Cover crops can provide benefits, downside for farmers

Arkansas grower says cover crops, no-till is helping him maintain yields, reduce costs in less-stressful environment.

Adam Chappell says seeding cover crops to protect your soils in the winter and planting no-till in them in the spring can provide a number of economic and lifestyle benefits – along with one possible downside.

Chappell, who farms 9,000 acres with his brother, Seth, around Cotton Plant, Ark. says their system of growing cover crops and no-till planting has allowed them to produce the same yields at 40 to 50 percent less cost. On the other hand:

“You’re going to have to find another place to get breakfast and drink coffee because people aren’t going to want to sit with you,” he said to laughter at the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance Field Day in Cotton Plant. “And if they do, they’re going to tell you how it’s (his production system) not going to work.”

Chappell was the featured speaker for the field day, the inaugural event for the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance, a small group of farmers who are making widespread use of cover crops and no-till. (To watch a portion of Chappell's presentation, see the accompanying video.)

The lead-off speaker was Ray Archuleta, a conservation agronomist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, who has become one of the leading advocates of what might be called the “soil health movement.”

Overlapping residuals

Chappell began looking into cover crops and no-till not long after he spoke at the first Arkansas Pigposium in 2010. The event, which drew 700 to 800 farmers in Forrest City, Ark., was organized to address the then-new issue of glyphosate-resistance in Palmer amaranth.

“At Pigposium in 2010, I talked about overlapping residuals,” he said, referring to the practice of applying pre-emergence herbicides to help control pigweed. “At the time it made sense to me, but now it’s put $20 here; overlap it with another $20; overlap it with another $20 until you either run out of money or your crop is in a mess.”

Applying more herbicides can work, he said, “if you get the weeds before they emerge or when they’re small; get an activating rain; get good coverage of the weeds; and control them before they go to seed. The bottom line is you have to have the money to do all that, and a lot of people run out of money before the war is won.”

So how are the Chappell’s reducing their costs with their system of cover crops and no-till?

Chappell showed a list of tillage practices used on the majority of Mid-South farms – disking or turbo tilling, running a field cultivator, harrowing, running a land plane or float, using a V-ripper, chisel plowing, running a hipper or hipper roller, which can total $75 to $80 an acre.

“We don’t do any of those so that’s $75 to $80 that you can save per acre just by stopping that,” he noted. “With the tillage trips and herbicides, it was just money flying out the door, and we were getting nowhere.

Planting into standing vegetation

Today, the Chappells plant their cover crops in the fall. When it’s time to put in their corn, soybeans or cotton, they plant and spray their cover crops the same day; often with a tank mix of Roundup and a residual herbicide.

“Our herbicide program is almost nonexistent,” he says. “We’re making some beans with just a pre application; we’re not having to come with a post, and, if we do, it’s usually only once. Money’s adding up – you see how I’m getting to my 40 to 50 percent less.”

With no-till, he said, farmers use less fuel, they don’t put as many hours on their equipment and spend less on repairs. They can also farm more acres with fewer employees and less machinery because of increased efficiency.

The Chappells also are planting more non-GMO crops. “We’re not anti-GMO,” he said. “We still grow them, but a larger number of our acres are going to non-GMO crops. We had almost 2,000 acres of conventional soybeans in 2016. Right out of the gate I’m putting $100 an acre on my bottom line by not planting GMO cotton.”

The Chappells are also irrigating less. “We’re probably watering half of what we were because of all these things we talked about today. (To watch a video of the demonstrations, visit http://www.deltafarmpress.com/conservation/keeping-soil-covered-key-moisture-conservation-part-iii.)

Less need for irrigation

“We’re seeing better infiltration; reduced evaporation from the cover being rolled; the water-holding capacity is going up; more water is staying in the soil so we’re not having to irrigate as much,” he said. “There’s also less erosion and runoff.

“We’re sending millions of dollars of P, K and N down to the Gulf, and they’re mad at us, of course. Imagine what you could do if you could keep all of that instead of sending it down the ditch. That’s less you have to put on, less you have to pay.”

Chappell acknowledges the amount of standing cover crop vegetation he plants into – some of it waist-high – can be daunting.

“Everybody is worried about planting into this stuff,” he said. “That’s the main concern – everybody says I cannot plant into that. Well, you can.” To watch a video of Chappell planting into a cover crop, visit https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVOsp2x_-X92s_qwlIEKzog.

Another benefit is the nitrogen contribution of an estimated 80 to 160 pounds of nitrogen from the legumes in their cover crop mixture. Chappell believes he can reduce his nitrogen application in corn by about 30 percent because of the nitrogen contributed by the cover crops.

Moisture to plant in fall

Not all of the cover crop benefits can be counted in dollars and cents. Last fall, when conditions became dry in much of the Mid-South, Chappell said he and his father, Dewayne, were concerned about the lack of moisture for seeding their cover crops. (Dewayne Chappell retired in 2014, but continues to come to the farm each day.)

“I pulled back some of the residue from the previous winter’s cover crops, and I was able to make a ball with the soil in my fist,” he said. “We had plenty of moisture for planting.”

When they do have to irrigate during the growing season, the Chappells have learned they can pull a furrow down the row middles with a small plow they built. The furrow allows the water to move to the ends of the row quickly.

One of the main benefits is with Palmer amaranth, the No. 1 weed problem in the area.

“We’re out-competing the weeds,” he said. “Our primary problem is pigweed, but we’re shading them out. They can’t come through the residue. Right now, cover crops are a supplement to our weed control program. They’re the foundation and we build on that.

“We’d love to eliminate herbicides altogether because that’s more money we could put into doing something else. But at the moment it’s a supplement, and it’s the most effective one we have. It’s better than any herbicide we use.”

Where the brothers didn’t plant a cover crop they burned down with 1 quart of Roundup, 1 quart of 2,4-D and 10 ounces of dicamba. They applied 1 quart of Gramoxone and 3 ounces of Fierce pre-emergence. Their postemergence applications consisted of 1 quart of Liberty and 1 quart of Prefix followed by 1 quart of Liberty and 1.33 pints of Dual.

Yields nearly the same

“The beans yielded about the same in both the cover-crop field and the non-cover-crop field,” he said. “So which field made the most money?”

Chappell said he and his brother don’t use any special equipment to plant into the cover crops they grow. “The stuff we use is probably the same thing you have. We’re going to show you that today.”

They also haven’t encountered many problems with planting in the spring. “The roots in those cover crops can go down 78 inches,” he noted. “When the dust is flying here because it’s too dry for anyone else, we’re still planting into green cover crops that have plenty of soil moisture. It’s not because we just want to get it done. There’s still moisture, and we’re getting a stand.”

“On the flip side, when we get those flood rains, torrential downpours, that cover crop is using that excess moisture or it’s infiltrating the soil profile, so we’re in the field two or three days earlier than the guy who is trying to air his stuff out with a field cultivator.”

The Chappells have “8,400 acres of land and change” planted in cover crops out of the 9,000 they will farm this year. Most of that land is rented.

“We have to make the yields or our landlords will find someone else to farm that land,” he said. “We know this works, and we’re committed to it.”

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