Kettle Mills near Williamsport, Tennessee
Maury County Soil Conservation District (District Supervisor)
Neil grew up farming, but took a break when he drafted into the United States Air Force in 1969 and while he worked for the Department of Revenue. For about 20 years, Neil supplemented his farm’s income by select harvesting timber, but retired his harvesting operation about eight years ago. He also raised cattle and hogs and grew corn for animal feed, before transitioning to a full-time grain crop operation on his 500 acres.
Neil says the way he managed his operation in the past had “scarred the land.”
“We worked the ground like we thought we had to do. We worked it like dust,” Neil said. “We have not tilled in 20 years. It hurts me to till.”
Neil makes his initial nitrogen application in the fall because of the height of covers in the spring. The Maury County Farmers Cooperative helps him take grid samples every year and he strives to maintain a minimum pH of 6.2. In his 240-250 acres of corn, he is using Haney soil tests and has reduced a total of 70 pounds per acre of nitrogen, 30 at planting and 40 at side dress – about $20 to $30 per acre in savings.
He said that when he first grew wheat that he would bale the straw and remove the residue, leaving the ground hard “like concrete.” He now grows cover crops, leaves the straw as residue, and returns all the grain residues to the soil’s surface. In his own words, he has gone from “tilling to dust” to building high performing, aggregated soils that have an abundance of soil biology. Neil advocates for: reducing disturbances (no-till and reduced pesticides, as needed); keeping the soil covered (crop residue management and multi-species cover crops); keeping roots growing continuously (crop rotations and multi-species cover crops); and increasing diversity (added multi-species cover crops).
Neil credits the chemistry of Round Up and the guidance of NRCS for why he started no-tilling six years ago. He began using wheat as a cover crop, then tried wheat and/or cereal rye with crimson clover. Now, he is fine tuning his carbon to nitrogen ratio using a mix of four cover crops: 2 pounds of tillage radishes, 15-20 pounds of Austrian winter peas, 5 pounds of crimson clover, and 30 pounds of cereal rye, per acre.
Neil aerial seeds or drills all of his multi-species cover crops and plants at harvest. “Cover crops are not a magic pill; it takes time for soil to change,” Neil says. He’s found that if he plants cover crops later, henbit and chick weeds compete with them. He has also learned that covers are harder on planting bearings, and can wrap around the planter. He no longer uses row cleaners.
Neil believes that roots are the solution to hard soil. Steel does not build soil, but covers do, he says. They also reduce sheet, rill, and gully erosion and weeds; increase the amount of earthworms in the soil; and increase water infiltration rates, organic matter, and water availability in the soil. He says he saves $30 per acre on broad leaf weed control because he uses covers. He has also been able to quit using fungicides in corn, amounting to $20 per acre in savings, and lower rates of fungicides for soybeans.
The soil on his operation is medium quality; the slopes are flat to gently rolling. He averages around 175 bushels per acre on corn, and between 50 and 55 bushels per acre on soybeans. He has set up some test plots of corn where he’s used no-till without covers, and found basically no soil structure with platy, stratified plates. He also did some 100 percent crimson clover plots, and found platy structure; and in all areas where he used multi-species cover crops, he found excellent crumbly structure on the surface and sub-angular structure at about 1″ inch in depth.
The ‘If daddy tilled, I must till’ attitude toward farming has to change, Neil says. “We must not be hard-headed and continue tilling just because that’s what’s always be done.” Some farmers are skeptical of using covers because they think they’re expensive on the front end, but Neil says that’s just not the case – he spends about $40 per acre for his multi-species seed.