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Robby Bevis: Beneficial effects of cover crops

Delta region farmers worry over rising temperatures and a lack of soil moisture. Robby Bevis’ anxiety level, though, remains steady thanks to cover crops.

It was mid-May and growers all over the Delta region are worried over rising temperatures and a lack of soil moisture. Robby Bevis’ anxiety level, though, is remained steady.

“I checked my moisture levels this morning,” said Bevis, who farms straight south of the Remington plant east of Little Rock in Lonoke County off I-40. “I’ve still got good moisture in my corn ground — that’s different than a lot of guys who’re watering corn. Where I still have covers growing, though, I’m a bit more concerned because they pull moisture out of the ground. I’m going to wait it out to plant those fields until we get a rain.”

A big fan of cover crops, Bevis’ corn was planted on acreage that had a cover crop of Australian winter pea and clover with oats and cereal rye.

Bevis — currently waiting for seed to be delivered — is a fifth-generation grower in the area. “We came here in the late 1800s. My son is the sixth generation here. He has one more semester of college and will be back full-time. He’s been working some acres already. We’ve been here for a long time.”

How did Bevis come to cover crops?

“My father was interested first. He started looking at it and checked into what government funds were available. He said, ‘I’m hearing a lot of good things about this and we ought to look at it.’”

Convinced first year

The first year was all it took to convince the family.

“Truth is, we played with it the first year. Guys we worked with at NRCS — Gene Scoggins and Greg Robinson — had been to conferences and seen things. They got me very excited about really getting into the next level of covers.”

The first year, Bevis had 900 acres in cover crops. Since then, “we’ve had a minimum of 2,000 to 3,000 acres. (In 2017) we were close to 2,700 acres.”

The excitement hasn’t abated and Bevis began running into like-minded growers around the Delta. “That led to the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance (https://www.facebook.com/Arsoilhealth/) and hopefully that’ll help not only us but other growers, as well. I get steady calls and emails from all over the world.

“We’ve had two gentlemen from Australia come visit. That’s great — I’ll take folks around the farm and make the loop, show them what we’re doing. We do field days and conservation tours, all sorts of things like that.”

The Australians, says Bevis, “have a pretty different outlook on fertility. That’s led us to look at that differently and things like how we soil sample for P and K. Hopefully, what they’re doing over there we’ll be able to correlate here. This isn’t just Arkansas or Lonoke County — it’s neat to bring in what works from around the world.”

Crop breakdown

The usual crop breakdown on Bevis’ 3,000 acres — the majority sandy loam with some heavier clay and mixed ground — is divided between corn, soybeans and rice. “I’ve got about 1,500 to 1,700 acres of beans, about 1,100 acres of corn and the rest is in rice.”

The transformation to cover crops and less tillage for Bevis wasn’t as dramatic as it is for many making the switch. “I was in a ‘have to’ system. I only till when I have to, only use herbicide and insecticide when I have to. We’ve been no-till since the mid-1990s. Actually, ‘no-till’ isn’t accurate — that’s difficult to do in the Delta. There always seems to be times when you rut the fields up and have to go back and fix things. But, for the most part, we make very few passes across the field.”

As a result, “we were used to messing with trash, stale seedbed and that sort of thing. The cover crops are the big thing. We’re coming out of our fifth cover crop. We’ve been into those long enough to where we’ve seen irrigation needs be reduced a minimum of 30 percent. That’s a big deal for us.”

Bevis has also seen a big reduction on the need for applying fertilizer. “We’ve cut way back on our fertility. If anything, I’ll supplement some foliar though the year on our beans. Depending on the year and how my legumes do, I’ll cut way back. Last year, I cut back about 200 units of nitrogen. In the past, we’ve put out 250 units. With corn, I pull back 50 percent of what I’d normally use with P and K.”

Last fall, Bevis did away with beds and went completely flat “because of issues we had with trying to find beds, the rows, in the cover crops. When you start pushing heavy biomass, it’s hard to see what’s in the field. So, we tore everything down and went flat.”

Weeds

How is the weed situation on Bevis’ farmland?

“We don’t have pigweeds as bad as others do, but it’s still a struggle. Going with cover crops has made a huge, positive difference in dealing with weeds. Everyone who’s gone this route has done it out of necessity — weeds are a real hurdle for Delta growers.”

Bevis says he often fields calls from those asking about growing crops in cover crop residue. “They’ll ask, ‘Man, how do you know if you’ve even got a stand?’ Really, it’s just a matter of getting out of the truck and looking more. That is a difference we’ve made. My guys and I are walking fields a lot more than they used to, do stand counts and make sure you’re not checking the same spots every time. Farming this way means one thing for sure: spend less time in the seat and more on your feet.”

Cover crops and minimum till is necessary for Bevis “because we’ve overused our tools and we have fewer and fewer of them. We needed to really pay attention to what our fields required. We didn’t need to add in a fungicide in just because we were spraying for worms or put an insecticide in just because we were applying fungicide.”

One thing Bevis wants to dispel is the amount of time it takes to plant cover crops. “I can’t tell you how many guys at winter meetings have told me they don’t have the time to plant covers. It’s interesting because how many tractors run until Christmas? Some farmers will work fields three times in the fall and three times again in the spring.

“Average everything on the farm and planting is the cheapest thing we do. And it still costs $6 to $8 per acre for fuel and labor. My goodness, if you’re doing deep tillage and heavy ripping you can be spending a lot more than that. Covers are cheap by comparison.”

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