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Grain group gropes with soil health management

Story and photos by Sarah Geyer 2/23/2017


Virtual meets live during the Middle Tennessee Grain Conference’s keynote address where, following a multimedia presentation featuring farm visits and in-depth interviews with three regional farmers and a cover crop specialist, the four men attended the Jan. 26 event to participate in a question-and-answer session about cover crops with audience members. FROM LEFT: Dr. Forbes Walker, UT Extension environmental soil specialist; and farmers Chris Pierce of Nancy, Kentucky; Russell Hedrick of Hickory, North Carolina; and Ray Jones of Hillsboro, Tennessee.
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The survey says . . . soil health. That was the case last summer for members of the Middle Tennessee Grain Conference planning committee as they studied exit surveys from the 2016 event while creating a program for 2017.

“The number one thing folks said they wanted to hear more about was soil health,” said Ed Burns, Extension area specialist with the University of Tennessee and a member of the conference’s planning committee, made up of other Extension specialists, farmers, and agribusiness representatives. “I know some people wonder if it’s even worth taking the time to give feedback, but in our case, we really do take into consideration the opinions of our farmers.”

More than 300 attendees participated in this year’s conference on Jan. 26 in Manchester. As in previous years, the event was held at the Coffee County Fairgrounds and included breakout sessions, a unique keynote “address,” trade show, and catered lunch sponsored by Tennessee Farmers Cooperative.

With the focus squarely on soil health management, session topics included cover crops and weed control, sprayer maintenance, and conservation planning as well as outlooks for 2017’s fertilizer and commodities.

“The sessions are structured much like an educational seminar, but we have a tradition with our keynote address,” said Burns. “We don’t want it to be like the sessions; we want something different, sometimes off the wall, an experience that the farmers can’t get at any other educational event. This year, I think we outdid ourselves.”

The keynote segment combined a multimedia presentation with a live panel discussion, giving the audience a chance to learn from a variety of viewpoints. The 40-minute video included virtual farm tours and in-depth interviews with three regional farmers — Tennessean Ray Jones of Coffee County; Russell Hedrick of Hickory, North Carolina; and Chris Pierce of Nancy, Kentucky — and an interview with Dr. Forbes Walker, UT Extension environmental soil specialist who offered a scientist’s perspective. Each of the row-crop producers has implemented cover crops as a part of his rotation and at the conference discussed how the use of cover crops has improved fertility and weed control, reduced input costs and soil erosion, and increased yields on their farms.

Jones, a second-generation farmer, raises corn and soybeans on 700 acres, all planted with a multi-species cover crop mix. He also raises livestock and hay on 300 acres of pasture.

Hedrick began farming 30 acres four years ago. Today, he grows 800 acres of non-GMO soybeans and corn and an 11-species cover crop mix. He also raises cattle, sheep, and pigs. Due in part to his innovative approach with cover crops and technology, Hedrick was named 2014 North Carolina Innovative Young Farmer of the Year.

Both Jones and Hedrick say they built their soil health and organic matter by grazing their livestock on warm- and cool-season cover crops.

Pierce, a fourth-generation farmer in the Bluegrass state, grows corn, soybeans, wheat, and canola on 3,350 acres of mostly rented land in Pulaski County. He also raises nearly 700 acres of cover crops through a National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) program. He and wife Rebekah received national recognition in 2014 as winners of the Young Farmer & Rancher Achievement Award from the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Following the video presentation, the four panelists participated in a question-and-answer session in which the audience of more than 300 farmers and agriculture specialists paid special attention. Although only 20 minutes had been slated for this segment, panelists continued to answer questions from the eager crowd for nearly an hour.

“This presentation vastly exceeded my expectations. The video was wonderfully produced, and the follow-up session allowed farmers to hear a myriad of answers to each question,” said Burns. “I think that’s important when dealing with a complex topic like cover crops. It’s not an exact science or a one-size-fits-all formula, so oftentimes farmers can glean the most helpful information specific to their needs by talking to other farmers. That’s the atmosphere we tried to create today with our amazing panel, and from the reaction of the crowd, I’d say it was a success.”

Steve Roller, who raises corn, soybeans, and cattle on 1,000 acres in Warren County, says he looks forward to attending the conference each year.

“The farming business is always changing,” he said, “and you have to stay informed to survive.”

Roller, a member of both Warren and Rutherford Farmers Cooperatives, said that after hearing the keynote address, he plans to invest in a drill and plant some cover crops.

“I’ve been thinking about implementing them for the last few years,” he explained, “but I kept putting it off. Not anymore; it’s time to buy a drill and get started.”

Roller and other attendees were interested in Dr. Larry Steckel’s session on managing herbicide resistance and dicamba issues. Steckel, a UT Extension weed specialist, explained to an overflow crowd what producers can expect for weed control in 2017.

“If you’re hoping to switch to the newest herbicide-resistant soybeans and just hit the easy button, this won’t be an easy technology for you,” said Steckel, explaining that using the newly formulated herbicides will require more steps than past products. “Farmers must read the labels carefully and follow the applications requirements to the letter. Stewardship will be ultra-important, especially this first year.”

Addressing farmers’ concerns about limited options for treating resistant weeds, Steckel stressed the importance of incorporating other weed control practices like cover crops.

“We must use every tool we have,” he said. “For the most effective weed control, farmers must to move beyond depending only on what you pour out of a jug.”

In a separate session, Garrett Montgomery, a UT plant science doctoral student who works with Steckel, presented the pair’s research results on using cover crops as weed control. Montgomery said their data indicates that cover crops can reduce herbicide applications from three to two: one at pre-emergence and one, instead of typical two, during post-emergence.

Dr. Angela McClure, UT Extension corn and soybean specialist, offered “Sprayer Cleanout to Avoid Crop Injury.” The practical refresher course has gained a renewed relevance since a triple-rinse cleanout procedure is one of the application requirements with the new technologies available this year. McClure reminded attendees to pay careful attention to screens and endcaps, adding that “both are notorious for possible herbicide contamination.”

With more farmers utilizing federal programs to implement conservation efforts, NRCS’s Jason McAfee discussed a “sometimes-overlooked” federal funding requirement for farmers.

“When you sign the paperwork with the FSA [Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency] to accept federal benefits, you must agree to comply with the HEL/WC [Highly Erodible Land and Wetland Conservation] certifications,” McAfee said. “Most check the box without fully understanding that a written plan is required.”

Stressing that “doing the right things isn’t enough,” McAfee said the farmer must have an NRCS-approved written plan to be in compliance with the federal regulation. Noting that working with the NRCS is voluntary, he offered a reason to have a plan.

“It’s really a sort-of insurance policy for your peace of mind,” explained the resources conservationist. “You have in writing from a federal agency the minimum requirements for your land — because even though your cooperation is voluntary, the fines for being out of compliance are very real.”

The good news, McAfee added, is that NRCS was created to help farmers, and creating a conservation plan with an agency representative is a fairly easy process.

“Give your local NRCS office a call – we’re here to help and happy to do it,” said McAfee, who concluded his seminar with a nod to the keynote address topic, mentioning that NRCS offers a $70-per-acre cover crop incentive.

A familiar face to grain conference-goers, Dr. Aaron Smith, UT Extension grain marketing specialist, led sessions on risk management and market outlooks for corn, wheat, and soybeans.

“I don’t expect commodity prices to change much for this year,” said Smith. “It will be interesting to see if there’s a positive or negative effect for farmers as trade agreements are being changed. Right now, that’s the big unknown.”

Whether the market is up or down, Smith suggested five steps to help farmers effectively manage risk: create a budget, consider crop insurance, evaluate marketing alternatives, monitor market conditions, and evaluate the market weekly and execute necessary changes.

As attendees turned in their exit surveys and headed toward the parking lot, Burns said he hopes this year’s

focus on soil health management provided both a practical and inspiring perspective for farmers.

During the question-and-answer session, Ray Jones made this point: “Of course I’m pleased that taking care of my soil’s health is good for my bottom line. That helps me out, but the benefits go beyond just me to future generations. Because of what I’m doing today, my ground will be better in 20 years, and that’s what is truly important to me.”

For more information on soil health management best practices, consult with the agronomy experts at your local Co-op.

Look for upcoming information on the 13th annual Middle Tennessee Grain Conference, scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018, at Coffee County Fairgrounds in Manchester.

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