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dfp-ron-smith-cover-crop.jpg Ron Smith
Andy Zarecor stands by a cover crop planted on prevented planting acreage near Yorkville, Tennessee.

Cover crops coverage a top item in 2019

Looking back on key 2019 issues for Mid-South agriculture.

Most Mid-South farmers and other agriculture observers likely will agree that 2019 was a year of extremes — too wet until it got too dry and then too wet again.

Add market fluctuations, the usual weed, insect and disease suspects and a tight profit margin and it was a year that might look better in the rearview mirror.

A quick review of stories covered in 2019 points to some frustrations, but highlights practices farmers and their advisors used to overcome those obstacles.

Cover crops, conservation

Cover crops and other conservation practices garnered a lot of attention.

A January article featured moisture monitors.

“Look underground,” advised Ross Hodges, AquaSpy, Amarillo, Texas, speaking at the 2018 Texas Plant Protection Association’s 30th annual conference in Bryan, Texas. He said moisture probes provide data farmers can use to manage crops in-season. “It works in any cropping system,” he said, even dryland.”

• Another early 2019 piece featured Bill Robertson, University of Arkansas cotton agronomist, talking about his underwear demonstrations. He said if you bury cotton underwear in a field with no-till and a cover crop production system, you’ll find a pair of raggedy drawers when you dig them up in five weeks.

He made the point at the 2019 Cotton Consultants’ Conference during the National Cotton Council’s annual Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans.

• In a February article, Josh Copes, LSU AgCenter, Northeast Research Center, said timing cover crop termination might not be as critical a factor as some would think.

“If you can't terminate cover crops early, don’t panic," he said at the February Louisiana Crop Consultants Association annual conference. “Timing cover crop termination had minimal effect on final crop plant stand, plant height, nematode numbers, or crop yield,” he said.

• In April, Matt Griggs said cover crops made a significant difference for the farm he and his wife Kelly run near Humboldt, Tenn.

“We are big on cover crops,” Griggs said, explaining that the lynchpin of his stewardship efforts is improving soil health, increasing water infiltration and boosting yields.

Later in the year, we found others who have adopted cover crops as a key to sustainable and more efficient production

• In an October feature, Andy Zarecor, Yorkville, Tenn., said cover crops and cattle, rotation, and no-till play important roles in managing weeds, spreading risk and building organic matter.

Spring rains forced Andy and his father, Mack, into prevented planting on some acres, so they turned to cover crops. “We planted Sudan, millet and cowpeas on the prevented planting acres,” Zarecor said. “We hope next year to see some recycled nutrients and organic matter from the cover crop. We get an immediate benefit with weed control.”

He said without a cover, pigweed would take over fallowed acres or force them to employ other control measures — herbicide or tillage.

• Another October article featured Don Norwood and his son, Grant, explaining the measures they take to ensure a sixth generation of Norwoods can farm this piece of Henry County, Tenn., cropland.

Sustainable agriculture makes sense to Don, 72, and to son, Grant, 41, who farm 3,000 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat on a farm that’s been in the family since 1894.

Rotation, cover crops and no-till are the backbone of the conservation program, but catch basins, soil moisture sensors and residue management also play roles.

• In November, we featured another west Tennessee farmer who is committed to conservation.

Jason Luckey, Humboldt, Tenn., said no-till and rotation play crucial roles in his commitment to improving soil on the diversified farm he manages with his brother, Ken, and nephew, Zac.

“I like rotation in combination with no-till,” Jason said. “Cotton leaves so little residue on the soil, so little protection. I like to bring in corn and wheat to build the ground back and add organic matter.”

Rotation and crop mix

Rotation fills multiple roles on Delta farms. In addition to conservation, crop mixes provide alternative weed and pest control options and spread market risks.

• In an April article, University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture Extension economist Chuck Danehower, suggested that west Tennessee and many other Mid-South farmers would take a hard look at cotton and corn, depending on planting conditions, but would likely cut back on soybeans.

Danehower, a farm management specialist in Lauderdale County, now retired, expected some farmers would get back into cotton and a few would plant it for the first time.

“I’ve seen a lot of interest in cotton early on,” he said.

• In June, John Verell III said making yield is the only way to make a profit. Verell is diversified and sets a high yield target bar for corn, soybean and wheat. He usually hits that mark.

His wheat yield goal is the low 90-bushel range. He looks for around 50 bushels per acre on dryland soybeans and mid- to high 60 bushels on irrigated beans. Irrigated corn goal is 300 bushels per acre, and he targets 200 for dryland.

“My five-year average on irrigated corn is 270 bushels,” Verell, said. “Every year something is just a little bit off. My 10-year average on wheat is 95 bushels.”

He typically hits that soybean mark, too.

“We will need it this year,” he said. “With weather problems and the market, it’s been tough to stay positive, but the only way to be profitable is to make high yields.”

• In July we featured a story on a farm that changed directions from grain to trees and cattle.

Ordinarily, Bobby Love would have planted corn and soybeans on his Warren County, Tenn., farm last spring to diversify his cattle and nursery enterprises.

With prices where they were, Love found scant reason to plant them, and since his first cutting of hay “was a little short, I decided to grow some hay. It’s the first year I haven’t planted row crops,” he said.

He planted millet and hopes that will carry his 100-cow commercial beef herd through the winter. “I’m not sure if I will go back to corn and beans or not,” he added.

Cattle and the 45-acre tree nursery operation keep him and his son, Wilson, a Middle Tennessee State University senior, busy enough.

“There is never enough time,” Love said. “We always have something to do.”


Peanuts could offer Delta farmers a promising rotation crop but limited options to process peanuts out of the field as been a limiting acreage.

• We featured a story in December about opportunities for peanuts in the Mid-South.

"Two companies were buying peanuts in Arkansas," said Tommy Jumper, CEO and managing member, Delta Peanut, in Jonesboro. But processing meant hauling to southeast Georgia or west Texas shellers, adding from $80 to $100 a ton in freight.

Delta Peanut offers a solution to that dilemma. A shelling plant now under construction in Jonesboro will process as many as 80,000 tons of peanuts this year with a capacity of 190,000 to 200,000 tons when completed.

"To increase peanut acreage in Arkansas, we had to have a shelling plant," Jumper said.

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