo gallery of conventional tillage from a farm less than two miles from their farm.
Their crop rotation for the entire operation is corn, wheat or cereal rye, and soybeans. They crop approximately 3,600 acres. Four hundred of those acres are in cereal rye for grain, and 1,000 acres are in wheat for grain.
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No-till, Use of Eight-Species Cover Crops, and Integrating Grazing of Cover Crops to improve Soil Health
Ray Jones, from Coffee County, is the seventeenth of our Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Ray said "I have been farming all of my life." I could see and feel the passion in his demeanor and voice. Ray is a second generation farmer. His operation is a mix between grain crops and livestock farming. His total operation is 1,000 acres. He crops approximately 700 acres. He has about 300 acres in pastures. His crop rotation is simple, corn followed by soybeans. Five years ago, he changed his operation by adding winter cover crops to his rotation.
Like many outstanding conservation farmers, stewardship came early in his farming career. His dad bought one of the first no-till planters in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They planted in fescue, no-till corn. They learned the art of no-tilling over time. There were challenges in those days with lack of chemistry in herbicides and the slowness of planting. In the late 1980s, they changed to continuous no-till. Ray stated the following reasons for changing: 1. Planters had improved. New planters allowed them to plant 8-9 times faster than the original planter. His original planter would only plant at 1-2 miles per hour. Their operation really committed to no-till once the planters improved. 2. They saw the need to change due to labor. They maintained their yields by learning the system. There were less costs to no-till. They saved fuel, labor, due to cutting out disking, chisel plowing, and field cultivating. 3. A third factor was improvement of herbicides and plant genetics. Ray said, you could not commit to no-till until you could get a good termination of the cover. 4. They began in the late 1980s and 1990s using cover crops in their rotations. They used ryegrass and crimson clover. Usually one fourth of their crop was in winter cover crops. After ParaquatTM changed to GramoxoneTMchemistry, they did not get a complete kill in winter covers. They quit using winter cover crops, and transitioned to straight no-till in annual crop residues. Their early cover crop work kept them from regressing in yields as they transitioned from conventional tillage to no-till. Ray said no-till was more eficient because tillage took forever to work up the fields to plant.
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