Halls, Tennessee (Lauderdale County)
Charlie Roberts is a fourth-generation farmer whose ancestors made their way from North Carolina to Carroll County, Tennessee, in 1920 in search of inexpensive land and fertile soils. The 1,300-acre Barr Farm is now run by Charlie, with help from his father Ronnie; and instead of cotton, they grow corn, soybeans, triticale, cereal rye, and oats.
Charlie graduated from Mississippi State University with a degree in agriculture, with an emphasis in turf grass management. Before he became a full-time farmer in 2009, Charlie was a golf course superintendent.
Ronnie and his brother Johnny began no-tilling in 1975. (Johnny designed and built the first hooded sprayer in West Tennessee. Johnny applied for a patent, but the cost was too great to pursue.) They brothers no-tilled soybeans into sod pastures and achieved great stands and crops despite not having effective herbicides. Eventually, the weed pressure became too much though, and they began tilling again. Thanks to GMO seed, Ronnie was able to resume no-tilling in the 13 years Charlie was away from the farm. Charlie bought a farm of his own in 2011, and soon after drilled 50 acres at approximately 17-18 pounds per acre of a three-species cover crop mix.
Before he started using covers, Charlie was seeing j-roots with soybeans (indicating soil compaction) and said the soil hard from salty chemicals. The organic matter was too low, the cation exchange capacity (CEC) was not in balance, and his soybean yields averaged only 36-38 bushels per acre. He wanted to emulate nature and bring the soil back to life; to loosen the soil and increase soil organic matter. So in the spring of 2012, he once again planted covers. He said where he used cover, the soybean taproots were at 10-12 inches – 3″ to 5″ inches deeper than before.
Currently, the entire 1,300-acre farm is planted with winter cover crops. The mixture Charlie uses now is daikon radishes, hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas, annual rye grass, and winter oats. In the past, he has tried rape, blue lupin, Balanca clover, triticale, cereal rye, yellow sweet clover, buck wheat, and sorghum sudex grass.
Charlie grid samples his soils annually and applies phosphorous (K), nitrogen (N) and sulfur (S) by variable rate. No P has been called for in soil test recently. In 2016, he took N biomass readings on the cover crops and the nitrogen contribution this spring, a few days before corn planting. Charlie was pleased with the contribution of nitrogen from the covers.
Charlie plants his corn on 30″ rows, soybeans on 15″ rows, and drills small grains for seed on 7.5″ rows. Charlie enrolled in Conservation Stewardship Program in 2013 and signed up for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program in 2011 and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture funds in 2016.
Charlie farms near the Mississippi River, and in March 2016, 35 acres of a 50-acre field flooded. As the water receded, he planted soybeans and 20 pounds of buckwheat and 5 pounds of rape per acre. He said “it worked to perfection.”
The field was free of weeds clean and the buckwheat loosened the soil at 2-3″ depth. The buckwheat was 12-14″ and flowering, while the rape was 8-10″ in height. He plans to do this again if flooding drowns out his winter cover mix and said the soybeans planted in the buckwheat and rape seemed healthier.
Charlie said that the benefits of using cover crops surprised him.
- Weed suppression. There are much less weed suppression since using covers from 2011 until present.
- Nutrient cycling. The covers up take other nutrients that otherwise would be unavailable.
- Reduced nitrogen due to legumes and more nitrogen from increased soil organic matter.
- Reduced bulk densities or loosening the soil.
- Other benefits from increased soil organic matter such as higher CEC and water infiltration.
Charlie said west Tennessee farmers have an infiltration problem, but no-till coupled with a multi-species cover crop mix heals the soil and increases water infiltration. As Charlie’s soils began to loosen and infiltrate better, his dad Ronnie began using covers too. There is no longer any run-off, erosion, or the need to fill in gullies after harvest, saving the men both money and time.
George Henshaw, NRCS district conservationist for Lauderdale County, said prior to 2014, his office worked on soil erosion prevention almost exclusively. Now, his staff is seeing more cover crops. This is the first year that the Lauderdale County Soil Conservation District (SCD) is utilizing Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) funds for cover crops. Charlie says that is a good investment. “It is cheaper to grow cover crops than to repair and shape gullies,” he said.