Mike Taylor and Michael Taylor
Long Lake Plantation
Phillips County Conservation District
Mike Taylor and his wife B.J. farm a delta row crop operation with their son Michael Taylor, daughter-in-law Laura, and grandchildren Merrie Leigh and Wells in Phillips County, Arkansas. Michael Jr. serves on the county’s conservation district board.
Twenty-five years ago, the Taylors could have decided to keep farming their cotton and soybean operation using the recommended practices of the day; but their soil had had enough. It had “no structure, no life,” Mike said. “The topsoil that was supposed to be the life blood of the farm was giving way to gullies and silt bars.” So instead of continuing a heavy tillage regime, the family “stopped the bleeding” with a basic wheat cover crop.
Over the next several years, the Taylors transitioned from a “save what’s left” mentality on their farm to actively managing a soil restoration program. Now, they use reduced tillage, crop rotation, multi-species cover crops, and grazing crops (including both warm season and cool season mixes and mob grazing) and have dramatically improved their soils. “The extensive covers have allowed us to sell the sub-soilers, reduce irrigation – and hopefully commercial fertilizers – and even provide weed suppression,” Mike told NACD. “We are fascinated with the physical condition of the soil, the number of earthworms that can be found within it, and the clean water coming out of our drop pipes.”
The transition to soil health practices hasn’t been without challenges. Some years, the harvests are so dry it’s difficult to get a cover crop stand. And until recently, there weren’t herbicides that gave farmers the ability to burn down a crop without significant plant-back restrictions, or to plant green and then apply a burn down and residual. Today, the chemistry exists; and even planters can place seed into deep fall and spring residue.
“We can’t keep kicking the can down the road, allowing for deeper gullies and drilling deeper wells. Annual tillage is not a band aid or fix for erosion,” he explained. In the frenzy of harvest, it might seem like the easier route to hook up a disk or sub-soiler to get the work done, but your soils won’t benefit. It might take a little longer and more planning at first – ordering a cover crop blend, loading it into a no-till drill, and finding someone skilled to operate the planter – but with today’s technology and access to information, the greatest challenge in building your soils might just be the “this is the way we have always done it” idea.
We have to move away from that idea and toward a different one that says “we do not inherit the land from our ancestors, but borrow it from our children,” Mike said.
This year, the Taylor team proved just how effective using cover crops, crop rotation, and other soil health management practices are.
In 2016, the family planted 435 acres of dicamba-tolerant soybeans right into cereal rye, radish, and black oats cover that had been killed two weeks prior. Dicamba, an herbicide, vaporizes quickly and can easily drift from one field to another. Monsanto released a new formulation for dicamba with their dicamba-tolerant soybean seed for 2016, but because the newly formulated herbicide wasn’t approved for use by the Environmental Protection Agency until November, many of the Taylors’ neighbors were illegally spraying it to control weeds during the 2016 season.
A good portion of the farmers who followed the law experienced significant soybean crop damage at the hands of those spraying XtendiMax. Luckily, the Taylors weren’t among them; and instead were among the farmers who led the state in soybean yields, according to the Arkansas Soybean Association.
Breaking the century mark, the Taylors produced 101.319 bushels per acre of soybeans in 2016. Michael Taylor told Farm Journal that EPA’s approval of XtendiMax for the 2017 season will “no question” give him “better beans across the board.”
“The very worst pigweed field I had on my farm was in dicamba beans and it was so bad we almost didn’t harvest. I’d have gotten major savings if I could have cleaned up those beans,” he added. Next year, Michael plans to plant dicamba-tolerant soybeans on 70 to 100 percent of his acreage. “When you fool with another man’s livelihood, terrible things happen and we’ve seen that with dicamba this year. I’m just looking forward to the legal technology next season and doing things the right way.”