Farm Progress is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Serving: United States
Corn+Soybean Digest

2016 Conservation Legacy Awards: A never-till mindset

Cory Atkins is going beyond protecting his sandy soils to building them with notill and cover crops
<p>Cory Atkins is going beyond protecting his sandy soils to building them with no-till and cover crops.</p>
No-till, cover crops and technology part of the total conservation package for Delaware farmer

Cory Atkins has a “never-till” mindset. The southwest Delaware farmer is 100 percent no-till on all his grain crops, and moving closer to that on his vegetable crops. “My goal is to be all no-till. I haven’t been able to quite get there with crops like watermelons and green beans, but I have recently been successful with lima beans,” says Atkins, the 2016 Conservation Legacy Award winner from the Northeast U.S. region. A no-tiller for about 10 years on his soybeans, corn, winter wheat and grain sorghum, Atkins no-tills about 90 percent of his acres.

 “I've got land I call never till. I will never till it—there’s no structure on those sandy soils when they’re tilled.” Instead, Atkins is improving poor soil structure and boosting organic matter with a combination of no-till and cover crops. “The soil is full of wormholes now, and I can get on my ground a lot earlier in the spring.”

In general, with conventional tillage, the beach-sand soils in his area contain 1% organic matter or less. With cover crops, no-till, crop rotations, and fertilizer, he’s built some of the soils up to 3% organic matter.

Conservation is cornerstone

“In my crop management program I begin by applying cover crops every fall to all my unplanted cropland acres,” Atkins says. “Cover crops and no-till are the core of my conservation program, and to me, conservation is a big part of the total management package on the land I farm.”

Atkins has seen a lot of upside to cover crops and no-till on the 600 acres he farms. “Cover crops and no-till are easy for me because of the cost savings,” Atkins explains. “I save fuel, machinery and hours—those inputs have all been cut with no-till. I couldn't cover this many acres without more help if I farmed conventionally.”

“The cover crops fit right into my management, too. I want something growing on all my land 24/7, 365 days a year,” Atkins says. “That lowers weed pressure from both winter annuals and in-season weeds. The cover crops also take up more nitrogen in the sandy soils, and they offer habitat for some wildlife. Wind erosion—a big thing here on the sandy soils—isn’t an issue any more. That goes for water erosion, too.”

Download the 2016 Conservation Legacy Award stories in .PDF format
This file type includes high resolution graphics and charts when applicable.

Atkins uses a lot of cereal rye and wheat as a cover crop, but he’s also used sunflowers, clover, and radishes. One of his challenges has been to get a strong stand after fall crop harvest. “I'm experimenting with seeding rates and trying to get the cover crop established earlier. I've tried aerial seeding,” Atkins says.

Unusual crop rotation

There is no such thing as a “usual” crop rotation for Atkins. “I rotate crops—I'll seldom have the same crop two years in a row, other than some of my corn and soybeans,” says Atkins.

This past year, Atkins grew 115 acres of soybeans, 80 acres of corn, 150 acres of wheat, 85 acres of grain sorghum, 50 acres of lima beans, 50 acres of green beans, 30 acres of watermelons, 20 acres of barley, 10 acres of rye, and 5 acres of yellow squash. The diverse crops aren’t anything new to Atkins. At age 10, he began helping his dad with a hobby roadside market. “We grew everything from tomatoes and peppers to onions, squash and watermelons—the works,” Atkins says.

By the time he was in high school, he had created Cory’s Produce and was deciding what the family would grow and sell. “That’s when I knew I wanted to be a farmer,” Atkins says. He continued with the roadside market and added wholesale markets through high school and college. After graduating from Delaware Tech with a production agriculture degree, he became more involved in growing grain crops as he expanded his vegetable operation.

Stopped tillage habit

“Being a young, beginning farmer and a college graduate, cash flow was tight. So I worked off the farm for six years beginning in 2008, while I continued to grow my operation,” Atkins says. “In 2014, I came back full time to grow grain and vegetable crops within a 20-mile radius of my shop.”

Download the 2016 Conservation Legacy Award stories in .PDF format
This file type includes high resolution graphics and charts when applicable.

“When we chisel plowed and disked and worked the ground down; we had all that money and time we were spending. We were losing nutrients and had weedy fields. On non-irrigated land you can do all that tillage and still not have a crop,” Atkins says. “I look at conservation on these sandy soils as risk management. With no-till you'll keep the moisture there, and if you don't get a good crop, you’ve got far fewer inputs in the crop in fuel, equipment and trips across the field. With limited time and resources, I learned early on to use no-till.”

Atkins and his dad built chicken houses on their farm near Seaford in 1994, helping continue Sussex County’s reputation as the top county in the country in broiler production.

Poultry manure, along with irrigation, cover crops and no-till, helped boost yields. “Our goal is for a whole-field average of 300 bushels an acre for corn—we've seen 353 bushels in spots.”

Atkins is careful with the manure.  “Our land drains into the Chesapeake Bay, and we’re conscious of any nutrients leaving the land. We want to make use of them, and we know people are watching what we do,” Atkins says.

Roughly a fourth of the land Atkins farms is irrigated. He’s added drops to center pivots to put water closer to the crop, and runs the center pivots at night to save water. He’s also adding more highly efficient drip irrigation that puts both fertilizer and water right next to the crop.

He soil tests all his land every other year. He applies variable-rate nutrients on half his acreage, scouts for pests on all his land, and practices integrated pest management on all acres. He also uses auto boom section control on his sprayer, which he calibrates each year.

“In the big scheme of things we do need wildlife around us. I like to see the turkeys, deer and ducks. I've planted clover in wildlife food plots for wildlife, and our cover crops help wildlife, too,” he says.


Conservation takes time

“I've learned to have patience when it comes to conservation and I don't take no for an answer,” Atkins says. “If it doesn't work I say try again. If it doesn't work the second time, try it once more and figure out why it didn't work.”

To reduce energy costs, Atkins has plans to place solar panels all along the roofs of one poultry building and his shop next year. “That's expensive, but the payment on solar installation will be less than I'd pay on my electricity bill. I should be able to power six chicken houses, two shops, dad's house and six of our irrigation systems with those solar panels,” Atkins says.

He also gets a cheaper energy rate and saves energy by allowing the Delaware Electric Co-op to shut power off during their peak demand. “We have an auto switch to use our generators in the poultry houses when the power is cut off,” he explains.

Download the 2016 Conservation Legacy Award stories in .PDF format
This file type includes high resolution graphics and charts when applicable.

Atkins has buffer strips on some of his land, and would like to add more. He would like to increase the acreage of variable-rate nutrient management. He plans to switch to biodiesel next year to reduce his carbon footprint, and wants to add more surface drip irrigation with soil moisture sensors to his irrigation system.

 “I'd suggest someone who wants to do more conservation work should read a lot, talk to local advisors—make really good use of your crop scouts, chemical salesman and seed people,” Atkins says. “I'd also suggest talking to the NRCS.”

“I've found what's good for the environment is good for me economically,” says Atkins. “Three practices come to mind—the combination of cover crops and no-till; solar energy; and management that takes advantage of variable-rate application.”

“There's been a lot of development around here, especially in the last 10 years,” Atkins says. “People are everywhere, watching what you do. If I can keep the farm green and looking nice, there will be fewer problems with the public.” 

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.