Pickens County, Alabama
Located on 10,000 acres in Pickens County, Alabama, the Dee River Ranch grows row crops, raises certified USDA beef cattle, and harvests timber. “Our soil is our most important asset in our farming operation,” Annie said. “Improving soil health improves our ability to make a crop, to be sustainable and to help feed the world.”
Annie Dee, who oversees all operations on the ranch, rotates corn and soybeans “to minimize disease, insects, and build diversity in soil organisms.” Annie also uses cover crops – including wheat, rye, oats, clover, and tillage radish – and uses chemicals to burn them down before planting. Annie said that cover crops help prevent erosion, build soil organic matter, improve water holding capacity, reduce water and soil runoff, and allow better uptake of available nutrients. Deep rooted crops break up compacted soils and improve soil quality, so much so that she’s seen a 20 to 50 bushel per acre increase in corn yields.
Annie is sold on conservation tillage. “Using conservation tillage, we have seen reduced soil erosion and soil compaction, increased organic matter, improved soil structure, and increased earthworm activity that confirms overall improved soil health,” she said. The practice allows them to plant corn early so it can pollinate before hot weather damages, or even prevents, pollination. In Annie’s area, the surface of her no-till soils dry out sooner and can withstand the weight of equipment better during a wet harvest.
“Using conservation tillage has made a difference in us making a crop or not making a crop in drought years,” Annie said. “We have averaged 120 bushels per acre when other farmers have averaged less than 20 bushels per acre in the same year.”
The Dees usually have abundant rainfall, but “it often comes at the wrong time of year,” so the Dees built a 120-acre retention reservoir. The Dees also installed a state-of-the art, programmable irrigation system with moisture sensors to help move the right amount of water to their fields with as little energy as possible. The system has eighteen center pivots, ranging from about 900 feet to a little over 2,000 feet, to irrigate over 2,700 acres of corn and soybeans. It is fed by a 12,500 gallon per minute computer-controlled pumping station.
To efficiently run this large of an operation, the Dees family installed a 80-foot tall wifi tower that provides coverage to the whole ranch (20 square miles). They use wifi on their smart phone or computer to control their irrigation system.