West Point, Tennessee
Bill Legg grew up farming, but as an adult, “just broke even” raising row crops of his own. In 1996, he switched to a rotational grazing cow/calf operation. He didn’t grow row crops for 15 years until 2011 when he started back at it drilling 140 soybean acres with cover crops. Today, Bill grows corn and soybeans in rotation and actively grazes 50 cow-calf pairs (or 100 total head) on his cover crops.
Since 2011, Bill has changed his cover mixes on an annual basis. In 2016, he seeded 10 pounds of triticale per acre, 10 pounds of Bob Oats, 20 pounds of annual rye grass, 5 pounds of rape, and 5 pounds of Crimson Clover. The mixture was heavy in grasses to better feed the soil biology and provide better forage. When examining the soil under the cover crops, the previous crop residue had disappeared (save for some recent corn residue) indicating healthy soil biology.
With cover crops, Bill says his soil’s biology and aggregation have improved. The water holding capacity of his cover cropped acreage soils was high enough to germinate and grow the cover up to 6″ inches, despite drought conditions. Bill drills his cover crops, grazes them when they reach approximately 10-12″ inches in height, and terminates them at about 12″ inches in height for corn and at approximately 24″ when planting soybeans. Bill says that in addition to planting cover crops to his cropland, he plants rye grass, at 25 pounds per acre, into his pastures. His soil organic matter is 4% on his crop fields and by keeping roots growing year-round, nutrients are kept in the field and out of nearby waterways.
Cover crops have also reduced Bill’s need to buy or harvest hay (saving him from going through five rolls per day). He turns his cattle loose on the cover crops when they reach 10-12 inches and lets them graze the cover down to four inches, simulating growth. In sum, Bill receives a year of grazing from his cover crops and encourages others to consider adding cattle to their cropping enterprise for this reason.
Bill had some advice for farmers: “cease tilling.” No-till protects the benefits from the covers, crop rotations, and the grazing of cattle on his croplands. He also said that farmers can’t afford not use soil health practices. “These practices build the soil’s ability to produce crops,” he said. “Yes, we need time for the soil organic matter to increase; time for the soil biology to build and for fungi numbers to increase, but it’s worth it.”
Bill is very active with working with NRCS and his soil conservation district. He has had an Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) contract for three years, but says the benefits of soil health are worth it by themselves. “I would plant cover crops even if I didn’t receive financial assistance,” he said.