Montgomery County, Tennessee
Robertson County Soil Conservation District
Elvis Bellar worked as a crop specialist for American Cyanmid Chemical Company for three years and for Montgomery County Farmers Cooperative for eleven years. He holds a B.S. in agricultural economics from the University of Kentucky and currently serves as the board supervisor for the Robertson County Soil Conservation District. Bellar is relatively new to farming – only starting in 2005 – but already has operations in Montgomery County, Tennessee (featured in this profile), Robertson County, Tennessee, and Todd County, Kentucky. He produces corn, wheat, and soybeans in a 100 percent no-till system, and tobacco with some tillage, on a total of 450 acres. He also manages a 650-acre cow-calf operation.
In Tennessee, Bellar’s soils are mostly Baxter Cherty, Mountview, and Dickson silt loams. In Todd County, Kentucky, his predominant soils are Pembroke and Crider silt loams. He currently broadcasts 150 units of nitrogen (N) for corn on Tennessee soils and 200 units of N on Kentucky soils, but makes adjustments to fertilizer and lime applications according to soil test results. He maintains a pH of approximately 6.0. Currently, Bellar rotates tobacco after one year with corn, then wheat, then soybeans, with three years to four years of rest before the next tobacco crop.
Bellar added cover crops to his management plan about three years ago after attending a state soil health meeting. He says he was persuaded to start by nationally renowned soil health specialist, Ray Archuletta, NRCS, and Indiana grain farmer Ray McCormick. Today, he has 95 acres in cover crops (25 pounds per acre of cereal rye and 16 pounds crimson clover per acre) and the rest of his acreage in wheat during winter. He uses an airplane to aerial seed prior to his corn harvest in early September. For soybeans, he flies on in mid-September at early leaf drop. Bellar terminates cover at approximately 18″ – 24″ inches in height with 26 ounces of Round Up after planting with an ounce and half of Lead Off for corn and Valor for soybeans.
Using cover crops has reduced erosion, made planting much easier, and increased soil moisture levels, he says. What’s more, he’s yielding about 30 bushels of corn more per acre, and the cereal rye has all but eliminated pigweed and mare’s tail. Bellar says he has cut back fifty units of N on corn and has reduced about fifty percent of Round Up by skipping a second spraying.
Here are the results of a recent soil test:
- Soil respiration is the production of carbon dioxide (CO2) as a result of biological activity in the soil by microorganisms, live roots, earthworms, nematodes, and insects. A good respiration rate is 32-64 pounds per CO2 carbon (C) per acre day if the soil is stable. If soil is unstable, like it is after tillage, CO2 will increase then fluctuate to much lower respiration rate showing unsustainable biological activity. After standardizing the results to an ideal temperature of 25 degrees Celsius, 58 pounds of CO2-C per acre per day was recorded – an outstanding level of biological activity.
- The indicator for soil compaction is bulk density, defined as dry weight of soil divided by its volume. The bulk density of Bellar’s soil was 1.2 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cm3), which is ideal for its texture class.
- To measure water infiltration, 1″ of water was poured into a soil sample and timed to discern how fast it percolates through. In Bellar’s case, it took 6.3 inches per hour – a function of increased soil organic matter and greater aggregate stability. Aggregates are able to handle the pressure from water hitting the ground in the form of rainfall. The biological glues hold the soil aggregates together allowing the soil to infiltrate more readily. Conversely, tillage breaks down soil aggregates resulting in soil filling in voids after settling and reduces infiltration rates.
- Earthworm counts indicate how well a diversity of crops and cover crops (with legumes and carbon improving plants such as grasses) are working to improve soil health. In Bellar’s soil, there are 32 earthworms per cubic foot, each means he has an estimate of 1.3 million worms per acre in the top foot of his soil. According to the USDA Soil Quality Kit Guide, 10 earthworms per cubic foot in agricultural fields are considered a good population.
Many farmers in Tennessee are improving their soils. Elvis Bellar has learned from them and is now practicing the principles of keeping the soil covered, reducing disturbances, keep roots growing, and adding diversity. The results are less inputs with equal or better yields, better infiltration, more soil biological life in the soil, and soil that is easier to penetrate a planter.