Richie and Chad Keith
Maury County, Tennessee
Richie Keith and his son Chad own and operate Keith Farms in Maury County, Tennessee, on the Duck River. A portion of the farm was once mined for phosphate and was cleared of trees only a few years ago; this is the third year it has been rotated between corn and soybeans. The rest of the farm rotates between corn, wheat, cereal rye, and soybeans, and all their acres have been no-tilled and cover cropped for the past seven years. The Keiths have about 335 acres are in center pivot irrigation, and about 3,600 acres in total.
The father and son team use grid sampling, variable application of nutrients (based on past yields), and yield monitoring. They have recently reduced nitrogen application by 15 percent using these methods. Their average corn production under irrigation is 236 bushels per acre, while their dry-land corn averages 125-130 bushels per acre. The Keiths have a goal to produce 300 bushels of corn per acre. “Covers will make that possible,” Richie said.
They use Gramoxone to kill cover crops, along with low-rate insecticide. The low rate of insecticide is better for the beneficial insects, they said. They also use low-rate Atrazine. Keith Farms are sloping and vulnerable to sheet, rill, and gully erosion. Since they have been no-till, they have not seen visible signs of erosion. Richie also has tried turbo tilling (vertical tillage in plots), but saw no advantages to continuing the practice.
For the first four years they used cover crops, they seeded wheat or rye. For more diversity, they added multi-species cover crops three years ago. Today, they use a cover crop mixture of five species: 15 pounds of cereal rye, 10-15 pounds of crimson clover, 15 pounds of wheat, 10-15 pounds of Austrian Winter Peas, and 2 pounds of rape, per acre. According to them, the cover crops have provided: better moisture retention, erosion control on sloping cropland, more consistent production on knobs and swags (low lying areas), greater water infiltration, and less ponding. Ritchie says the better farmers do at planting and getting a good stand, the more benefits cover can provide to soil health.
Keith Farms plant all their cover crops after harvest of its main crops with a drill or a spinner truck. When using a spinner seeder, they use 100 pounds of potash as a carrier with multi-species cover crop seed mixture. They’ve experimented with planting in high covers (5 to 6 feet tall) and planting green prior to desiccating the cover crops. So far, they’ve had the most trouble applying sulfur, zinc, and phosphate at planting. They said patience is a must when using cover crops. Always plan to plant toward the middle to end of April for corn, they say, and be flexible when killing covers.