As a farmer, Donny Lassiter says his No. 1 goal is soil health. Lassiter farms in partnership with his brother Mark in Conway, N.C.
The brothers use no-till and strip-till on every acre they farm, using a variety of cover crops. They produce cotton, peanuts, corn, wheat, food grade soybeans and pumpkins in North Carolina and Virginia.
“Cover crops are the visual part of what we do. Cover crops are what you actually get to see when you drive by the field and see how it is working for you,” Lassiter says.
Lassiter was part of a panel discussing cover crops and soil health at the North Carolina Commodities Conference in Durham. Rachel Vann, North Carolina State University Extension soybean specialist, who has done extensive research on cover crops; and Roian Atwood, director of sustainability for Wrangler Jeans in Greensboro joined Lassiter on the panel and also stressed the benefits of cover crops for soil health.
Lassiter explains that variable rate technology is a critical soil health tool that allows him to manage soil pH, fertility and the micronutrients in his soils. In addition to no-till and cover crops, Lassiter says crop rotations are key to soil health.
“Cover crops are just one spoke in the wheel for what we are trying to do,” he says.
From a profitability and sustainability standpoint, Lassiter says the use of cover crops is vital for his farm. However, he says cover crops must make sense economically. Farmers need to take into consideration the costs of planting and managing a cover crop.
“I feel like I’m getting herbicide control out of cover crops. It’s saving me at least one herbicide trip,’ he explains.
In addition, cover crops are beneficial to moisture conservation. “We didn’t need that in a very wet 2018, but in the times you do get that two to three-week dry spell where you can’t get that one inch of rain you need, I feel cover crops give me the one inch of rain when I need it,” Lassiter says.
Vann explains that cover crops help reduce soil erosion and potentially increase soil organic matter, which can increase nutrient supply and water holding capacity. She notes that cover crops are critical for the long-term stability of the soil and having the ground covered by a cover crop is critical in achieving soil health goals.
“Growers in North Carolina, because of their production windows, have more flexibility than growers in other parts of the country to get these cover crops established and managed because they are already used to quite a bit of rotational complexity in their operations,” she explains.
Research in North Carolina and elsewhere shows cover crops are beneficial for weed suppression, soil moisture conservation and nematode suppression. However, Vann says cover crops must be managed for farmers to maximize the benefits.
“You need a lot of cover crop biomass which requires timely planting and high seeding rates which are some of the biggest challenges for our growers,” she says.
As for Wrangler, Atwood says consumers value purchasing blue jeans made from cotton that is produced sustainably. In its marketing efforts, Wrangler stresses that it uses cotton that is grown with soil health practices.
“Wrangler believes our supply chain does not begin with fabric or cotton. It begins with our soils and the land itself. Preserving and enhancing the health of our soil is critical and necessary to the preservation of America’s denim heritage and future generations of people who work the land,” Atwood says.