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Corn+Soybean Digest

2016 Conservation Legacy Awards: Sustainable, cost-effective system

John Verell on right works alongside his dad Alan and his granddad John Sr on their farms in West Tennessee
<p>John Verell (on right) works alongside his dad, Alan, and his granddad John Sr. on their farms in West Tennessee.</p>
West Tennessee farmer always has something growing

Soil erosion was a never-ending battle when John Verell was a youngster and the family was tilling cotton fields in West Tennessee.

That was before they transitioned about 10 years ago from cotton to corn, wheat and double-cropped soybeans, made no-till a priority and began to use cover crops. “Erosion just isn’t an issue any more,” this year’s Conservation Legacy Award winner for the South Region says. “With something growing in the ground on most of our fields all the time, year round, we’re thinking more about building the soil than just keeping it in place.”

“Younger farmers like me would never go back to plowing the land like the generations before us,” Verell says. “Finding the extra labor and investing in the equipment for that would be tough. What we’re doing is just so much more sustainable and cost-effective.”

John farms about 4,500 acres near Jackson, Tenn., alongside his dad, Alan, and his 91-year-old granddad, John Sr. He watched how quickly technology was changing as a student at Jackson State Community College, where he earned an associate degree in precision agriculture, and later while pursuing an agronomy degree from Murray State University.

“Back then, we analyzed soil samples and used NDVI to pick up different vegetative growth patterns in our fields. We saw the need for variable-rate fertilizing, and started that while I was still in school. We still use it—to this day, Granddad thinks variable-rate fertilizer has increased our yield and added to our bottom line more than any other change we have made in our operation.”

The Verells plant wheat behind all their corn acres, and fly a cover crop onto half the wheat/soybean acres. “What we get from that is nutrient-scavenging plants growing year around on the farm, with something growing all the time on more than 75 percent of our fields,” Verell explains.

Soil has more tilth

For the past five years the Verells have put cover crops on land not being used for a wheat crop. “Residues alone won’t hold the soil in place, so our primary purpose for cover crops is to protect the soil,” he says. But he’s also seen the advantages in fertilizer scavenging, building soil health, and alleviating compaction.

“The switch from cotton, which offered little residue, to these higher residue crops with wheat in the rotation and cover crops that keep something growing in the ground has probably had more impact for conservation and soil-building than anything else we’ve done,” says Verell. Organic matter levels have climbed from 1-1.5% to 2.5-3% in a relatively short time. He’s noticed the soil isn’t as hard now—it has more tilth, with worm holes and better rainwater infiltration. 

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

“We’ve tried different mixes, looking for the best fit for our operation,” Verell says. They’ve used cereal rye, oats, wheat, tillage radish, turnips, Austrian winter peas, and clover. “One of the hardest things so far has been the seeding timing to get the best emergence and the least winter kill in our cover crops,” Verell says.


Automated irrigation, grain drying

“When we switched to grain production 10 years ago, we decided to add irrigation systems to our operation to maximize production on our sandy soils,” Verell says. “One of the challenges with water management is with the timing for irrigation. We have been using soil moisture sensors for several years, and are getting a better understanding of how to read the data. We think automated watering in the future will get watering down to a science instead of a guessing game.”

Verell has moved towards that by investing in four weather stations he’s scattered around the farm. “I get the rainfall and soil moisture information from them on my iPhone or iPad or office computer so I know the conditions without driving to the field,” Verell says. “We can monitor the wind for chemical applications, for instance. The stations also have soil moisture probes that are becoming a bigger help to us in irrigation timing.”

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

The Verells also have automated timing on their grain bin systems. By automatically sensing when grain needs to be dried and how much, they’ve cut energy usage at the bins by about a third.

They’re saving money on fertilizer and keeping nutrients out of the water with variable rate and split applications. They test soils every three years and apply variable-rate phosphorus and potash according to soil tests. They don’t apply any nitrogen in the fall. “I hate to put any nutrients out there too early—too good a chance of losing them,” Verell says. He applies a base rate of nitrogen right in front of the planter, then knifes in 32% to sidedress corn at the V5 to V6 range. At tasseling, he flies on urea.


Food plots, pollinator habitat

“We’ve got deer, ducks, geese and more recently wild turkeys on our farms,” Verell says. “I like to hunt and see them. We’ve got a number of wildlife food plots on the farm, where we’ve planted sunflowers, and some clover and chuffa fields.”

“We’ve also planted grass buffer strips along streams for wildlife. It makes sense to leave a buffer along the streams—it’s not a big deal and we don’t need to be farming to the water’s edge,” Verell says. Most recently, they planted about 20 acres to pollinator habitat, working with a new pollinator program offered by the NRCS.

“The NRCS helps us a lot, with both ideas and programs,” Verell says. “What I think I like most about working with them is they give you options to pick from. The pollinator plantings were one of the options for the Conservation Stewardship Program. We’ve read quite a bit about declining pollinator populations, so we’d like to do what we can to help bring them back.”

Persistence pays

Not every conservation practice Verell has tried has worked the first time. “Everything has a learning curve,” Verell says. “Our early weather stations didn’t work quite right, and we’ve had some cover crops that didn’t pan out as well as we’d like.” He says the transition to no-till was over several years, and as planting equipment has been made heavier and improved, no-till has been even more successful.

“We’re not perfect in our operation by any means, but we try to keep up with what’s new and what’s working, and educate ourselves on what best fits our area,” Verell says. “We read a lot; when we were getting into no-till, Dad went to conferences all over the United States to learn more. We have a very good research station near us that’s been helpful, and I’ve been very involved with our local NRCS office in cover crops, soil health and other practices.”

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

The timeline for building a complete conservation system on a farm is variable, depending on the needs and practices chosen, Verell says. “If it’s cover crops, this year will be different than last year because of weather and other variables. So it’s a practice that’s going to take some time for you to be comfortable with on your farm,” Verell says. “But on the technology side, for improved water quality and savings on inputs, you can make major changes right now. You can have an immediate impact with variable-rate fertility programs, auto-steer, sprayer shutoff and other technologies like that.”

Those technologies have been good for the environment and worked economically, Verell says. “Every time you use a piece of equipment like that, you’re realizing savings. That’s true for no-till, too, for sure, in the number of trips and fuel you’re saving,” Verell says. “The same is true with improved irrigation efficiency—it costs us $5 an acre every time we put an inch of water on the field, so if we can know more precisely when water is needed, we can realize some savings.” In the case of cover crops, the economics aren’t as immediate, but Verell is convinced that building soil over time will pay off.

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