When Steve Stevens was first approached about converting part of his acreage to a Discovery Farm, he was reluctant. “I said no,” he explained in his farm shop near Tiller, Ark., back in October. They asked him again. “I said no,” he continued. They asked a third time. Again, “No.”
Then, Stevens says, “They asked me again. This time, I said, ‘Hell no!’ I was afraid we’d find something I didn’t want to find. I’d have the EPA on my back — and that really concerned me.”
Arkansas Discovery Farms are privately owned operations on which University of Arkansas researchers conduct water quality trials. Discovery Farms include both crop and livestock and represent the diversity of Arkansas agriculture, according to a University of Arkansas Research and Extension website. The research goal is to determine the effectiveness of water and soil conservation practices on working farms.
Stevens says Debbie Moreland, program administrator with the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts, explained the upside. “She said, ‘Steve you’re the last place the EPA is coming, and if you do have a problem, we’ll help you fix it, because I know you’d want to fix it.’ So, I said, ‘Well, yeah, I agree with that.’ She said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ I said, ‘Alright, we’ll do it.’”
Based on the discoveries and improvements he’s made through that program, plus his long-time commitment to stewardship and his many contributions to the cotton industry, Stevens is the 2019 Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award winner for the Mid-South region.
The winners, one for each region of the Cotton Belt, are nominated and chosen based on their excellence in production and stewardship. They will be recognized at an awards breakfast held in conjunction with the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show at Memphis, Tenn., March 1-2.
CONCERN FOR RUNOFF
Stevens says the Discovery Farm concept originated in the Dakotas, spurred by concern over farm runoff into the Mississippi River contributing to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Nothing had been done on a cotton farm in the Mid-South,” he says, and his place offered a good opportunity. “We live in a watershed that runs into the Mississippi.”
They started with an Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP) application through the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) for funding. Other contributors included Cotton Incorporated, The University of Arkansas Research and Extension, and the Arkansas Farm Bureau. “Even some grain boards put money in,” he says. The University of Arkansas Environmental Science Department “oversees the project and does all the hard work.”
The Discovery Farm program measures water retention from rainfall or irrigation. It also measures the water that leaves the field, along with the nutrient load it carries with it. “Those runoff numbers have been quite useful,” Stevens says. “They are relatively low numbers — less than 5 percent nitrogen and less than 2 percent phosphorus.” He says PHAUCET irrigation and Pipe Planner software programs — designed to improve irrigation efficiency — make a difference.
“Good irrigation efficiency goes a long way to keep fertilizer in the field. Our irrigation efficiency is much better than for a typical farm not using computerized hole selection, most of which averages around 50 percent efficiency. We’re running around 90 percent water use efficiency. and have run a little over 90 percent.”
Stevens says University of Arkansas Extension cotton agronomist Bill Robertson calls that level “a milestone.” The system includes soil moisture sensors installed under the row at 6, 12, and 18 inches.
A cover crop also plays a big role, Stevens says. “No-till with a cover crop is the best way to go.” He plants cereal rye, which is hardy. “We put cereal rye seed out in the fall, when we usually get some rainfall.”
He’s adding a few acres a year. “We started with 50 acres, went to 200, then 400, 600, and 900. I plan to seed 1,200 acres this year.” Earthworms, he says, are the bellwether of soil health. Earthworms came back into the fields very quickly. After the first year, we found earthworms all over the place.”
He’s improving soil health. “We don’t have high organic matter soils, and we have a lot of hot days, so microorganisms eat up organic matter,” Stevens says.
No-till plays a role, too. “Going back to my daddy’s time, I can remember working fields 12 and 14 times before planting. Now, we might make two trips, none in some fields.” Reduced tillage and the cereal rye cover also reduce the amount of underground water a crop uses.
DOUBLING OF YIELDS
“At first, I didn’t think there was much to that,” Stevens says, “but now I’m convinced. On any non-irrigated field, a cereal rye cover is automatic. In some cases, we double yields, just by planting the cover crop.”
He says cover crop fields retain more water than what he refers to as a farmer standard field (stale seedbed). “You could probably take in 3 inches easily with a cover crop, where maybe you’d get an inch or less with farmer standard. In the first year 6-inch and 12-inch moisture probes didn’t show we had irrigated. So, very quickly we started to change the soil structure. I think it’ll only get better with time.
“Bill Robertson has spent a lot of time digging in cotton fields, and he says we’re farming 6 inches of soil with farmer standard and 15 inches of soil with cereal rye cover, which means we’re drawing nutrients and moisture from 15 inches with the cover crop.”
It’s also more economical. “We looked at what it costs to grow an acre of cotton on no-till cover compared to the farmer standard. We consider expenses and yields for each system. We got a 150-pound per acre increase in yield with no-till cover, compared to a farmer standard. We also found a 6-cent cost advantage with no-till cover. We’re growing cotton for 6 cents a pound less than the farmer standard and making more cotton.”
COTTON’S ENVIRONMENTALLY SOUND
He says the system costs less, produces more and is more environmentally friendly. “We can go to retailers and show that cotton is environmentally sound and leaves a small footprint on the earth. That’s becoming more and more important.”
Stevens is trying to increase no-till cover by 10 percent to 15 percent each year. He thinks his success has encouraged neighbors to adopt the practice. “Last year, the seed company sold 6,000 units of cereal rye. So, I think neighbors saw what we’re doing and after they got over the shock of planting in something that was 4 feet high, started doing it themselves.
“I think the next big change in farming will be no-till cover. We’re at 25 percent now and increasing. Bill Robertson says we also get more internal drainage, and the ground dries out quicker with this system. We’re trying to figure out if that will be the case on clay soils. We don’t have an answer yet.”
He says costs to monitor the system may be a factor, but if producers can evaluate moisture retention with a smart phone or a tablet, rather than walking the fields (or being delayed following pesticide applications) to collect data, adoption will be easier.
Improved broadband service in rural areas will be important, he says. “We’re supposed to get a tower about 3 miles from us, and that will help with precision ag. If we don’t have cell service, it doesn’t work well.”
Most of Stevens’ cotton land is in continuous cotton. “We’ve tried corn when prices were good. Cotton just works better.” A field close to the shop has been out of cotton only three times since 1937, he says.
Cover crops make up for no rotation. “The thing is, with a cover crop, you’re getting some of the benefit you would get rotating with beans or something else, because you’re adding organic matter and getting a root system that penetrates differently than cotton does.”
Cover crop termination seems to work better two weeks before planting. “Cotton Incorporated is conducting research now, through state support money, to pin that down.”
He sprays with Roundup two weeks before planting; between planting and emergence, he adds a quart of Gramoxone. “We’ve been able to apply Gramoxone the day after a rain.”
Stevens gives back to the cotton industry. This year, he comes off the Cotton Incorporated Board after serving 14 years. “I really hate it in a way because it was fun being in the middle of all that. I had the
privilege of chairing a Cotton Research Committee the last couple of years, and it’s rewarding to witness the work and effort going into cotton research.”
Stevens credits his son-in-law, Wes Kirkpatrick, 42, for a lot of the hands-on work managing the farm. “Wes has acreage of his own, but we operate as one unit,” Stevens, 69, explains. “The plan is for him to take over when I retire.”
He says Perry Wilson, a “key employee,” has been around the farm since he was in second grade. “His father worked here for 50 years.”
Stevens and his wife, Darlene, have two daughters, Vonda Kirkpatrick and Kim Tallent, and four grandchildren.