Coffee County, Tennessee
Ray Jones, a second generation farmer in Coffee County, has been farming all his life. He rotates corn and soybeans on about 700 acres and raises livestock on his operation’s remaining 300 acres. Five years ago, he added winter cover crops to his rotation.
Like many conservation farmers, stewardship came early in Jones’ farming career. His dad bought one of the first no-till planters on the market in the late 1960s and planted corn into fescue. They learned the art of no-tilling over time, and by the late 1980s, the entire operation was in continuous no-till. Jones says it was possible to go 100 percent no-till because:
– Planters had improved. New planters allowed them to plant eight to nine times faster than his original planter, which planted at 1 to 2 miles per hour.
– They saw the need to change due to labor costs. By using no-till, they saved in fuel and labor costs by eliminating disking, chisel plowing, and field cultivating.
– Improvements in herbicides and plant genetics. Jones says he couldn’t commit to no-till until he could terminate the cover effectively.
– They began in the late 1980s and 1990s using cover crops in their rotations. They used ryegrass and crimson clover, and usually one fourth of their crop was in winter cover crops. After Paraquat changed to Gramoxone chemistry, they weren’t able to kill the winter covers, so they transitioned from winter covers to straight no-till in annual crop residues. Their early cover crop work kept yields constant as they transitioned from conventional tillage to no-till. Ray said no-till was more efficient because tillage took forever to work up the fields to plant.
Jones’ desire to improve soil health led him back to using cover crops. He wanted to be able to make it through wet spells, as well as dry spells, and said that benefit alone was worth the shift. “We do not need steel to work the ground,” he says. “We need roots and the biology to work the ground. Drilling across the field with seed is better than tillage.”
Most farmers as they consider adding cover crops to their farming operation tend to be most hesitant when planting corn in killed cover crops. He says “don’t get in a hurry to plant corn” – the cover crops need to grow late enough to provide benefits. “I think many farmers have done a good job learning to get a good diverse stand by planting early enough, only to kill the cover too early and lose many of the benefits,” he says. After a week of 70 plus temperatures, he’ll plant his corn. Ray says that many farmers use the excuse of too much moisture when planting corn in covers. He says another reason to be patient is to let the covers grow and uptake the moisture. Living roots will take up a lot of moisture especially in April.
Ray does not like to plant wet, but says using covers makes planting wet more tolerable. There is less side wall compaction, he says, plus the covers hold up the equipment better with less risk of compaction. Ray says no-tilling and using cover crops save him between $50 and $60 per acre in time and fuel, and about $10 per acre in saved herbicide costs. He normally plants corn in live cover and then terminates within three days with Round-up. He is currently considering going to new Paraquat for quicker kill and wants to invest in a new GPS, because it is difficult to see the marker when planting. Ray says “you have to be patient when planting in cover crops. I get anxious sometimes when I see neighbors planting early. But when September comes, and I have moisture, it is worth being patient.”
For soybeans, Ray treats his broad leaf weeds 7 to 10 days prior to terminating his cover crops, and terminates his cover crops and plants 7 to 10 days later. He estimates using cover crops save him about $15 per acre.
Grazing Cover Crops
Ray is in his fifth year of using multi-species cover crops and his third year of grazing cover. He now uses a eight-way cover mix and drills his cover crops around September 20. His mix consists of 0.5 lb. canola, 4 lbs. crimson clover, one lb. daikon radish, 15 lbs. oats, 20 lbs. triticale, 20 lbs. cereal rye, 5 lbs. vetch, and 10 lbs. Austrian winter peas. He begins grazing in November at 6-8 inches in height and removes the cattle when the cover hits 4 inches in height. He ceases grazing 2-3 weeks before planting corn and leaves livestock on bean land up to mid-April. The grazing stimulates the covers’ growth, he says.
He still uses typical soil test sampling methods; and while he hasn’t reduced his fertilizer use yet, he plans to in the future. His soil tests in 2004 showed soil organic matter (SOM) around 1.34%. In 2014, he sampled two fields with University of Tennessee and his SOM was 2.5% and 2.95%, respectively. He maintains pH around 6.6 to 6.95. His phosphorus and potassium are maintained between medium to high on most fields with one field being very high in potassium. Adam Daugherty, NRCS district conservationist, has been conducting demonstrations and taking soil samples for three years showing changes using no-till with covers compared to no-till without cover crops. Temperatures in summer have shown 10-15 degrees cooler using covers. Infiltration has been up to four times greater. Soil biology counts have shown 5,000 to 6,000 organisms with covers and less than 3,000 without covers.
Fungus to bacteria ratios have increased significantly along with diversity of soil biology in covers. Soil Health Haney tests also showed increases in hot-water extractable carbon and nitrogen, and lower carbon:nitrogen ratios. All of this translates to higher quality SOM available to soil biology for nutrient cycling and aggregating soils which leads to better yields and better infiltration rates. Prior to cover crops, infiltration was approximately 2″ per hour. Recently the staff measured 8″ per hour.
Earthworms are numerous in every shovel count, too. Nutrient values from Haney Test show $222 to $295 per acre that are available in the soil. Ray will soon look to reduce nitrogen and possibly potassium in the future. Haney’s Soil Health calculations of 15 and 14 are above average of 7 showing good trends of soil biology increases in respiration and food supplies. All of the above show a healthy trend in soil health indicators. Daugherty had Ray to run a comparison. One plot would follow a typical corn recommendation from the University of Tennessee. He applied 190 lbs of N, 65 lbs. of P2O5 (phosphorus), and 80 lbs. K2O (potassium), and yielded 182 bushels of corn per acre. Following the Haney test, he applied 145-60-0 and produced 188 bushels of corn per acre. He produced 6 more bushels per acre with 45 lbs. less nitrogen, five lbs. less P2O5, and 80 lbs. less K2O per acre.