Adam Chappell grew up as the fourth generation of an Arkansas farm family. But he had no intention of coming back to the farm when he went off to college.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in botany from Arkansas State and a master’s in entomology from the University of Arkansas. But in 2005, the pull of the farm proved irresistible and he returned to take over from his father in partnership with his brother, Seth.
Chappell, from Cotton Plains, Ark., was one of the presenters at this year’s No-till on the Plains Winter Conference. He talked about experiencing the development of Round-Up and the labor-saving miracle it seemed be, as well as the emergence of resistant Palmer amaranth and the nightmare that would become.
“I’ve learned a lot about trying to deal with weed control without chemistry,” he said. “And it hasn’t always been pretty.”
He said there is also a crisis of profit margin today, pointing out that even though there has been a 100% increase in yield of soybeans since 1973, there has been a 400% increase in the cost of inputs. And the price per bushel at the elevator is actually less than it was in 1973.
He said he is also acutely aware of the toll of years of soil degradation.
“This year, we got 80 inches of rain in Arkansas and there were guys who lost their crops to drought,” he said. “That tells you that we are doing something wrong. There are plenty of my neighbors who think I’m crazy and heaven knows what they say in the coffee shop. But I’m just doing what works for me.”
Chappell said that looking at the numbers led him to seek ways to cut input costs, so he turned to no-till and cover crops starting in 2010.
“I am now using half the fuel I did in 2010,” he said. “Less hours on machinery means less repairs. I can farm more acres with less equipment and fewer employees. I can leave the cover crop green to use excess water and provide canopy. Palmer amaranth can’t handle shade, so it doesn’t come up and that lets me save money on herbicides.”
Nutrient cycling from cover crops has enabled him to cut applications of potassium and phosphorus, and he is monitoring nitrogen levels in an effort to lower applications, he said.
Chappell, one of the more entertaining speakers at the conference, described his recent attempts to add livestock and modern technology to his operation in detail that drew repeated rounds of laughter and applause from his audience.
“First of all, I went out and bought this drone at Walmart for around $100. I was taking pictures with it when a hawk came off a post and just smoked that drone. Just knocked it down and killed it,” he said. “So, there’s that.”
Moving on to his livestock effort, Chappell said he’s “no cowboy” and knows next to nothing about livestock. So, he went to a sale barn intending to buy cattle to graze cover crops on his farm.
“Well, there were some problems. I didn’t know what to buy and I kind of hooked up with a guy in a cowboy hat who looked like he knew what he was doing, and I asked what I should bid on. He kept nudging me and saying ‘this lot, this lot’ but they were all selling for $1,000 a head and I didn’t have the budget.
“In the end, this lot of the scrawniest, worst-looking cows you could find came up and the bidding started at $200 a head. That was my price point and I started bidding. My cowboy adviser told me that those cattle were all but dead and might not even survive a week. Well, I bought 45 of them and two didn’t survive a week. But the rest are looking pretty good.”
Chappell’s second problem was getting them home to realize that his fields of cover crops were not fenced — in fact, the only fenced and secure area was a drylot where he would have to buy feed.
“Of course, this was an unanticipated expense I couldn’t afford, but I had a neighbor who had been using gin trash for feed, so I looked into that,” he said. “They told me that it would be enough nutrition, so I went to the sweet potato packing plant and I picked up culled sweet potatoes and added them. Those cows look pretty slick and happy now.”
That said, Chappell has plans to make much better decisions next year, including making sure that he has fenced cover crop paddocks for the cattle to graze — and provide him the manure and urine nutrients that he had anticipated last year.
“My first year in livestock isn’t how it is supposed to work,” he said. “I just didn’t plan very well. You learn from your mistakes.”
He urged attendees at No-till on the Plains to hang tough if they find themselves the object of neighbors’ ridicule.
“In the Plains region, I’m finding that there’s more acceptance of no-till,” he said. “Back home, it’s still a new thing. But I say if I hang in there and it’s working, my neighbors are going to start paying more attention to results. And I have results to point to.”