‘Unconventional’ cover crops mean money for Bootheel producer

Johnny Hunter admits his photos of a tall, green cover crop that he’s preparing to plant corn into are enough to scare most farmers.

“It looks like a hot mess,” says Hunter, who grows cover crops on most of the 5,400 acres of land he plans to farm in 2016. “If you’re a conventional-till or maybe even a minimum till farmer, this is spooky.

“Let me tell you it was scary for me, too, because I never dreamed you could set a planter down in a mess like this and get a stand of anything. We’ve been taught you want a nice, clean stale bed. You don’t want this, certainly you want anything but this.”

But, Hunter, who has been farming for 10 years in Stoddard County in the Missouri Bootheel, told producers attending the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation/Irrigation Expo at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, that he’s learned to appreciate the multiple benefits of planting into such a “mess.”

And, best of all, he says, the practice is helping him make money, something he’s been working toward since farming conventionally almost put him out of business several years ago.

Making good crops, going broke

“I was making really good crops,” he says. “I was growing 220-plus-bushel corn, I was making 70-plus-bushel beans, I was picking 1,300-pound, and I was going broke. 2012 was our drought year, and that almost put me on the street.”

Following that year, Hunter began looking for other answers as to why he was going broke. “That’s when I found Ray Archuleta (conservation agronomist with USDA’s National Resource Conservation Service in Greensboro, N.C.). Ray Archuleta explained why I was going broke, and he explained what I could do differently.”

That included planting winter cover crops on his fields even though his Delta soils traditionally have not been considered prone to erosion.

The topic of Hunter’s presentation at the Soil and Water Conservation/Irrigation Expo was how to furrow irrigate fields that have been seeded with cover crops. Many growers say they have to till because to create furrows for irrigation.

Hunter is 93-percent furrow irrigated and 7 percent dryland. But that hasn’t stopped him from planting cover crops the last three years or forced him to move away from what he calls “almost no-till” that he began using four years ago.

Multiple cover crops

He displays a photo of a field of thick, green vegetation that he says will be planted in corn this spring. “It doesn’t look like there’s a lot going out there, but this is annual ryegrass, black oats, hairy vetch, crimson clover, Austrian winter peas, radish and purple-top turnip,” he said. “The main thing you’re seeing here is a lot of annual ryegrass.”

Most growers who grow covers begin thinking about terminating them soon after the first of the year. Not Hunter.

“I handle my cover crops a little bit differently,” he says. “On a wet spring I like my cover crops to grow as long as they can. We had a really wet spring last year so I used my cover crops as a tool to dry my fields up. You might not believe me, but I dried out quicker than some conventional guys because I had all this stuff going on out here, soaking up excess moisture.

“This was like a sponge for me.”

The audience seemed to get very quiet when Hunter showed a picture of one of the fields he planted corn into in 2015. In one photo, the annual ryegrass is standing about 18 inches tall, and, in the next, most of it has been flattened with a roller.

Green means money

“This is what I love; it’s what gets my blood pumping,” he said. “You see that cover crop laying flat on the ground. That’s where I’m making money. How much herbicide do you think it’s going to take me to get some good weed suppression there? Zero – you’d be right.”

The first year he tried cover crops Hunter said he applied a full rate of pre-emerge herbicide. “And I sat on the turn-row with my head in my hands wondering what I was doing because the herbicides weren’t even touching the soil. It’s a leap of faith because you’ve got to let this work for you. Once you do that you start to save money.”

Typically, Hunter terminates his cover crop on one day and gives it 48 hours for the herbicide to translocate through the plants. Then he uses a hipper-roller on the field.

“I took the hippers off and then I just had a roller,: he said. “I put gauge-wheel tires on the back to roll my middles down. I have about $7,000 in that roller. It’s worth about $1,500 so don’t think I did good.”

Hunter shows the audience a photo of a corn seed lying two or three inches below the soil surface. The seed is next to a purple-top turnip. “It’s living next door to N, P and K,” says Hunter. “That’s better than in-furrow fertilizer, which I also use.”

Not as thrilled with one

He also shows a photo of cotton being no-tilled into a standing black oats cover crop. “This isn’t nearly as sexy as what we were talking about,” he said. “I wasn’t thrilled with this one, but it’s what I did.”

While it’s also a bit unusual, Hunter used a variation of the system to plant soybeans no-till into stubble from his furrow-irrigated rice.

“I grow furrow irrigated rice, and I don’t pull levees anymore,” he noted. “So when we cut our rice in 2014, we just walked away. Then I no-till drilled into that furrow rice with my soybeans. Call me a liar, but I made 70-bushel soybeans behind furrow-irrigated rice.”

Hunter closes his presentations with photos showing he actually did get a stand of corn, cotton, soybeans planting into “this mess.” He also had photos of irrigation furrows moving water down the middles between thick mats of vegetation, illustrating how growers don’t have to give up on cover crops to make sure they can water their commercial crops when needed.

For more information on cover crops, visit https://www.agry.purdue.edu/ext/forages/publications/ay247.htm

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