Sledge Taylor, a farmer in Como, Miss., believes that no-till and cover crops are two key components to protecting the land by adding nutrients back to the soil. During a recent webinar by the Soil Health Institute (SHI), Taylor discussed his experience with going no-till and incorporating cover crops into his farm practices.
Taylor has been farming in North Mississippi on the eastern edge of the Delta as well as in the rolling hills for around 47 years, and he farms on 4,500 acres of row crops, 3,500 of which is dedicated to cotton. In the late 1970s, he started testing different cover crops, and in the early 1990s, he began to plant no-till cotton as well as no-till corn and soybeans. In 2020, 90% of the land he planted was no-till.
"There is a quote that says, 'Despite all of mankind's great scientific achievements and artistic achievements, all the things we have built and the rocket ships we have made, we owe our existence to six inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains,'" Taylor said. "If you think about it, we as farmers are charged with the job of taking care of that six inches of topsoil as well as our water supply."
Soil health challenges
Taylor started experimenting with no-till around 1985 on some of his farmland.
"For years, I thought no-till was the answer for us," he said. "Although I had grown some cover crops as well, I did not initially see their value. In the last few years, I've come to realize the importance of cover crops, and how our farm can achieve a lot of our goals for more water infiltration, using these practices."
Taylor first started implementing more soil health practices on his farmland in the hill region of the state since erosion is more problematic. As he expanded the practices to other fields he farmed in the Delta, he discovered how they were even helping his better soils to be more fruitful.
"As far as soil health challenges in Mississippi, I don’t think our challenges are any greater or different than anywhere else in the Southeast," Taylor said. "I do think we may have more water logging in some areas, but in general, we all deal with some of the same problems. I think our biggest challenge is our mindset.
"I would not tell anyone to go 100% no-till and cover crops your first year, but try a few things out on five, 10, or 15% of your acres. I've seen this in my operation, but sometimes, you see the answer and need a little nudge to get started adopting a new practice.
"Also, remember to explain what you are wanting to do and why to your employees, so everyone is on board. When I first started going no-till and planting cover crops, I didn’t realize I hadn't fully explained the situation to my workers. Remember to talk to your employees about these practices since they may have never done it this way before."
Soil health and good fertility also benefit land that is not irrigated to retain more moisture.
"There is no substitute for irrigation when you need it," he said, "but I can only irrigate about 35% of our acreage, so I've implemented other strategies to mitigate and improve our soil where we cannot irrigate."
Choosing a cover crop
Cover crops not only add nutrients to the soil but also help prevent soil erosion.
"In the hill region, we see a bit more soil erosion than on our other farmland, but soil erosion is also a problem in the Delta," Taylor said. "Undoubtedly if you look after cleaning your tail ditches out every few years, you will see the evidence of soil erosion. We often get big rain events that can create a lot of erosion. No-till and cover crops may not be able to prevent erosion completely in some cases, but they can help."
When it comes to choosing between different cover crops, there are three main types: grasses (e.g. wheat, cereal rye, triticale, barley, oats), legumes (e.g. white clover, Austrian winter peas, hairy vetch), and broadleaf non-legumes (e.g. turnips, tillage radishes).
"I don't think cover crops should be complicated," he said. "We see some blends with 10, 12, or even 14 types of seed. Biodiversity is great, but when getting started, it's best to keep it simple. I think a two- to three-way mix is enough to try out, and then go from there."
There are online programs and data available to see what might work best on individual farms. Taylor likes to do a 50 to 60-pound total mix with about 48 pounds of a cereal or grass cover crop, a couple of pounds of tillage radishes, and the rest in a legume. He gets his cover crop premixed from his seed dealer, so the mix is ready to go when it's time to plant.
"In 2020, we planted about 2,300 acres of cover crops on the farm, so a little more than 50% of our acreage has cover crops," Taylor said. "We flew on about 1,600 acres worth of cover crops, and then we planted about another 700 acres with a grain drill.
"I have had success with flying in cover crop seed in our standing corn before we harvest it. Usually, we do this the first or second week of September, depending on the year. Planting the tillage radishes earlier helps give them a chance to get started and grow to a good size. If planted in October, the tillage radishes most likely will not get quite big enough to survive the winter as well."
Providing ground cover
Later in the fall of 2020 after picking cotton, Taylor and his work crew cut the cotton stalks and planted some cover crops with a grain drill.
"One thing to note, even if you do not plant cover crops, you can still do no-till because there is a little cover on the ground leftover from the previous crop," he said. "This can protect the ground from rain and put some organic matter back into the soil."
On the no-till fields, Taylor says he gets much better water infiltration.
"The root system on top of the ground helps us to be able to get back to work in a no-till field quicker than a tilled field during planting time," Taylor said. "The no-till fields prevent rutting from equipment a bit better than the tilled fields. Occasionally, we'll have to work up the ground from ruts made in the field, but that is a problem everyone deals with at times.
"Another big benefit to these practices includes cutting cost, for example, by not using tractors and equipment as much for things like tillage. Plus, we are increasing our yields. Also, in the last few years, we have had more time to spend with our families during the busy planting season when in previous years we have been busy preparing the ground for planting."