Matt and Kelly Griggs take pride in conservation practices they have followed for more than a decade on their Crockett County, Tenn., farm.
Conserving and restoring natural resources is engrained in everything they do to produce cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat on the 1,800 acres they farm near Humboldt, Tenn.
That commitment to preserve and restore natural resources, in addition to their commitment to efficient production and giving back to the industry through on-farm trials and demonstrations, earned them the 2020 High Cotton Award for the Mid-South Region. Matt and Kelly will receive the award, sponsored by Farm Press and the Cotton Foundation, at the Memphis, Tenn., Mid-South Farm and Gin Show, Feb. 28.
Sustainability runs deep
Conservation, Matt says, runs through every crop on every acre they farm. “We were sustainable before sustainable was cool,” he says. But sustainability runs deeper than practicing no-till, planting cover crops and following a strict rotation program.
“It’s also about family,” Kelly says. “Cotton harvest has become a family effort. As we expanded cotton acres, we needed more help and since part-time help is hard to find, our children contribute. It takes a family effort to get cotton out of the field as quickly as we can before the next rain.”
Paige, 23, Nate, 18, and Carter, 11, all pitch in to harvest cotton.
“We upgraded to two module builders this year and Paige has been operating the second one,” Kelly says. “She’s been doing that since she was 7 years old, so she’s a pro.”
Nate and Carter come after school to tarp the modules. “Some nights they help with the boll buggy or module builder.
“We enjoy cotton harvest,” Kelly adds. “The kids have been out in the field with us since they were little, and cotton is ‘fun’ for them. Whether it’s smashing it or jumping and playing in the modules, it’s a tradition to have everyone in the fields.”
That family connection plays an important role in the commitment to conservation. The farm has been in the Griggs’ family since 1882. Matt represents the fifth generation to work land that once included a cotton gin.
Conserving and restoring resources
Maintaining and improving the farm for the next generation motivates him. “We work with non-renewable and renewable resources,” he says. Soil and water are renewable. Fuel, machinery, and other inputs are non-renewable.
“Soil is the most important resource we have, the most important resource on the planet,” he says. “Without soil, life ceases to exist.”
He says for centuries farming damaged soil. “We did not have the tools to farm without degrading the soil.”
No-till and minimal-till farming came along 20 or 30 years ago and moved the needle. “No-till helped,” Matt says. “That gave us the technology to farm without plowing the ground, but it was not enough.”
He says no-till maintains but doesn’t restore soil. “We started using no-till 21 years ago. We saw some stabilization but no improvement in soil health. The last tillage we did was in 2006.
“Restoration would not be possible in my lifetime, depending only on no-till. We needed to jumpstart the process. We needed to improve soil and do it quickly.”
He wanted to enhance soil health and yield stability.
“The only way to do that was putting carbon back in the soil with living plants. It is vitally important for us and future generations to conserve and rebuild natural resources.”
He added wheat in 2006 as a cash crop. “We saw soil organic matter increase, but we needed more than no-till and wheat. In 2011, we planted a few acres of cover crop. In 2014, we went to large-scale cover crops. By 2015, we had cover on every acre.”
Organic matter improvement is impressive. “Organic matter was 0.5 to 1% when we started no-till in 1986,” Matt says. “It increased to 1.5% in 2006 when we started growing wheat. Now, my fields average 3% organic matter.”
He said organic matter from no-till “tops out at about 2%.”
Moisture retention also improves. “With each 1% improvement in organic matter, water-holding capacity improves by 1 inch.”
Matt moved from wheat to a mix of grass, legumes and brassica species. “The mix depends on the crop,” he says. “I use a nine-species mix with cotton that includes cereal rye, annual ryegrass, crimson clover, vetch, Austrian pea, lentil, radish, rapeseed and black oats.
“I select each species to serve a specific purpose. Some species will not perform some years, so we plant others to make up the difference.”
Rotation, he says, contributes to maintaining and restoring soil. Typical planting includes 600 acres of cotton, 500 acres of corn, 700 acres of soybeans (300 full season and 400 double-cropped behind wheat) and 400 acres of wheat.
Planting sequence typically includes corn, cotton, wheat and double-crop soybeans, on “about 90% of our acreage. Some 10% of our land is not suitable for wheat. We rotate wheat onto fields every third year, and plant cover crops in fields not in wheat.”
He plants row crops into living cover, assuring good seed-to-soil contact by spraying a burndown (Roundup and citric acid) in 8-inch strips with a hooded sprayer.
He leaves 30-inch strips of live cover and maintains biomass without sacrificing germination. An RTK system assures row accuracy.
Matt says conserving soil and water and restoring soil health are the critical reasons to plant cover crops. “But the first advantage we see is weed control. That happens in year one, especially with Palmer amaranth.”
He says weather last fall hindered cover crop emergence and limited biomass. “As a result, we had a lot of problems with weeds this year. This fall, we’re changing the way we plant cover crops. We will plant a little later, which means we may get less biomass but at least we will get the plants up.”
Excellent 2019 yields
Yields in 2019 have been excellent. Matt says corn at 199 bushels per acre was his best crop ever. “I harvested my first three-bale cotton. And soybeans look fantastic, probably better than 70 bushels per acre.”
In mid-November, Matt added a production update: Full-season soybeans averaged 72 bushels per acre; double-crop beans averaged 46 bushels. Cotton averaged 1,237 pounds per acre. “We had some cotton make more than 1,500 pounds per acre.”
Those are dryland yields. Matt says field size and shapes do not conform to irrigation.
He hopes cover crops eventually will allow him to revamp fertility. “For now, I’m still struggling to bring the nutrient level up to where I want it. Good yields require ample fertility.”
He supplies some nutrients with chicken litter and uses variable rate application to enhance efficiency.
Matt and Kelly say production has improved consistently over the past few years. “Our last bad crop was in 2012,” Matt says. “The yield trend line has been almost straight up since then, increasing every year.”
He attributes some of the progress to “getting better at farming. We also have better varieties. But cover crops and improved soil health are the basis for production gains.”
He adds that farm profitability improved “when I quit farming out of a jug.”
He also acknowledges the contribution of others for the success Griggs Farms has achieved. He says he and Kelly are equal partners in managing the farm. “I could not do it without her.
“And Zach Wilson, a valued employee, is vital to this operation,” he says. “We have excellent support from landlords who trust us to do the right thing for the soil and for them.”
Kelly says it’s a team effort. “Matt and I have worked together full time since 2011, when I quit my part time job to farm full-time. I went from managing and working with more than 100 people, to just one other.”
She says working closely with a spouse brings unique challenges. “We are both stubborn but extremely driven, both raised to have a strong work ethic.”
Dividing chores helps, she says. “We had to figure out who was good at what and divide chores. We realized, too, that both of us could not work 16 to 18 hours a day, raise three kids and keep a house afloat. Time management in a lifestyle where that does not exist became a priority.”
She says having kids do homework on a cotton picker or tractor is not unusual. “When Paige got old enough, she took the boys home and helped cook and get them to bed.
“We make it work,” she adds. “Matt and I had to figure out how to work together and stay sane. It’s not easy to have a day full of breakdowns and things that go wrong and realize the only person you can vent to had the exact same day. We found a way to manage the stress and heartache through communication, laughter and just plain old-fashion love.
“We talk it out and we get mad, but when we walk into our home, we leave it at the door. We are in this crazy farm life together, and we make every day count.”