Soil Health Heroes

Elvis Bellar

IMG 1126newElvis Bellar is eleventh in our series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Elvis is unique in that he is a new farmer. He was crops specialist for American Cyanmid Chemical Company for three years. He was crops specialist for Montgomery County Farmers Cooperative for eleven years. He began as a farmer in 2005. Elvis has his bachelors of science in Agricultural Economics from the University of Kentucky. Elvis is a Robertson County Soil Conservation District Board of Supervisor. This profile is featuring his farm in Montgomery County, Tennessee. He also farms in Robertson County, Tennessee, and Todd County, Kentucky. He produces corn, wheat, soybeans, and tobacco. His cropland totals 450 acres. He also manages a 650 acres cow/calf operation. This profile will feature his cropland management. Elvis is shown signing an EQIP contract with Kevin Hart, NRCS District Conservationist, Clarksville, Tennessee.

Elvis' predominant soils in Tennessee are Baxter Cherty Silt Loam, Mountview Silt Loam, and Dickson Silt Loam. In Todd County Kentucky, his predominant soils are Pembroke and Crider Silt Loams. Elvis applies nutrients by broadcasting. He currently applies 150 units of nitrogen (N) for corn on Tennessee soils and 200 units of N on Kentucky soils. Elvis applies fertilizer and lime according to soil test results. He maintains a pH of approximately 6.0.



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Bill Parker

Bill Parker is our 10th in the series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Bill is Chairperson of the Lauderdale County Soil Conservation District (SCD) Board of Supervisors. He is also an officer of the Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts (TACD), serving as secretary. Bill's father also served on the local Lauderdale County SCD Board of supervisors, showing a family line of conservation minded farmers. Bill takes every opportunity to influence others for the cause of conservation. He invited the field staff from Lauderdale County and Haywood County both NRCS and District employees to join us the day that I interviewed him (October 13, 2015). We examined his soil and discussed soil health strategies. Bill has asked me to do the same in March of 2016 with farmers from Lauderdale and Haywood Counties.IMG 1039new

Bill's home headquarters is in Durhamville, Tennessee, the south part of Lauderdale County about 5-6 miles north of the Hatchie River. He farms approximately 50 percent of his operation in Lauderdale County and 50 percent in Haywood County. His operation is approximately 5,000 acres, about 1,000 acres are under center pivot irrigation.

Bill is from a long-line of farmers. The original farm was purchased and farmed by Bill's ancestors in 1830. Bill is a sixth generation farmer. He has two sons farming with him making them seventh generation farmers. Bill farms some Hatchie bottoms and creek bottom lands, but the predominant acres are uplands on loess soils. These soils are Loring Silt Loam and Felliciano Silt Loam (formerly mapped Memphis Silt Loam). The slopes are rolling 2-6 percent and highly erodible.

Bill began farming in 1975 using four wheel drive tractors to pull chisel plows and disks. He used conventional tillage in his early farming history. He began farming rotations of corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton. He began experimenting with no-till soybeans in late 1970s. He gradually moved into no-till with corn and wheat. He was one of the first adopters of no-till cotton, beginning in the late 1980s. As time passed, Bill was in continuous no-till by 1990s, except to repair ruts or small erosion areas and wet spots. One of the traits, I've noticed in our profiles of heroes series is that the crop farmers were one of the first or their families were the early adopters of no-till. Another trait, especially in West Tennessee, is that most of the profiles of heroes began with the use of structural practices to combat concentrated flow induced erosion on the highly erodible soils in West Tennessee. Bill also follows that mold. His great-grandfather began building terraces. Most of Bill's farms have a series of terraces with pipe-outlets and water and sediment control structures. One can see a progression of conservation on Bill's farming operation, concentrated flow structural conservation practices, to continuous no-till, to diverse crop rotations, and to cover crops.

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Grant and Don Norwood

Grant and Don Norwood are the eighth in our series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Grant is 37 years old and is in partnership with his father Don. 

IMG 0873newGrant is a fifth generation farmer. His great-great grandfather came to the area from North Carolina. The family farm-operation was recognized as a Century Farm in 2014. They farm in the Pleasant Hill area of Mansfield in Henry County, Tennessee. Their predominant soils are deep loess soils, Felliciano Silt loam (formerly mapped as Memphis silt loam) and Loring Silt Loam. The predominant slopes range from 2-8%. These loess soils are highly susceptible to erosion when left bare. Like many West Tennessee farmers, the Norwoods traditionally applied conservation practices that would control concentrated flow-induced erosion with grade stabilization structures and water and sediment controlled structures.

The Norwood farming operation consists of 3,200 acres. Their typical crop rotation is corn, wheat, and soybeans. They use genetic modified organisms (GMO) technology to reduce herbicide and insecticides. Don said that they grid sample in 2.5 acres grids. They practice variable rate fertilizing and liming. They maintain their pH at 6.2 or higher, and soil sample every other year. Don says they are maintaining their structural conservation practices. He says that the structural practices complement the continuous no-till, and recently added cover crops. Of their 3,200 acres, 600 have center pivot irrigation. Both corn and beans are irrigated. They apply UAN solution of 32-0-0 as their nitrogen at 180 units per acre on corn. It is knifed in 6" off row at 3" depth. 

Don began no-tilling in 1972. Grant told me that he can barely remember working ground, and that was in 1978. The farm has been in conservation tillage for nearly four decades, and continuous no-till for approximately ten years. They currently use row-cleaners, but use no down pressure. 

Grant began an interest in soil health over ten years ago. It started with attending a soil conference featuring nationally known soil health advocates Gabe Brown from North Dakota, and Dave Brandt from Ohio. The conference whet his appetite to study soil health articles. Grant proceeded to incorporate cover crops into his conservation farming system.

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Phillip Jenkins

IMG 0904This is the ninth in our series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. This profile is a unique one; it is on no-till and strip tillage tobacco. Our featured farmer for this profile is Phillip Jenkins; Phillip farms in partnership with his brother. His brother produces the grain crops, corn, wheat, and soybeans, and Phillip operates the tobacco enterprise. The farm is near Springfield, Tennessee in Robertson County.  Phillip farms level to gentle rolling slopes 0-4%. The soils are Pembroke Silt Loam, Pickwick Silt Loam, and Staser Silt Loam. Phillip received technical and financial assistance on cover crops from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). He is pictured with Chase Coakley and Nathan Hicklin, NRCS, Robertson County, Tennessee.

Phillip produces 50 acres of Dark Fired tobacco and 10 acres of Burley tobacco. I visited the farm on September 9, 2015. Many of the barns in the area had the familiar smoke and aroma coming from the roof tops.IMG 0920 Phillip uses UAN 32% nitrogen and knifes in at 6" from row at 3" depth. Most of his fields are at 6.4 - 6.7 pH. Working with his brother, the typical rotation is corn, wheat, soybeans, and 2 years of tobacco. In similar crop rotations including tobacco, soil organic matter (SOM) would be sustained or increased during grain crops in no-till, and reduced during tobacco years due to the amount of tillage and low residue associated with tobacco production. Phillip wants to reverse that trend and use the tobacco years as soil building.

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Soil Health Heroes - Andy Cooper

Pam Hoskins and Andy Cooper standing in recently seeded BarOptima fescue.
Pam Hoskins, NRCS and Andy Cooper standing in a BarOptima fescue field. The fescue is more palatable than Kentucky-31 fescue.

Andy Cooper is the seventh in our series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Andy Cooper is unique in that he operates grass-base full-time dairy. That is the cows meet most of their daily needs by grazing instead of intensive feeding of silage and hay. The Cooper Dairy is in Cannon County, near Morrison, Tennessee. Andy is the son of Mr. Ray Cooper (No-Hay Ray).

I believe it is essential to share the history of Mr. Ray in order to appreciate the evolution of rotational grazing to the present day dairy farm. The farm was recognized as a Century Farm in 2002. Although Mr. Ray's father milked cows, Mr. Ray never operated a dairy. The farm was operated as a cash-grain farm in the 1960s along with about 40 beef cows. Mr. Ray was one of the early adopters of no-till, late 1960s. In the 1980s, he transitioned to beef cattle enterprise. He sowed most fields to permanent pasture and hay with some wheat. Like most beef-cattle farmers, he fenced his fields and bought hay harvesting equipment, including disk mower, tedder, and round baler. The farm was predominantly in wheat, Kentucky-31 fescue, and orchard grass. He produced 400 - 600 round bales of hay per year. The farm is approximately 300 acres with 264 acres of grass (pre-dairy). He managed about 120-cow herd.

Mr. Ray constantly evaluated his operation and was noticing that major input costs were in hay production and harvesting. Mr. Cooper is known to try new things and open to change. He once said change comes upon us, and we as humans are resistant to change. Ray believed that we need not be afraid of change. With that attitude, he took a 25-gallon portable tank, some poly wire and couplers and began seeing what he could do on 5-10 acres. This is a lesson on any changing management practice, start off small, and master it before expanding. Mr. Ray kept looking at decreasing profits from higher input costs from hay. He was always reading and looking for new ideas. He came upon Jim Garrish, former Director of University of Missouri Forage Research Center. With his research and better technology in electrical fencing, he kept increasing his acres in rotational grazing.

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