Soil Health Heroes

Johnny and Will Robinson

Will and Johnny Robinson Making a Difference After First Year of Applying Cover Crops

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I had the privilege of visiting "Gentleman Farmers, Robinson Farms" in Carroll County on July 12, 2017. Joining me to meet with Johnny and Will Robinson were Matthew Denton, Area Resource Conservationist, NRCS, Jackson, Tennessee, Lee Harris, and Ethan Pipkin, both Soil Conservationists, NRCS, Huntingdon, Tennessee. Will and Johnny Robinson are our 34th Profiles of Soil Health Heroes.

IMG 2889newThe Robinsons live and farm in Lavinia,Tennessee. Their operation consists of approximately 3,800 acres. They farm about 900 acres in pasture with 250 mamma cows with approximately 250 calves. Their cattle are mostly black Angus. Their 2,900 acres of cropland consist of 2,000 acres of cotton with the remaining acres in corn and soybeans. The Robinsons annually soil test. The local Farmers' Cooperative soil test and apply nutrients and lime by precision application. Generally, the farm is high in phosphorus (P2O5) and potassium (K2O). They split apply nitrogen (N) for corn and cotton. They apply a portion prior to planting with urea and side dress with liquid N using a knife applicator. Johnny said that their pH on the farm ranges from 6.3 - 6.5. The Robinsons plant their cotton on 38" rows, corn on 30" rows, and soybeans on 19" rows. 

Johnny Robinson began experimenting with no-till in 1978. He assisted Tom McCutchen, the former Experiment Station Superintendent at the University of Tennessee Experiment Station in Milan, Tennessee, on building an 8-row Allis Chalmers no-till planter in 1980. We all know that Milan Tennessee Experiment Station became one of the foremost institution on spreading no-till in the south.IMG 2879new

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Jesse Castleman

Seeing the Positive Effects from Cover Crops in Dyer, County

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Jesse and Danny Castleman farm in Dyer County and reside in Newbern, Tennessee. They farm predominantly hill-lands in the Newbern area. Their soils are mostly Grenada and Loring Silt Loam. Since these soils have fragipans, they tend to be wet when rainfall is plentiful and drought prone when dry. Jesse took over the farming operation from his dad, approximately two years ago. Jesse is our 33rd Profile of Soil Health Heroes. I visited the farming operation on June 7, 2017 along with Adam Willis, NRCS Soil Conservationist, Dyersburg, Josh Richardson, District Conservationist, NRCS for Obion and Lake Counties, Ryan Blackwood, NRCS Soil Conservationist, Dyersburg, Danny Castleman, Josh Phillips, NRCS District Conservationist, Dyersburg, Jesse Castleman, and Landowner, R.C. Owens.

IMG 2745newJesse produces grain crops with a corn and soybean rotation. He and his father began cover crops in 2014, predominantly for erosion control. Most of their fields are 2-5% slopes. The soils are from loess (wind-blown silt). They are highly erosive when left bare and tilled. Jesse and Danny learned a few years ago that no-till was the method to farm due to erosion potential on their soils. As earlier noted, the soils are drought prone when conditions are dry, so additions of SOM are essential for these soils to remain productive. Growing cover crops have added much more active soil organic matter or carbon to their soils. Historically, we have lost over 50% of our soil organic matter (SOM) or carbon. Carbon (C) makes up approximately 58% of SOM; and therefore, the terms will be used interchangeable. Keeping a plant growing is the best way to build or increase SOM. Green plants produce sugars or carbon as a result of photosynthesis. Farmers miss opportunities when they only grow one crop per year for 110 days or less. However, cover crops not only add diversity to a corn and soybean rotation, but also provide more efficiency of intercepting energy flow from the sun. Jesse is doing this by planting multi species cover crops annually. Also, multi species cover crops mimic nature with many species growing during the season instead of just a monoculture crop. The sheer amount of biomass grown in the cash crops and cover crops add significant carbon to the system which in turns feeds the soil biology in terms of quantity and quality due to the diversity. The soil biology provides better soil aggregation and nutrient cycling; thus, the soil health improves.

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Charles and Lynn Blankenship

Proper Stocking and Pasture Recovery are the Keys to Improve Health on a Grazing Farm

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Our 32nd Profiles of Soil Health Heroes are Charles and Lyn Blankenship. Charles and Lynn farm and live in Altamont, Tennessee. They produced Polled Herefords from the 1970s and 1980s and retired in 2013. They lived in McEwein, Tennessee. The Blankenships moved to Altamont approximately four years ago and purchased this farm. The farm size is approximately 230 acres, and 100 acres in pasture. Charles stated that the property's abundant caves and streams gave the property a feel of a natural park. It is great for hiking and just getting out and enjoying the beauty of the landscape. The soils are from sandstone, and are shallow to sandstone. The slopes range from 4-15%. Charles said their most limiting factor wasIMG 2524new adequate rainfall.

I asked Charles what made him interested in grazing ecology or the management that he now practices. He said that he is an avid reader. He reads "Stockman Grass Farmer" and other books on intensive grazing. He studied several statistics on intensive grazing versus continuous grazing. The reading encouraged him begin intensive grazing. He contacted Dewitt Simerly, NRCS District Conservationist for Grundy County. He also received guidance from Gregg Brann, NRCS State Grazing Specialist, and Soil Health Specialist for Tennessee. Charles also mentioned seeing a demonstration of a rainfall simulator. The results of seeing good infiltration on well managed intensive grazing with proper rest compared to more run-off from over grazed continuously grazed pasture opened his eyes. They began comparing notes with another Profiles of Soil Health Hero, Jim Malooley. See Soil Health Hero number 14. Off he began on high stocking in small paddocks over short duration.

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Danny Powell and Matt Griggs Updates

Updates on Soil Health Hero Number 1, Danny Powell, and Soil Health Hero Number 3, Matt Griggs

The Profiles of Soil Health Heroes are now up to 32. Danny Powell was our first hero and Matt Griggs was the third in Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Their progression in use of cover crops and managing cover crops have warranted an update on each of them. I had the opportunity to visit Matt Griggs on February 7, 2017 and Danny Powell on May 15, 2017. Below are the updates from each of their operations.

Danny Powell Update                                                                                                       

Danny Powell was our first in the series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. I completed the write up in November of 2014 and published it in the spring of 2015. A lot has transpired sinceIMG 1911new IMG 1903newthat first article was written. Danny is in his sixth year of cover crops on one field. He has purchased other fields and now is beginning to plant crops in first year cover crops on new fields that he obtained. Danny farms 2,900 acres. He owns approximately 1,300 acres. All of his owned acres are in cover crops. His crop rotation is corn-winter cover crop mix-soybeans and winter cover crop mix. He recently purchased a 30 feet John Deere 1990 Air-seeded drill. He plants or drills 100% of his cover crops with the drill.

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Karl and Alex Forsbach

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


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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