Robert E. Coker Jr.Yazoo City, MS
Yazoo County Soil and Water Conservation District
My wife, Vicki, and I farm in Yazoo City, Mississippi. We have five children, Drew, Mollie, Anna, Brooks and Josie. Our family-owned operation has grown to 8,500 acres and includes both family-owned and rented land. We raise corn, soybeans and wheat. After graduating from the University of Mississippi with a Bachelor of Arts in business administration, I began farming in 1985.
Soil Health Practices
We have moved from being a full conventional tillage farm to primarily reduced tillage. We have experimented over the last 15 years with no-till, which is becoming a larger part of our program. We started adding cover crops to our no-till and reduced till fields about six years ago. During this time, we have observed an increase in soil tilth, improved internal drainage and an increase in organic matter. Other conservation practices that we have implemented are installing over-fall pipes to reduce erosion, riparian buffers and a tail water recovery system. We are currently implementing new irrigation practices to improve efficiencies and reduce water use.
Because much of the information about cover crops either was written in the ’50s or ’60s or comes out of the Midwest, we have had to adjust some of the practices to fit our climate and cropping systems. In the ’80s and early ’90s, we planted some cover crops (mainly vetch or crimson clover), and the conventional wisdom was to let the cover grow as late as possible in the spring. The problems we ran into were that we had to do a great deal of tillage to prepare for the cash crop and the late spring termination of the cover tended to put the planting of the cash crop later than the optimal planting window. When we transitioned from cotton to corn as our primary crop, we knew that with the earlier planting date for corn the traditional cover crop system would not work because there would be no time for spring growth. Therefore, we shifted to planting our cover crop in the early fall and getting our growth period before winter sets in. We started by planting tillage radishes on a dry land field. This produced some very positive results and we have built our system on that base.
In the south delta of Mississippi, we have several issues to work through. First, we have low organic matter that makes our soil prone to compaction. Second, we can have extreme rainy periods or droughts. This can make planting or harvest difficult to accomplish without causing compaction or making ruts. This in turn makes it difficult to maintain a no-till field. Our topography can also cause challenges due to poor surface drainage. Many acres in the delta have been precision land formed for furrow irrigation. Maintaining furrow irrigation and using cover crops is another challenge. We are still working on these challenges, although aerial seeding may be an answer.