Rusty and Jeff Harris
Chester County Soil Conservation District (Rusty serves as the board’s chair)
Rusty and Jeff Harris are twins, business partners, and fifth generation farmers. Their farm headquarters is located on Wayne Harris Road, named after their grandfather, in Henderson, Tennessee. The brothers grew up farming with their dad, but after his death about eleven years ago, Rusty took over the operation. Jeff started farming full-time about four years ago. Both of the brothers have since acquired farms managed for conservation – some were even CRP lands – that put together, branch out over three counties: Chester, McNairy, and Madison, and 1,700 acres.
The family grew up no-tilling, using the practice in earnest starting in 2000. Their father transitioned from chisel plowing, to disk and do-all, to no-till; today, most of the brothers’ land has 16 to 20 years of no-till history. They produce, on average, 750 acres of soybeans, 750 acres of cotton, and 200 acres of corn. The Harris brothers plant wide row corn and cotton on 38″ inch rows. They use a John Deere 1720 planter for cotton. Rusty and Jeff use a Kinze 2600 for corn and with soybeans using splitter rows at 19 inches rows. They also use a Case IH for soybeans, 15″ inch rows. They do not use row cleaners for corn and soybeans. The brothers use Martin Floating row cleaners when planting cotton due to planting shallow compared to corn and soybeans. All of their acres are dry-land with no irrigation. They plant their corn at 24,000 plants per acre. The Harris Brothers plant soybeans at 127,000 plants per acre, and cotton at 42,000 plants per acre.
The brothers are comfortable with the size of their operation. Jeff says it is “quality over quantity”, while Rusty added, “we need to do the best that we can with the acres we have.” The Harris brothers conduct annual soil tests, and in 2008, began using variable rate for lime, phosphorus, and potassium. The brothers credit the NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) for their variable rate nutrient management program. They have recently reduced total nitrogen application in their cotton from 100-units per acre to 80-units per acre. Rusty and Jeff apply 20 percent at planting and side dress 80 percent; they originally applied 100 percent at planting.
They are planning to expand their crop and pest management in cotton by using Green Seeker sensor that will produce a map with three categories: high, medium, and low vigor zone. The brothers will apply appropriate amounts of growth regulator and insecticides using those maps, reducing their inputs and saving them money.
With help from NRCS, the 2016 season will be their second seeding annual winter cover crops on all their fields. They broadcast a multi-species mix of cover seed using a spinner truck with phosphorus and potassium as carrier. That mix includes: 30 pounds of cereal rye, 5 pounds of crimson clover, 15 pounds of wheat, 2 pounds Ethiopian cabbage, and 2 pounds tillage radishes per acre. In some fields, they substituted canola at 2 pounds per acre instead of Ethiopian cabbage.
The brothers plant corn in green cover and terminate the cover within a week. The Harris’ use a pre-emergent herbicide and Round Up at termination. For soybeans, they plant green and terminate the cover the same day or a day after. They use pre-emergent herbicide and Round Up. Currently, they are terminating cover crops toward late March or early April, and planting cotton six weeks later. They are working with cotton specialist from University of Tennessee to see if planting green, 2 weeks, 4 weeks, or 6 weeks after termination makes for significant differences. The brothers would like to grow covers longer prior to termination when planting cotton.
Even though the brothers have only been growing covers for two years, they’re already noticing improvements in soil health. The fields dry out faster after a rain; the cover residue holds more moisture; soil temperatures are cooler in the summer, which translates to less plant stress from hot and dry conditions; their soil structure is showing more granular and blocky (crumbly); they’ve noticed significantly more earthworm activity and no soil crusting; they can plant deeper; infiltration seems better after intense rains; soil organic matter seems to be increasing; and they’ve noticed more quail, turkeys, and finches on their farm. They’ve also learned in the last two seasons that canola cover is more difficult to kill the earlier they try to kill it.