Lauderdale and Haywood Counties, Tennessee
Lauderdale County Soil Conservation District
Bill Parker’s farming operation is headquartered in Durhamville, Tennesse, in the southern part of Lauderdale County just north of the Hatchie River. About half of the 5,000 acres he farms are located in Lauderdale County, with the other half are in Haywood County. He serves as the chair of the Lauderdale County Soil Conservation District Board of Supervisors, and secretary for the Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts.
Bill, a sixth generation farmer, takes every opportunity to advance conservation. He comes from a long-line of farmers, with the first of his family’s farms purchased in 1830, and keeps the legacy going with his two sons (the seventh generation). His great-grandfather was the first to build terraces in the area, for instance. Now most of Bill’s farms have a series of terraces with pipe-outlets and water and sediment control structures. Bill farms some Hatchie bottoms and creek bottom lands, but the predominant acres are uplands on slit loam soils. 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 and began farming rotations of corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton. By the end of the decade, he started experimenting with no-till soybeans and gradually moved into no-till with corn and wheat. By the late 1980s, Bill was using no-till with his cotton, and by the 1990s, his whole farm was nearly 100 percent no-till.
In the 1980s, Bill planted cover crops after cotton. At defoliation, he would broadcast wheat using a broadcast spreader. Prior to no-tilling his cotton, he would drill his cotton using a grain drill and harvest using a cotton stripper. This significantly reduced sheet erosion. Eventually, the local gins began discounting stripper-cotton, which together with the introduction of Round-up ready cotton, allowed no-till technology to spread quickly across West Tennessee. Bill uses GMO seed, and has always rotated his corn, wheat, soybean, and cotton, until three years ago, when he stopped producing cotton.
The Parker farm uses variable rate technology for applying nutrients and lime. He samples the soils every three years and applies nutrients accordingly. Generally, he applies 180 units of nitrogen for corn – 100 units at planting and side dresses 80 units after emergence to 4″. He also uses a starter in furrow at planting of 10-34-0 plus zinc.
Bill took over two farms in Haywood County in 2011. Both farms had a 30-year history of continuous cotton, but with Bill being the conservationist that he is, he was able to persuade the previous owners to use no-till the last five years they operated the farms. When Bill took over, he installed terraces and water and sediment structures to handle the previous concentrated flow erosion. Bill also enrolled 4,000 acres in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) in a 5-year contract.
Currently, Bill has 700 acres in cover crops. He planted cereal rye and crimson clover cover (as well as Austrian winter peas, tillage radishes, and wheat in some acres) for the last year on one farm and for the last four years on the other, in addition to practicing water management and controlling for drift. As Bill sees more financial benefits from his cover crops, he plans to increase that number to 2,000 acres.
Bill is noticing less pig weed and mare’s tail and reduced herbicide use as a result of using cover crops. On another farm near his home, using cover crops has reduced his use of nitrogen by 50 pounds per acre of corn without affecting yield, saving him $27.50 per acre. The savings on pig weed control has been $26 per acre. As Bill’s cover crop diversity increases and more legumes and brassicas are brought in, he has seen more benefits and further reductions in inputs.
Soil health is drastically changing on the farm where he has grown cover crops for four years. The soil is much darker, although still a bit platy, and breaks up into granular quickly. Because the soil is so dry, Bill doesn’t get many, if any earth worms, but he expects that to change in the near future.