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NRCS team brings first hand knowledge to the growers

By Staff | Jun 9, 2017

Gary Hammitt, Humboldt County NRCS soil conservationist, plants beans into standing rye recently, on his farm near Lehigh.

By KRISS NELSON

editor@farm-news.com

HUMBOLDT – With intense conservation practices on their own farm, it is safe to say a pair of Humboldt County NRCS employees definitely practice what they preach.

Doug Adams, soil conservation technician, and Gary Hammitt, soil conservationist at the Humboldt County NRCS, both farm outside of their full-time jobs and utilize a variety of conservation tools on their farms including no-till, strip-till and cover crops.

Adams said he is mainly no-till for his soybeans and strip-tills his corn, with some strip-till corn on corn acres.

“I started that back in 2000 and from 2000 to 2002, I transitioned from conventional tillage into a no-till and strip-till operation and I began using cover crops in the fall of 2013,” he said.

As popularity of cover crops and several preventtive planting acres increased in the area that year, Adams thought it would be a good idea he understood what it means to be using cover crops.

“My thought was that cover crops were coming up and something new, and I thought as the technician, I am going to be promoting this to other people,” he said, “so I thought I better try some on my own farm, so I would have better credibility to sell it to the farmers.”

It wasn’t long into using cover crops that Adams began seeing some advantages.

“As soon as I started, and started doing some research, I saw all of the benefits that could come with growing cover crops, and how it can improve your soil health in correlation with my no-till,” he said.

Hammitt said he began strip-tilling in 2005 after taking over the farm when his dad passed away in the fall of 2004.

“I liked it, I liked the time saving factors of that first year,” he said.

And now, for the past five years, he has been completely no-till and has been growing cover crops for two years now, seeing tremendous results.

“I have found some of my dad’s old soil samples and I have gone to soil samples that I have from a couple of years ago,” Hammitt said, “and in 12 years I have doubled the organic matter in the field and that is currently at 6 percent organic matter, and for every 1 percent organic matter, that equals a percentage of rainfall held for in the summer when it’s hot and dry that I will have available.”

He added he finds a lot of savings from a no-till operation and is also looking out for the next generation that is hoping to come home and farm.

“I want to leave the farm in better shape for my kid than when I got it,” he said. “And by the soil benefits that I have so far, with the water infiltration and all of that, then doubling the organic matter in the fields, that is absolutely huge.”

In addition to improved soil health, Hammitt said the savings he has on inputs is also benefiting.

Going no-till

Transitioning from conventional-tillage operations into no-till can take several years, but Adams said they are seeing the use of cover crops helping decrease that time by a few years.

“Cover crops may actually speed up that transition time from being maybe five years, you can get the improved soil structure in maybe three years,” said Adams.

“That’s the hardest thing for farmers,” Hammitt added. “You are totally changing everything. Your soil has to catch up with what you’re trying to do.”

Switching over to a no-till operation definitely takes commitment, according to Adams.

“It’s like a marriage. You have to be committed to it,” he said. “You can’t just dip your toe in to it one year and go back to your conventional farming and then try it again in a year or two. You really need to commit to it in order to see all of the benefits.”

However, both agreed that some of those benefits of a no-till operation can be seen in the same year through reduced hours in the field, reduced fuel usage, less inputs and reduction in wear and tear on equipment.

“There’s a huge savings right there just going to no-till,” said Hammitt, adding the only form of fertilizer he has applied to his farm ground the past two years is nitrogen.

“No fertilizer for two years, just nitrogen, and based on what I put in the grain bins, I am happy to share with any farmer that information,” he said. “Farmers do all of this tillage to break up the soil pan/compaction zone that is actually caused by tillage. My roots are growing down.

“Exploring that soil, there are thousands of years of adequate soil fertility below that plow pan layer that roots need to get to. I have not had to worry about that and it’s all there and the rye roots will get down 6 to 7 feet and pull those nutrients up from that depth, the rye dies and now those nutrients are available for the future.”

Cover crops

Then there are added benefits to adding cover crops to those no-till practices, the pair said.

“You protect the soil from eroding,” said Adams. “It’s a more natural type system. If you look at how Mother Nature protects itself, there’s no tillage. It leaves stuff growing in the soil all of the time. So cover crops are somewhat mimicking Mother Nature.”

The future of cover crops, Adams believes, is finding the right mix of diversification in what a producer plants.

“Mother Nature doesn’t just do a monoculture, it’s diverse with lots of different plants in the system and the challenge is how do we fit that in to our cash soybean and corn crop,” he said.

“We are trying to work with Mother Nature to make our environments better and I see all of these other guys trying to control their drainage, control their fertilizer, control their herbicides,” Hammitt said, “and we are told if you have warm season grass and couple it with a cool season grass, trying to match Mother Nature, you’re getting more, using all of the different crops in your system, cover all of the bases with cool season grasses, legumes, all of that in the mix.”

Adams agreed.

“By finding the proper mix of cool and warm season grasses, broadleaves and legumes, you can unlock at lot of things in your soil,” Adams added. “A lot of nutrients in our soil are not plant available. It takes the roots and the micro-biology to break that stuff down and that’s kind of a part of my hope too, is that the cover crop unlocks some of those nutrients that are tied up in our soil.”

Improved soil structure, Adams explained, will be one of the first things a producer will notice after growing cover crops.

“That is something you can see pretty rapidly, even without no-till,” he said. “Some producers trying cover crops are also still using tillage, so in those cases, at least you still have the benefits of having the soil covered in between harvest and planting.”

Soil health aside, Adams said probably one of the biggest advantages to growing cover crops is the weed control.

“I wait patiently, when everyone else is planting soybeans, and I allow my rye to grow another week or two,” he said. “The amount of growth I get here in late May is tremendous, so waiting one to two weeks will give me a lot more reside to lay down on the surface.”

Adams said he typically will roll the rye after it has been terminated with a herbicide, but this year in half of his soybean acres, he has decided to try using just a crimper and rollers to terminate the rye.

This practice, he said, helps to eliminate some herbicide up front and possibly could eliminate the use of herbicide for the entire growing season if he has enough mulch down to suppress weed growth.

In his corn and the rest of his soybeans, he used a herbicide to terminate the rye prior to planting.

Hammitt said he is doing much of the same as Adams this year, by terminating the rye before he planted corn and planting beans in to the standing rye before crimping/rolling the rye.

They both hope to not have to come back with any post emergent herbicides, but said they will continue to scout their fields and will come back with a round of herbicides if need be in order to keep weed pressure low.

Adams and Hammitt agree there is a lot to learn about the practice of using cover crops.

“I would like to know what would the drainage coefficient be of a rye growing crop to compared to tile,” said Adams. “I have some fields that don’t have a lot of tile, so that’s another reason I like to let the rye keep growing, so it will pull some of that moisture out of the ground.”

“I agree with Doug. There are so many things about cover crops that he and I both want to learn,” said Hammitt. “Possibly using oats instead of rye, it might be the use of Hairy Vetch or another nitrogen-producing legume, so I want to learn more about that.”

“We have some good practices like filter strips, saturated buffers and bioreactors, but they are all kind of like a diaper, catching the leaking stuff coming off our fields,” said Adams. “I like the cover crops because it’s recycling. Our nutrients are staying in the field, they’re getting pulled back up and recycled into next year’s corn crop because the reside breaks down and releases those nutrients.”

Yields

When comparing two fields, one with and one without cover crops, Adams said there were no differences in yields.

“I had identical yields, I have gone beyond early termination and letting mine grow longer for some weed control benefits,” he said. “I am happy with my yields and I don’t think cover crops are costing my any. The other part of it is, you may not need all of your bushels because your expenses are a lot less. But I think my bushels are still comparable to a conventional-till farmer’s.”

“Many farmers base their success as yields,” Hammitt added. “And that’s not always the case. It’s what goes in to the bank. There are a lot of cost savings.”

Talking with county NRCS staff is one way to gain the knowledge needed and some assistance is also available to start some more environmentally sound farming practices. Adams also suggested that assistance will help take some of that risk factor away.

“I hope cover crops can speed up that process for new transitioning people because soil structure can improve so much based on getting good cover crops to grow,” said Adams. “Trying to jump into no-till, it’s a big step.

“Gary and I both have a lot of experience and we’re here and available,” Adams added. “I have gone out and helped farmers set their planters in their fields. We’ve gone out and looked at soil health with these guys that are starting with cover crops. I think it helps when we go out there and show them the improvement, when we can go across the fence or in to the traditional farming practice and hold the samples side by side with what they are doing with their cover crops and showing them the change has started. I think that it helps that Gary and I both have the experience here in the office that we’ve used on our own farms.”

“It’s easier to teach by showing than it is by just telling,” Hammitt added.

Adams and Hammitt encourage producers to come in to the NRCS offices and inquire about the programs and assistance that is available, but to also attend field days and try networking with those that have tried it.

“That’s where the real learning comes from,” said Adams. “There’s a learning curve there. Gary and I are here, there are other offices to help and hold people’s hand as they enter in to these new challenges and help them find the answers.”

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