Shelby County, Tennessee
Ray Sneed and his brother farm about 10,000 acres of rotated corn, wheat, soybeans, and for the first time in a several decades, cotton, in Shelby and Tipton Counties in Tennessee and Crittenden County, Arkansas. Ray joined the operation in 1978 and six years ago, changed their lime and fertilizer testing and application to variable rate, and their conventional till system to no-till or vertical till. Now 90 percent of the farm is in no-till and they’re conducting a yield study on the effects of variable rate, especially for phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) and plan to make adjustments according to the findings.
Their Tennessee soils are predominantly Memphis, Loring, and Granada Silt Loam on slopes ranging from 2 to 12 percent. Many of the fields are designated highly erodible and require a certain level of conservation to remain eligible for USDA programs. The Sneeds have been constructing structural conservation practices since the late 1980s, including grade control structures, water and sediment control structures, and grass waterways. Their farm land in Arkansas is mostly alluvial soils on 0-1 percent slopes.
Four years ago, they began seeding two species of cover crops – 40 pounds of cereal rye and three pounds of tillage radishes per acre – and immediately noticed less weed pressure, soil compaction, and erosion. They have also seen less runoff, better water infiltration, and improved soil structure. Now, they seed five species of cover on 150 acres. Twenty five hundred acres are in winter wheat for harvest, and the remaining acres are in winter fallow with crop residues on the soil surface. The seeding rates for the five species are: cereal rye at 30 pounds per acre, tillage radishes at 3 pounds per acre, purple top turnips are at 2 pounds per acre, crimson clover at 5 pounds per acre, and wheat for cover at 30 pounds per acre. Before 2016, the cover crops were drilled; now they are aerially broadcasted by airplane.
During this season, the Sneed brothers would have treated their fields with herbicide three times for about $39 per acre each time – but that’s not necessary now that they use cover crops. There is a downside to using covers though, Ray said, when competition is high and soil moisture is low. In late August, the Sneed brothers flew cover crops on type 5.8 soybeans when they were “very green” and taking up approximately 1 inch of water per day. Even though the area was irrigated, the beans used up the water quickly, preventing immediate germination of the cover crop mixture. Areas with wheel tracks, water and sediment control structures, and ditches around water had excellent stands of the multi-species cover crops, but where the beans were there was no cover until after harvest and late rains. The field will have good cover in the spring, but will lack some diversity as a result of the drought. The Sneeds learned to wait to seed cover until their soybeans are yellow and near the stage of leaf drop. At this point, there will be less competition for existing moisture in soil, and leaf drop will mulch over recently broadcast cover crop seed and protect until there is moisture for germination.
The Sneed Brothers plan to increase their acres of cover crops, especially on sloping lands. They are also interested in wanting to expand cover crops and no-till to their river bottoms in Arkansas. The area currently has little to no cover crops. The Sneed brothers have made many changes in last five years that have made them more profitable per acre and improved their most important investment: their soil.