Arkansas growers using cover crops to build soil, bottom line: Part I

Farmers know that “new ground,” land that didn’t quite make the cut when other fields were being cleared and planted, sometimes decades ago, is generally more productive than the old – at least for the first few years.

Mike Taylor cleared some new ground in the area where he and his son, Mike Taylor Jr., farm in Phillips County in eastern Arkansas two years ago, and, sure enough, the new out-produced some of the Taylors’ other land.

“The new ground is what the old-timers knew really wasn’t good enough to be cleared; the soil type was not as desirable, and it wouldn’t produce as much,” said Mike Taylor, speaking at a session of the Nutrient Management and Edge of Field Monitoring Conference in Memphis, Tenn., Dec. 1-3.

“But, as you know, you clear new ground and for several years the yields are surprising. As a matter of fact, that land that was not desirable enough to be cleared much earlier – it had been in trees forever – the yields were better there than the mainstream component of our farm.”

Like many growers, the Taylors have had a number of questions as they try to figure out how to improve the productivity of their farming operation; questions such as why they can send samples to three soil test laboratories and get three different recommendations or why their fields become like concrete or a bog depending on the amount of tillage and the weather.

“We tried to find some logic there, and the only difference was the new ground had been covered for years,” said Taylor. “It hadn’t had tractors or disks or deep rippers so we decided to look more aggressively at cover crops.”

In previous years, the Taylors began field preparation for next year as soon as they completed harvest of their summer crops. They used a seven-shank boom, a 730 DMI and a Caterpillar 95 to begin working up their fields.

“Some years, like this year, it was so dry, the Cat 85 would just rare up; we could break the soils,” said Taylor. “We subsoiled every acre, and it was loose. Some years I couldn’t drive the burndown ground rig over it, it was so loose. Some years it was so muddy the kildees got hung up out there in the spring. But that was what we knew.”

More recently, the Taylors have gone to a lower profile, using a less aggressive, in-row, strip-till-type subsoiler or no subsoiling, the elder Taylor said in a presentation the father-son team made at the Southern Agricultural Cover Crops, Soil Health and Water Management Conference in Jonesboro, Ark., earlier this fall.

After five years of no subsoiling, Mike Taylor Jr., was able to push a soil probe three and four feet into the ground with ease despite some adverse weather conditions that forced the father-son team to do tillage they preferred not to do.

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