When it comes to ag, the prettiest fields aren’t always the most profitable.
Working in a cover crop system means you aren’t going to win a “prettiest contest. You may not win highest yield contest. But you can win the profitability contest,” said Bill Robertson, extension cotton agronomist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
That’s among the lessons participants will learn as they see cover cropping and regenerative agriculture at work during the July 25 Healthy Soils for Sustainable Cotton Farm Field Day in Arkansas. The field day will start at 8 a.m. at the Brinkley Convention Center, 1501 Weatherby Drive in Brinkley. (See here).
The field day tours will take participants to the farms of Adam Chappell, in Cotton Plant, and Robby Bevis, around Lonoke, “to look at some things they’re doing differently from most farms,” Robertson said.
Two musts for soil health
“If we’re going to improve soil health there are two things we must do. First, we have to use cover crops. When we put in a cover crop, we have living roots in the soil many months as possible out of the year,” he said. “The plants give off sugars and there’s organic matter from the roots because they grow and die all the time.”
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Cover crops are beneficial to soil microbes. “Those microbes’ interactions with the roots all improve soil health,” Robertson said. “It’s like building a house. We start with a small house and make incremental improvements to the structure until we have a really nice home.”
The second reason “is to greatly reduce tillage or almost no-till. When you till, you destroy the soil structure – you build the house and then tear it down, over and over. If you can build the house through cover crop then there’s less and less need to till,” he said.
Half of a healthy soil by volume should be made up of air and water. Cover crops provide a place for water to seep into the ground. Compacted silt loams only have an infiltration rate of a half-inch, but “in cover crop fields, you can have infiltration rates of eight inches,” he said.
Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about regenerative agriculture. The concept is simple: Regenerative agriculture means bringing livestock in to graze on the cover crops.
“That increases the activity of the soil microbes and kicks the soil health process into gear,” Robertson said.
What’s better for that purpose: cattle or sheep?
“You have to determine what’s best for your operation. You have to make money off the animals too. Sometimes it’s sheep and goats, sometimes a cow/calf operation,” he said. “Regardless, you can win on three fronts: the main crop, the cover crop benefits and the livestock.”
“I know a cover crop grower who bought some very skinny, bred heifers. He brought back around 35 to his farm. He said the buyers at the auction were saying ‘why’re you messing with those – they’re thin!’ But he knew they were going onto fresh cover crops and there would be plenty for them to eat. So, they put on weight, had their babies and did well. He’s going to try sheep next.”
In addition to cover crops and regenerative ag, Chappell also grows 72-inch cotton in a world where 38- or 40-inch rows are the norm.
“In Australia, there have been some growers playing with it and they like it,” said Robertson. “Last year, I kept seeing someone in Texas that did really well.”
The target of 72-inch cotton is the pigweed that comes up in bare ground.
“With 72-inch cotton in a cover crop there’s not a lot of bare ground, is there?” he asked. “The cover crop helps conserve moisture and hold the weeds back. Then, you’re saving money on seed costs and everything you band over the top of the crop.
“The question is: how can you stay in the cotton business if your yield is average?” Robertson said. “In 2018, our state average was 1,150 pounds. How many people can pay their out of pocket expenses growing 1,150-pound cotton? You need 1,250 pounds-plus to be moving forward.”
“Anyone who has an interest in soil health, cover crops and the like needs to do their homework. This field day will really provide a broad overview and good foundation for those folks,” he said. “Come find out how to stay in business without making record yields.”
“The Soil Health Institute is helping us with sponsorship of work with the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance,” Robertson said. “The alliance is a group of growers who’ve been doing cover crops for a while. They spread the good word and show the benefits that a focus on improving soil health can improve an operation’s bottom line.”
The Healthy Soils for Sustainable Cotton Farm Field Day in Arkansas will start at 8 a.m. at the Brinkley Convention Center, 1501 Weatherby Drive in Brinkley.
Participants are asked to register by July 19 to ensure a lunch count. Register by calling Debbie Moreland, 501-425-2891. There is no cost to attend.