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Good for the soil

Area producers seeing firsthand benefits of cover crops
Story and photos by Chris Villines 7/31/2018

 

Frank Kilpatrick, right, explains the noticeable differences cover crops have made in the soil profile at his Marshall County farm to, from left, Marshall Farmers Cooperative Chapel Hill Branch Manager Lucas Brewer, Tennessee Farmers Cooperative Agronomist Brett Jones, and Greg Aston, South Central U.S. sales representative for Allied Seed.
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Farming is a risk/reward business. For growers, finding the right combination of crops is a gamble that hopefully results in maximum quality and quantity come harvest time.

Once harvest occurs, an empty field can lose valuable nutrients. If nothing is done to combat the loss, the soil suffers. And if the soil suffers, production ultimately follows suit.

A solution? Cover crops.

An increasing amount of farmers in Tennessee and other parts of the country are turning to cover crops between harvests to add nutrients back to the soil, keep topsoil in place to reduce runoff, establish a natural aeration system that helps conserve water, and create favorable conditions for microbes and earthworms. The presence of earthworms is a good sign of soil health, and their castings, or waste, are up to five times more fertile than the surrounding soil.

“What’s going on in these fields where cash crops are grown is all biology driven in terms of the soil,” says Adam Daugherty, a Manchester-based district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which offers programs subsidizing seed costs to encourage cover crop usage. “During growing season, carbon and other nutrients are feeding that biology. But when the crop is harvested, it’s like shutting the door to the buffet because there’s no sunlight being captured and no carbon being put into the ground. Cover crops open that buffet back up.”

Recent agricultural challenges such as drought, delayed seeding, high input costs, longer growing seasons, and leaching concerns have more and more growers taking an interest in improving their soil quality through cover crops. In a 2016 cover crop survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, 81 percent of the more than 2,000 respondents reported using cover crops to some degree and found yield boosts in corn and soybeans following their use.

“Cover crops provide so many benefits,” says Greg Aston, South Central U.S. sales representative for Allied Seed, which offers a full line of cover crop products and is partly owned by Tennessee Farmers Cooperative. “They capture nitrogen and other nutrients from the soil and bring them up to where the next crop can use them. Another huge benefit is weed control; cover crops provide a mat on the ground to effectively combat weeds.”

With awareness of the advantages, many Tennessee farmers are consulting with their local Co-op to implement a cover crop program for their operations, incorporating Allied Seed’s Conservation Science Genetics products as part of that mix.

Marshall Farmers Cooperative member Frank Kilpatrick is one such example.

At his and father Richard’s 600-acre farm in the Berlin community, which for 50 years was home to their dairy until they exited the business earlier this year, Frank says he has been a cover crops practitioner for more than a decade.

“I used to put out a cover crop after our silage corn,” he says. “Once we quit doing silage and went to baleage, we would either cut the cover crop in the spring for hay or burn it down. You can tell the difference it makes in your soil.”

This past September, for the fifth year in a row Frank planted a five-way blend of cereal rye, fria ryegrass, Austrian winter peas, crimson clover, and tillage radishes on 20 acres. He performed the burndown in April to make way for his first-ever crop of soybeans. Before, Frank would do a cover crop/hay crop rotation.

“One of the main benefits I’ve seen from cover crops is not having to work the ground so much,” he says. “It used to be hard as a rock, but now that the soil is getting fed, it feels like you’re walking on carpet. The cover crops will break up those hardpans better than anything you can do by tilling.”

And with the healthy soil, Frank is optimistic the return on his soybeans will justify his employment of a cover crop program.

“I think in the long term, you have to do something like cover crops to stay viable,” he says. “If you’re not putting anything back in the soil and are constantly pulling nutrients out, it’s going to start affecting your cash crop yields in a bad way.

“It’s a wise investment, in my opinion.”

Also an advocate is Coffee Farmers Cooperative member Dexter Roberts, whose 600-acre row crop and cow/calf farm in Manchester is “100 percent cover crops.”

Dexter says after harvesting his corn and soybeans, all fields are sown with a mixture of several different cover crops which can include triticale, rye, oats, wheat, crimson clover, hairy vetch, purple top turnips, and tillage radishes.

“My dad put out cover crops when I was a little boy,” says Dexter of his late father, Larry. “We always turned them under because we didn’t know any better, really. Now, I’m starting on my third year of rolling them down and planting corn or soybeans into them. I like the biomass that rolling creates because if you get the crop rolled down good, you retain some moisture and it helps shade the weeds from sunlight.”

Another way Dexter utilizes cover crops is for his 40-head commercial and registered Angus beef cattle.

“It helps extend your grazing days a bunch,” he says. “I’ve raised a lot of cattle on them. We had several stockers and it was good for raising them, too.”

Two of Dexter’s fields were included in a three-year NRCS study of 58 long-term no-till fields that were transitioned into cover crops. After regular monitoring and twice yearly soil sampling of each field, the cumulative results were eye-opening.

“The soil health score doubled, one-day CO2 respiration tripled, and water infiltration increased from 2 to 3 inches per hour to 7 to 8 inches per hour,” NRCS’ Adam Daugherty says.

“[Water infiltration] is the sign that can be seen by every farmer,” adds Greg Aston. “When it’s raining, he can go to his ditch and not see any water running down into it, whereas two or three years before, it was always a washing area.”

Dexter’s fellow Coffee Farmers Co-op member Jamie Weaver, who operates a diversified farming operation in Estill Springs with his father, Ray, cites their 2016 corn harvest as an example of why they’ve consistently utilized cover crops the past five years.

“In a really dry year, we still made 110-115-bushel corn,” Jamie says. “Twenty years ago under the same conditions, that corn wouldn’t have made anything.”

Jamie says all 550 acres devoted to corn and soybeans at Weaver Farms are also planted in cover crops. The Weavers have incorporated cereal rye, black oats, crimson clover, hairy vetch, tillage radishes, Austrian peas, and Fria ryegrass into their program.

“Our big emphasis has just been on improving the ground we farm,” says Jamie. “I’m hoping to make things better for my two boys if they decide to farm, just like my father’s done for me and my grandfather did for him.”

While admitting there’s an intangible element to planting a noncash crop, Jamie says there are other indicators that let him know it’s a prudent financial investment.

“I can pay for most of the cost of cover crop seed in [crop protection] savings,” he says. “To me, doing cover crops is a way of mimicking nature. Something is always growing to keep the field green and having living roots.”

For more information about Allied Seed’s cover crop varieties, visit your local Co-op. To learn more about NRCS programs for cover crop producers, visit your local NRCS office or online at www.nrcs.usda.gov.

 
 
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