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Mikey Taylor: Cover crops, no-till and measuring runoff

Latest Discovery Farm in Arkansas a joint effort at learning

You can easily see the Mississippi River levee from the latest Discovery Farm in east Arkansas. The Helena bridge is just a mile, or so, up the road from Mike and Mikey Taylor’s operation and Mike Daniels couldn’t be happier.

“The Discovery Farm program was first started in Wisconsin dairy country,” says Daniels, Arkansas Extension water quality management. “We thought it would be good to bring it to Arkansas to help farmers get involved in solutions regarding water quality. The idea is to get farmers to do projects on their farms, not just hear about what the issues are.

“We got with Farm Bureau and, around 2008, a delegation was sent up to Wisconsin and they talked to farmers there. They came back and said the program is something they wanted.”

The program is focused on stewardship, says Daniels. “Are we losing nutrients and sediment from our farms? We want to look at environmental and sustainability aspects.”

All that fits right in with the Taylors’ management style. Unafraid to try new things and gather information, the father-and-son team have long been believers in cover crops, no-till and using the latest technology to better their soils.  

“We’re so happy to be working with the Taylors,” says Daniels. “They’re right next to the Mississippi River and, of course, a major issue is the Gulf of Mexico and hypoxia. How much is agricultural runoff contributing to that?

“Fifteen years ago, Mike started using cover crops and he’s seen some tremendous changes in terms of soil quality, soil health and the amount of water he needs for irrigation.

“So, it is a real opportunity to see what’s happening on an operation that’s been in a long-term cover crop program and reduced tillage. Can we help improve water quality and water-use efficiency through these practices? It’s a great chance to collect good data that we can apply other places. So, we’re learning from the farmers.”

The set-up

Mikey Taylor is as affable a fellow as you’ll encounter but the never-ending spring rains and stop-and-go planting season are wearing thin. As he walks around the farm shop, yet another weather system is bearing down carrying more rain. 

Is he trying anything new this year with cover crops?

“No, we’re not trying any new blends. But we did bump our cover crop acres – we’re probably about 95 percent covered now. We have cover crops on all our land that doesn’t flood in the winter. There are certain spots that go under every year and we avoid those.

“We didn’t run as many head of cattle this year and that’s a good thing. A bunch of our coverage – especially the broadleaves like kale and mustard – died off from the freeze earlier this year.”

With the Discovery Farm, the Taylors are going to check out two things.

First will be a 45-acre field south of Mikey’s house. “It’s a commerce silt loam, no-tilled with (cover crops), with half of it covered in chicken litter.”

There will be a water quality station on opposite sides of the field. “The water discharge will be split to opposite ends and we’ll be able to see what the runoff is with the chicken litter in a no-till situation.

“The set-up is easier on that field, which will be in corn. There are no other fields draining into it so we know where every bit of the water is from.

“We just want to know if you can apply chicken litter in a no-till situation and get the benefits or if there’s a lot of runoff.”

When you do experiments like this “sometimes you can have a good guess what you’ll find.” With this field, though, “I’m really unsure what the end result will be. There just hasn’t been much work looking chicken litter in a no-till environment.”

How easy is it for the Taylors to find litter?

“Luckily, I’ve got a good source, good quality. We send off samples for analysis about every five or 10 loads. We do the application ourselves with a commercial spreader.”

The second project will split a 100-acre field “dead down the center,” says Mikey. “It’ll be planted in soybeans. Water will go one way through the east side and the opposite through the west side. The west side will be 100 percent no-till with cover crops. The other side will be conventionally tilled.”

The Taylors aim on the second field is to find out how much topsoil they’re losing from each system.

“How much good soil are we saving by using cover crops? How much ends up in the ditch?”

Finding answers

To provide answers the Taylors are seeking, Daniels and his crew well positioned.

“We go to real farms and set up edge-of-field monitoring with state-of-the-art equipment,” says Daniels. “That way, we can see if nutrients and sediment are coming off the fields. We work with the farmers. If we find something coming off and they want to change it, we’ll come up with conservation practices and evaluate how they’re working. Cover crops are a good example of that.”

The Discovery Farm program is unique and “brings together farmers, conservation professionals, researchers and Extension people. It’s farmer-led, though. We’ll go out to help but we don’t necessarily make decisions for the farmers.”

Why bring it to Arkansas?

“We had no data on what was coming off farms. Yet, agriculture was always being targeted as a major runoff source. We just wanted to know how big of a concern it was, and is.”

In setting things up, “we looked at the dominant production systems – both livestock and row crops. For example, we had an interested livestock and poultry farmer in northwest Arkansas and we asked what he wanted to look at. He wanted to look at runoff around his production houses. At that time, that’s what EPA was more concerned with.”

The team looked at runoff coming off the poultry houses. “Then, the water went across a filter strip and we looked at the water exiting through a flume by a creek. We saw tremendous reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus and also just in runoff volume.

“We also do this on row-crop farms. What we generally find is we lose about five percent, on average, of the nitrogen applied as fertilizer. About two percent of the phosphorus is lost. Those don’t seem like terrible numbers, actually.”

Daniels and crew only do the monitoring. “But beyond the data, there’s a power of the program we didn’t anticipate: getting the farmers involved. Once they know what’s going on with their farm, they can take ownership of environmental issues. They can look at what can be done differently. They know their capabilities and land better than anyone else and can come up with the best solutions.”

Daniels points to Steve Stevens, a Winchester, Ark., cotton farmer “who wanted to use cover crops. He’s a very effective communicator of what he’s doing. He’s very good about speaking with other farmers, conservation professionals, even regulators about what we’re finding and he’s doing.”

Stevens “still uses stale seedbed, very little tillage, incorporates nitrogen in his cotton. He uses PHAUCET and, on Steve’s farm anyway, the losses of nutrients from irrigation are much smaller than from rainfall.”

Growers are now much less wary of the Discovery Farms approach, says Daniels. “We’ve gone from farmers being afraid of being a part of this – there was a feeling they were being unfairly singled out – to them being educators on this. All the farmers I know are good stewards and want to pass the land on to their families. So, if they have a problem with sediment they can put in cover crops see that problem diminish.”

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