Soil Health Heroes

Ray Jones

No-till, Use of Eight-Species Cover Crops, and Integrating Grazing of Cover Crops to improve Soil Health


IMG 1546newRay 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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Mike McElroy

Daily Rotational Grazing, Changing Soil Health on 12 acres

IMG 1475newOur sixteenth Profiles of Soil Health Heroes is Mike McElroy. Mike is the District Conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Greeneville, Tennessee. Mike bought his current place in 1991. The original 4.7 acres of pasture had 5-strand barb wire fence. The farm needed quite a bit of cleaning up to prepare it for grazing. Mike began grazing in the early 1990s. He read about rotational grazing but did not understand it well enough to practice it. He bought some calves and began rotating calves once a week in 1996. Richard Spain a local farmer found out about grazing clubs from his brother in Missouri. In 1996, Richard Spain influenced Mike and a few others to start the Four Seasons Grazing Club in Greeneville, Tennessee (grazing club continues to meet 4-6 times per year). Greg Brann, State Grazing Specialist with NRCS also provided a lot of guidance to Mike.IMG 1505new


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Jim Malooley

IMG 1297newStarting from scratch is the theme of our 14th Soil Heath Hero in our series in Tennessee. This series features Jim Malooley and his wife Deanna. Jim was an engineer by trade and is a son of a dentist from Indiana. Deanna had some farming in her roots from Arkansas. They moved from the state of Washington almost three years ago. They bought 25 sheep the first day that they arrived and immediately they became farmers. Jim contacted Matt Feno, NRCS District Conservationist, McMinnville, Tennessee, about terminating the entire farm of endophyte infected Kentucky-31 fescue. Matt seeing the potential in Jim called in Area Resource Conservationist, Andy Neal and State Grazing Specialist and Soil Health Specialist, Greg Brann to assist with a grazing plan. The original grazing plan was four pages. NRCS developed a conservation plan to meet all of Jim's objectives and did not have to kill the existing fescue. The plan conserved all of the benefits previously achieved by growing fescue, but also met the nutrition of the proposed sheep and cattle. Jim and Deanna were on their way. They also became close friends with Greg and share grazing experiences on a regular basis.IMG 1314new

Their farm consists of 206.8 acres, 160 acres in pasture, and 41.1 acres in forest, with remaining acres in buildings and small fenced lots. The farm is relatively flat. When Jim and Deanna were selecting a farm, they wanted a farm with mild winters, and the capability of the most forage production possible. These reasons factored in them selecting Tennessee and Warren County where they would become farmers. The soils are predominantly Waynesboro and Guthrie silt loam and are predominantly flat with a few fields ranging 0-12% slope.

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Marty Hinson

IMG 1360newMarty Hinson is the fifteenth in our series of Tennessee Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Marty was one of two Soil Health speakers from Tennessee featured at the 2015 TACD convention in Jackson, Tennessee. Marty presented alongside with the Convention's keynote speaker, Dave Brandt, from Ohio, and fellow West Tennessean, Matt Griggs. Marty attended a tour of nationally renowned Dave Brandt with some of us last August. At the tour, she added to the discussion by sharing her experiences. She is a leader in soil health among farmers in West Tennessee. 20151125 105922new

I first met Marty when presenting at a round table discussion at the Madison County NRCS Field office in December of 2014. Marty along with other farmers from Madison, Gibson, and Chester Counties meet and discuss ways of improving soil health. They share successes and failures. District Conservationists Brad Denton, Madison County and Chester County and Matthew Denton, Gibson County have been very instrumental in leading this discussion and helpful in Marty's transition to embrace a cover crop and no-till system.

Marty is a farmer and Agricultural professional. She is the Farm Services Manager at Cannon Packaging, Humboldt, Tennessee. Marty promotes nutrient management and soil health in her position with Cannon. She farms with her husband, Barry Hinson and her son, Sam Green. They farm near Trenton, Tennessee in Gibson County in the Brazil community (unincorporated). Their operation is approximately 4,300 acres consisting of grain and fiber row crops. They produce corn, cotton, soybeans, grain sorghum (milo), and wheat. 

Marty's job with Cannon involves nutrient management through soil testing and applying soil and foliar applied nutrients, and especially foliar application of micro nutrients at the right time of growth. In her , she noticed the soil was hard, compacted, and crusted at the surface after years of applying high-salt fertilizers. There were no signs of soil life, and yields were decreasing. Also recently, potassium fertilizer increased from $196.00/ton to $450.00/ton. Marty knew that their operation needed to reduce input costs and improve soil health in order to keep the farm productive and profitable.

Her objectives were (1) increase nutrients from cover crops (cover crops up-taking nutrients deep from the soil profile); (2) increase soil organic matter (SOM); (3) loosen the soil for better root growth and easier establishment of crops; and (4) desire more efficient and effective ways to feed the crop, such as with legumes, decomposing covers, decomposing SOM, etc. Previously, the farm operation planted wheat for cover from the 1990s until the 2004 crop season. In 2013, Marty saw the need to add cover crops back into the operation but with multi-species cover crops.

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Sneed Brothers

IMG 1285newChanging is difficult for most of us. However, the world around us is changing every day. Farming is no different. In today's world, one changes or is left behind. Unfortunately, one may go out of business as a result. Sneed Brothers' farm is our thirteenth edition highlighting Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Sneed Brothers' Farm has grown over recent years to approximately 10,000 acres in their farming operation. I arrived December 9, 2015 a little after 7:00 am and was astonished by the bluster of activity. Many grain trucks leaving the farm, tractors and combines driving by all activity contributing to completing the 2015 crop harvest. This profile will highlight the recent changes that Sneed Brothers have made to improve their profit margin as well as improving the health of their soils. 

The Sneed Brothers are grain crop farmers. Their crop rotation system is predominately corn, wheat, and soybeans. This 2015 season was the first in several decades that cotton has not been grown. Ray Sneed stated that he joined the operation as a farmer in 1978, and has grown cotton every consecutive year until 2015. They will add cotton back into the rotation as economics will allow. They also grow 300-1,200 acres of milo (grain sorghum) per year, again as economics dictate.

Six years ago they changed their lime and fertilizer testing and application to variable rate. They are conducting a yield study on the effects of variable rate, especially for phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). They will make adjustments according to yield findings.IMG 1274new

The Sneed Brothers farm in Shelby and Tipton Counties, Tennessee, as well as in Crittenden County, Arkansas. Their soils in Tipton and Shelby Counties are predominantly Memphis, Loring, and Granada Silt Loam on slopes ranging from 2 - 12 %. These soils have been formed by windblown loess and are easily erodible. Many of the fields are designated highly erodible and require a certain level of conservation to remain eligible for USDA programs. The Sneeds have been constructing structural conservation practices since the late 1980s. The predominant conservation practices are grade control structures, water and sediment control structures, and grass waterways. Their farm land in Crittenden County Arkansas is mostly alluvial soils on 0-1 % slopes.

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