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Cover crops, cornerstone of production plan

Ron Smith, Editor

February 6, 2020

6 Min Read
Adam Chappell, Cotton Plant, Ark., explains the advantages of a no-till cover crop systems in cotton and soybean production. "It saved the farm," he said at the recent Cotton and Rice Conservation Systems Conference.Ron Smith

"Cover crops saved our farm. We were going broke," says Cotton Plant, Arkansas, farmer Adam Chappell.

Chappell, in two presentations at the recent Cotton and Rice Conservation Systems Conference in Memphis, Tenn., explained how cover crops, no-till production and reduced inputs — including switching to conventional soybeans — improved the return on investment for Chappell Brothers Farms.

"Using cover crops is the cornerstone of the program," Chappell says. The system works in both non-GMO soybeans and GMO cotton. Advantages include reduced weed control costs, reduced fertilizer, fewer irrigation applications, and less cost to control insects. He also cites improved water infiltration, better soil health and lower seed expense.

Chappell says soybean yields have doubled since the 1970s, but production costs have risen so much that those yields will not pencil out at current prices, about $9 a bushel. "We switched to non-GMO soybean varieties to stabilize the economics," he says. "Currently, 90 percent of our soybean acreage is in conventional varieties."

He's still planting GMO cotton. "This is a profitable model for our farm," he adds.

Seed costs

Seed costs make a difference. He says transgenic soybean seed costs range from around $50 to more than $75 per unit. He buys conventional seed for as little as $8 to $12. "That's a huge savings," he says.

Related:Pros and cons with conventional soybeans

Production holds up, too. Chappell says conventional soybeans produce in the mid-60 bushels per acre range, possibly 2 bushels off GMO varieties.

Offsetting that insignificant yield drag, Chappell gets from $1 to $2 a bushel premium for conventional soybeans.

He also saves with seed treatment, which he does himself. "We can add what we want, so I rarely add fungicides but put in a little something for insects. Mostly, I add feed for soil microbiology."

He also saves on cottonseed, but not by switching to conventional. Typical seeding rate has been 40,000 seed per acre, about $102 per acre. He's cut that in half and reduced seed cost to $51 acre. He plans on dropping from 20,000 seeds per acre to 16,000 next year.

"I got almost 100 percent germination with 20,000 seeds," he says. "At $585 a bag, that's a significant saving."

He treats his own cottonseed for about $5 per acre.

Cheaper weed control

He says weed control with soybeans and cotton is cheaper with the cover crop/no-till system.

"Weed control was easy. Nothing comes through that residue mat."

He plants a cover crop mixture of cereal rye, clover and a brassica (turnips or radishes). "I have residue 2 or 3 inches thick," Chappell says. "With that cover I don't get pigweeds. I make minimal herbicide applications."

He says no-till also helps. "We don't bring pigweed seed up." He showed a slide of a newly tilled spot with dozens of pigweed sprouts emerging.

He uses 1 quart of glyphosate just ahead of his cotton planter, follows with gramoxone and adds two applications of glufosinate and Me-Too Lachlor. He occasionally uses Select, depending on the weed spectrum.

"Herbicide expense is $38 per acre plus the cost to run my sprayer," Chappell says.

Plants in green

Chappell plants into green cover but says a green bridge for insect pests has not been an issue. "Early on, we see a buildup of pests, but about a week later we get beneficial insects moving in to take them out. After that, we see a gradual decline of pests and then a balance through the season. Can we get problems from a green bridge? Yes, but probably not if we manage it properly."

Typically, he applies imidacloprid for plant bugs, averaging 1.5 sprays a season. "Imidacloprid is about $3 an acre," he says.

That compares to a state average 2.5 applications for bollworms — mostly diamides at $12 to $18 per acre — and 4.5 for plant bugs — mostly tank mixes with at least two modes of action at $10 to $18 an acre.

Chappell says cover crop root systems play an important role in cost cuts. "More roots mean better access to nutrients. Bigger roots mean better opportunity for rhizobia colonization. Those factors mean less fertilizer and less irrigation."

Chappell says he has not applied phosphorus or potassium since 2016 and does not intend to until necessary. His soil samples show high levels for both elements, but labs continue to recommend adding more. He takes plant analyses to determine need.

"I add micronutrients in-furrow to feed microbiota," he says. "About 90 percent of the fertilizer I add is to feed microbes."

He explains that overfertilization causes problems with insects, diseases, reducing the number of living organisms in the soil, degrading the soil aggregate, decreasing soil pH and deficiency symptoms of some nutrients.

"Healthy beans require fewer inputs," Chappell says. "A lot depends on how well we treat the soil.

Fewer irrigation events

"We also save a lot of money on irrigation," he adds. Increased infiltration rate makes a difference. "We are not losing water to evaporation. The water we catch leaves through the plant by transpiration not evaporation."

Infiltration rate on acreage with cover crops and no-till ranges from 6 inches to 8 inches an hour compared to 0.5 inch to 1 inch per hour on conventional tilled acreage.

He figures he uses "half or fewer irrigation applications than he once did."

Chappell says the cover crop/no-till system is paying in cotton, too. "It works. I've made some of the most profitable cotton I've ever produced with this system."

He says total variable costs on cotton runs about $226 per acre. Plant growth regulator applications are one of his major expenses.

"We net about $580 per acre, before fixed costs and overhead, on 74-cent cotton."

He says his soybean production system provides a $135 per acre advantage over his old program.

New wrinkle

He's adding another wrinkle this year — livestock. He runs cattle on the cover crop and expects $800 per acre in weight gain over the winter. With sheep, the figure could be as high as $3,500, per acre.

"We pull livestock off the cover crop in March and still have a month of growth until planting. Plus, we get the manure and urine from the cattle."

A three-way cover crop mix of clover, oats and radish provide good forage for the livestock.

He likes a mix. "The more diversity the better," he says. "We like to plant cover crops as soon as possible after harvest. We got 7,000 of our 8,000 acres planted in cover crops last fall, running 24/7. We will finish the other thousand.

"We want to get the ground covered and have something green on it all year."

He figures cost to plant a cover crop is $15 to $20 an acre.

Chappell says newcomers to the system should expect a learning curve early on as they change systems.

"But just because it's always been done one way doesn't mean that's the only way to do it," he says. "You have to change your mindset and forget what you 'know' and learn with a clear head."

He recommends producers check with the Natural Resources Conservation Service for funding to offset some costs.

About the Author(s)

Ron Smith

Editor, Farm Progress

Ron Smith has spent more than 30 years covering Sunbelt agriculture. Ron began his career in agricultural journalism as an Experiment Station and Extension editor at Clemson University, where he earned a Masters Degree in English in 1975. He served as associate editor for Southeast Farm Press from 1978 through 1989. In 1990, Smith helped launch Southern Turf Management Magazine and served as editor. He also helped launch two other regional Turf and Landscape publications and launched and edited Florida Grove and Vegetable Management for the Farm Press Group. Within two years of launch, the turf magazines were well-respected, award-winning publications. Ron has received numerous awards for writing and photography in both agriculture and landscape journalism. He is past president of The Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association and was chosen as the first media representative to the University of Georgia College of Agriculture Advisory Board. He was named Communicator of the Year for the Metropolitan Atlanta Agricultural Communicators Association. Smith also worked in public relations, specializing in media relations for agricultural companies. Ron lives with his wife Pat in Denton, Texas. They have two grown children, Stacey and Nick, and two grandsons, Aaron and Hunter.

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