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Now’s the time

With the help of government incentives and their local Co-ops, Tennessee farmers are finding success with increased cover crop acreage
Story and photos by Sarah Geyer 7/31/2017


Over the last few years, an increasing number of Tennessee row-crop farmers are embracing the use of cover crops to reduce soil erosion and improve land building. Most of these producers, like Rodney Moore of Westport, enjoy pulling up root wads to find earthworms: a sign of improved soil heath. The organic matter created from the use of cover crops creates a habitat that attracts the slimy creatures, which bring their own benefits; through their burrowing and feeding, they create a more porous, aerated, and fertilized soil.
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For those farmers who haven’t tried cover crops yet, many of your fellow producers have one question: Why not?

With its recent addition to government incentives, a growing number of farmers nationwide have either introduced or drastically expanded their use of the conservation practice – in the last two years increasing the nation’s cover crop acreage by 147 percent.

Cover crops began gaining a quiet following nearly a decade ago, says David Drewry, manager at Carroll Farmers Cooperative, but because of the trial-and-error nature of the technique, many farmers have been reluctant to add it to their rotation.

“There’s definitely a learning curve involved in implementing cover crops,” says David. “Our farmers are seeing the benefits, but it takes time to find the right mix for their farm, whether they’re first adding the crop or increasing their acres.”

That’s where Co-op can help, he says, with services and advice as more row-crop producers are giving the practice a try — which often includes navigating a new set of challenges.

“For instance, the timing of sowing cover crops on ground where cotton is typically grown can be tricky – after the last shot of defoliant but before the leaves drop – and the aerial method is usually the best choice,” he says. “All our customers have to do is call and say ‘do it,’ and we’ll take care of the rest.”

Carroll Farmers staff mixes the farmer’s customized seed blend on site and then delivers it to the airport where the driver will tender the seed onto the plane. The pilot is also provided with coordinates and aerial maps created by Co-op staff.

“Our goal is always to provide excellent service, and when farmers try new techniques that means we are finding new ways to help.”

For those farmers who have partnered with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Drewry’s team offers to tackle one of the most time-consuming tasks — paperwork. His staff will gather and deliver their customers’ cover crop seed invoices to the soil conservation district office for them.

Both of these Co-op services have helped Phillip Moore of Westport with time management when he increased his cover crop coverage threefold in 2014.

“We began tinkering with cover crops about five years ago,” says the full-time producer, who farms with his father, Rodney, and son, Colton. “We saw a lot less soil washed away and could tell that the thinner areas were building up.”

When NRCS offered programs subsidizing seed costs, the Moores decided to increase their cover crop acreage from just a few hundred to 1,000 acres of their rolling, highly erodible farmland.

Anytime you add acreage you can easily fall behind,” says Phillip, “and the timing of terminating cover crops and planting production crops is especially tricky.”

This year, the farming family planted 1,200 acres of corn, 2,300 of cotton, and 3,000 of soybeans.

“We’re still learning what works best for us; there’s still a lot of trial and error,” says Phillip. “But I like the results we’re getting on the hills. Next, we’ll see what it can do for our bottom land.”

Just a few counties to the west in Ripley, Franklin Carmack, a fifth-generation row-crop farmer, also drastically increased his cover crop acreage through the NRCS programs, from less than 200 to more than 1,500 acres.

The Lauderdale County native first implemented cover crops four years ago after purchasing a 170-acre field that had been pastureland for more than 30 years.

“It was highly erodible and was terraced,” he explains, “and we just weren’t sure how it was going to hold up.”

So Franklin decided to add a cover crop, following his first harvest of corn with cereal rye and radishes.

“When we got ready to plant corn again that spring, I sent out a guy to disc up the rough spots,” he says. “When he called me to say he couldn’t hardly find any, that sold us right there. We knew we had something.”

Partnering with NRCS has both afforded Franklin the opportunity to increase his cover crop ground and created additional challenges, including a five-species mix requirement and the Oct. 15 planting deadline.

He says the staff at Tipton Farmers Cooperative is one of the sources he turns to for help.

For fall time management issues, he utilizes aerial seeding to follow cotton. After the corn harvest, Co-op spreads seed with an airflow truck, often including other inputs like potash to save a pass in the spring. As for the required five-species blend, Franklin says he’s found the ones that work best for his farmland, preferring oats, wheat, clovers, Austrian winter peas, radishes, and turnips. But he admits he’s still struggling to find the right mix of the grasses, legumes, and brassicas.

“One of our biggest challenges has been determining the right mix of species that is best for the production crops that will follow,” says Todd Rankin, outside salesman for Tipton Farmers. “On Franklin’s ground and with his equipment, we’ve figured out that clover is good in front of corn, while rye, wheat, and oats works in front of beans.”

Row-crop producers in the Mid-South region may want to consider the following guidelines, says Greg Aston, South Central U.S. sales representative for Allied Seed — in a cover crop mix, soybeans tend to do better behind a higher percentage of grasses, while corn, on the other hand, tends to respond better to a lower percentage of grasses.

Franklin, who left the railroad business five years ago to buy out his father, Frank, and pursue his ag passion full time, says the trial-and-error nature of cover crops is worth the effort.

The benefits outweigh the hassles, especially the yield improvement in his production crops, says the young producer, who raises corn, soybeans, and cotton on more than 3,000 acres in Dyer and Lauderdale counties.

“I saw an increase in my soybean yields really quickly,” he says. “I think our corn yields will pick up even more once we’ve worked through some issues like our timing for nitrogen with corn.”

Weed control is another benefit Franklin says he’s seen while using the soil conservation technique. “It’s become an important tool in my weed management toolbox.”

With plans to plant 100 percent of his acres in cover crops by 2020, Franklin credits his confidence in the technique to his uncle, W.J. (Joe) Carmack, a retired soil conservationist from Tennessee who now lives in the state of Washington,

“He’s a big contributor to my operation, including the decision to add cover crops to the rotation,” says Franklin, who adds that Joe travels to Ripley each spring to help with planting and each fall to assist with the harvest. “He’s always been a big believer in cover crops, and now that I’ve seen the benefits, especially on erosion, I’m a believer, too. I’m not saying cover crops are the answer to everything, but I do know that they have made a difference for me.”

Producers interested in NRCS cover crop plans should contact their local district conservationist, says NRCS’s Greg Brann.

For more information about implementing cover crops, contact the experts at your local Co-op.

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