John Keller can see the Great Smoky Mountains in the background from some of his fields near Maryville, Tenn.
It makes for a scenic view but also sums up many of his challenges growing corn, soybeans, wheat and cereal rye.
Soon after getting his degree in ag engineering from the University of Tennessee, Keller, 72, joined his father on the family farm and tabbed soil erosion as their most troublesome problem.
He grew weary of watching topsoil wash down the sloping fields during storms. Long-term, that had to be fixed.
He remembered hearing Henry Andrews, one of his ag school professors, tell of a talk he’d heard at a weed science meeting about work with no-till in corn. Andrews thought it was interesting enough to talk about the oddball practice in class. It stuck in Keller’s head.
In 1966, after graduating and coming back full-time to the farm, he decided to try no-till and see what happened. He’d never seen it done and knew nothing about Harry Young’s pioneering no-till work in western Kentucky.
Gave it a try
“We rented a pasture renovator, not the best tool, looking back at it, and planted. It made 32 bushels of soybeans an acre the first time we tried it. That was pretty good for this area in 1966,” Keller says.
“After that, we got away from it for a few years because no-till planters hadn’t been developed to the point that they did a good enough job. By 1978, there were good planters available, and that’s when we got into no-till pretty heavily.”
That’s how he has farmed ever since. Some creek bottom fields get subsoiled if they get compacted during a wet harvest or have drainage problems.
“Because our biggest challenge is erosion, it’s important to keep cover on our fields as much as possible and then to do as little tillage as possible. Wheat and cereal rye fit into what we’re doing,” he says.
Keller, who now partners with his son, Sam, also a University of Tennessee ag school graduate, farms quite differently from his friends in the western part of the state. His average field, for example, runs about 20 acres in size.
“It’s hard to get large tracts together here. The land is so variable. It’s hilly and fields are irregularly shaped,” he says.
Blount County, where the Kellers farm, is increasingly urbanized. It neighbors Knox County, where Knoxville and the university are located. Roads are narrow and often heavily traveled.
“We can’t run big equipment because of small fields, but also because we can’t get it up and down the roads. Some of the people on the roads just don’t understand about farmers and why we can’t be going down a curvy road at 60 miles per hour.
“We decided we don’t really need big equipment. Our newest tractor is 25 years old. Our others are even older but they still work,” he says.
For years, the Kellers have gotten by with a 25-foot boom sprayer. They recently upgraded to a 35-foot boom.
A small operation
“We don’t have enough acres to justify a $200,000 spray rig. If we get behind, and sometimes we do, we call the co-op to come help us catch up,” he says.
With 425 acres of row crops, the Kellers run cattle on about 355 additional acres of pasture. He knows that qualifies as a fairly small farm these days to support a couple of families.
“We’re still here after all these years, still in business and I hope we’ll be in business a long time,” he says.
Farming in this area can have advantages. It takes longer for some agronomic problems to get here, for one thing. The Keller fields have not yet seen their first glyphosate resistant pigweed. Two fields do have some resistant marestail, however.
“We’re always in rotation,” he says. “I think that helps reduce all weed problems. We usually are rotating between corn and soybeans. There are pretty good corn herbicides that take care of the problem weeds.”
Prior to planting soybeans in 19-inch rows, the Kellers apply gramoxone or glyphosate, then follow with Verdict as a residual herbicide. After that, they go with First Rate over-the-top. They’ll often make two over-the-top applications.
Cover crop helps control weeds
“Having the wheat or cereal rye cover crop helps control weeds, too. I think getting a good canopy from the soybeans and corn helps, too,” he says.
In corn, they go over the top with Bicep to get breakaway weeds.
“We usually spray right after that first flush of weeds is up, using 20 gallons of liquid N as the carrier. That N and Bicep will just fry the weeds. The corn will look bad, too. It’s best if we don’t go back and look at that field for a week,” he says.
“I think we have our weed problems cleaned up. We’ve always paid a lot of attention to weed control.”
Few disease problems
Their fields develop few disease problems, so they use no fungicides.
The bottom land, with its Sequatchie silt loam soil, can produce good yields.
“We can touch 200 bushel corn in the bottoms,” Keller says. “We shoot for 150 to 175 bushels per acre.”
On upland fields, they fertilize for 125-to-150-bushel corn yields. Soybean yields usually range from 35-to-50 bushels per acre, though some can go as high as 60.
As a bonus of going no-till, Keller developed markets for wheat and rye straw. It is mostly sold at retail for decorative purposes.
About one-fourth of the calves from his mixed-breed herd get sold locally as freezer beef.
“The advantage of having multiple enterprises is that maybe everything won’t go sour at one time,” Keller says. “Row crops have been our biggest money-maker but their prices are in decline right now. But beef is on the rise. When one thing goes down, another thing goes up.”
Keller’s corn gets marketed mostly through the local co-op. The soybeans, however, have to be hauled to Guntersville, Ala., or Gainesville, Ga.
“We hear guys from west Tennessee complain about it taking a half-hour or 45 minutes to get trucks back from the elevator. When we haul beans to Guntersville, it’s 190 miles one-way,” he says.