Ricky and Russell Wiggins
Covington County, Alabama
Ricky Wiggins and his son, Russell, farm 2,650 dryland acres in Covington County. They plant cotton and peanuts in rotation (two years of cotton and one year of peanuts) and rye cover on all of their land to increase soil organic matter.
After studying the benefits, the Wiggins transitioned to conservation tillage in 1994 and have noticed some dramatic changes on their land. The water flowing out of the terrace rows is clear – an indication of less soil erosion – and terrace maintenance has become more manageable. When the Wiggins’ first started in conservation tillage, they planted into a tilled strip between 10 and 14 inches wide. They’ve since narrowed the strip, and now you can hardly see the crop rows in the cover crop residue.
“I think that eventually people are going to grasp that what we are doing is going to be the way to go. I am glad to do conservation tillage,” Ricky said. “We think it saves us a lot of time and a lot of fuel.”
The Wiggins’ soil is a dark, rich color, and is approaching 3 percent organic matter. If it was conventionally tilled, the soil organic matter would be around three-quarters of a percent. They are also noticing that earthworms, which are unusual in this part of the state, have improved moisture penetration during rain events. Even though a lot of farmers now use some form of conservation tillage, the Wiggins were the first in their area to do so. They were also the first to use high residue, even though their neighbors said high yields wouldn’t be possible. Two years ago, every farmer in the county had stopped planting because of dry weather, the Wiggins still had moisture because of their cover. The soil was about 10 degrees cooler under the cover, and because they retained the moisture, they never had to slow down planting.
The Wiggins’ manage cover so that residue is still on the ground a year after. They broadcast rye seed and use a turbotill to ensure good emergence, without causing erosion problems. They also do something a lot of farmers don’t: they fertilize their cover crop, usually with chicken litter. They let it get about chest high after the seed head emerges and the biomass is very thick. They both agree that it is a challenge to work in such a heavy cover, but they think it is worth it. When the rye cover crop matures, they roll down and spray it, timing it close to 30 days prior to crop planting to conserve soil moisture. They modified a rolling basket by mounting a sprayer on top of it so they can roll and spray the cover crop at the same time.
The Wiggins say you can feel the difference in the soil just by walking across it – it’s springy underfoot. Ricky said that when they plow up the peanuts to invert them, they get better equipment penetration in the ground in dry weather than they ever did with conventional till – the earth is not as hard. Because of the more pliable soil, they don’t need to replace the plow points as much and they save on fuel because the machinery pulls through the soil easier.
“It is hard to imagine how much conservation tillage has saved us and how much we have increased our soil health using big cover. It is really amazing,” Ricky said. “We are committed to this practice and are glad of the resulting good soil health. When we made the decision to use conservation tillage, we committed to it. We do not regret the decision.”