The dominant soil type on Adam Chappell’s Cotton Plant, Ark., farm is a sandy loam. Chappell is persistent and insistent in trying to make that soil better.
He’s found the main way to do that is the use of cover crops.
“The reason we started in cover crops was we were looking for answers in dealing with pigweed,” says the smart farmer, who’s walking through a 150 acres of cover crop field that will soon be planted in soybeans. “We were getting hammered with pigweeds and spending a ton of money. We were able to control them enough to get crops but it was a steady march backwards.”
The writing on the wall, Chappell “started looking for answers on-line – cultural, tillage practices, anything we hadn’t thought of.”
Chappell ended up finding a video of a farmer in Pennsylvania growing organic pumpkins in standing cereal rye. “What triggered me on the video is the guy was growing pumpkins with no herbicides and they were weed-free. He had cereal rye out there as a mulch to shade out the weeds before they emerged.”
So, in 2010, “we decided to try about 300 acres of cereal rye and planted beans and cotton in it. It ended up cutting our pigweed control costs significantly.” Sure enough, “we were able to control them through shading and that opened things up from there.”
One thing that’s changed since the first cover crop experiment is how high the cereal rye was allowed to grow. “We killed the cover crop earlier than we do now. We didn’t let it get over 12 to 14 inches tall.”
The Chappell farm is much heavier in grains than in the past. “We grow corn and beans in the rotation, although we have some cotton and little rice in our bottom grounds. In 2017, we had 1,000 acres of cotton, about 4,000 acres of beans and 2,000 acres of corn. I just follow the market around.”
Chappell’s adoption of cover crops has been all-in. Now, the goal every fall is to have cover crops on every acre possible. “We’ve gotten 8,000-plus acres planted the last two years.
“Now, we let it get as tall as it can. We plant our crops into it green and kill it after we plant. We also use mixes now instead of single species: multiple grass species, multiple legume species.”
Chappell has found “the bigger the cover crop gets, the more biomass you get and the more diverse the cover crop is the bigger the benefits.” Those benefits include not only knocked herbicide costs back but reduced irrigation needs and led to overall healthier crops and soils.
“This has really evolved into a full system for us. We prioritize cover crops – they’re at the forefront of our thinking every time we make a decision. It doesn’t matter if it’s the herbicide program or planting or whatever. How will this affect our cover crop in the fall?”
Input cost reduction “is absolutely critical for us. That means cover crops aren’t an option for us anymore.”
Is Chappell still looking on-line for new ideas?
“Since 2010, I’ve been in touch with farmers all over the world. It’s been great. We talk to farmers in England, Australia, Canada, all over the Midwest, the South. Through Twitter and going to conferences we’ve really built up a big network of interested folks.
“In my opinion, if you’re going down the cover crop road, you need to seek out a network like that as fast as you can.”
Likeminded farmers and ag-sector workers can act as a buffer against naysayers, he says. “There are a lot of people who will push negatives on you when you’re trying something different.”
Another thing some will see as out of left field: Chappell is in the process of transitioning all his crops to non-GMOs. “That isn’t because we’re anti-GMO. It’s because the seed is cheaper, we can get the same yields and the price we can get for the commodity is bullish. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for the non-GMOs. I’m not scared to go with non-GMOs.”
Fertility is another place Chappell has seen costs come down since using cover crops. “You’re able to reduce inputs over time because you’re controlling problems in a new way. You don’t have to rely on chemistry as much to fix problems.
“Of course, we still have to have some chemistry. We still use some herbicides but not nearly the quantity we once did before getting into this system. The same is true for fertilizer and for water. It changes everything.”
With a view to pursuing new ideas and solutions on the farm, Chappell and a few other Arkansans recently formed the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance (https://www.facebook.com/Arsoilhealth/).
“The alliance started about three years ago. It was kind of a by-chance deal. I was doing my own thing and all the guys were toying with cover crops. We kept running into each other at meetings and were exchanging ideas. It just made sense to group up, compare notes and make quicker advances.
“If I run into a problem, there’s a good chance one of the other guys in the group has already dealt with that.”
Chappell is quick with thanks for Mike Daniels, Arkansas Extension water quality and nutrient management specialist. “He’s been great for the alliance, helped us with some grants and we’re organizing some research projects.”
In Chappell’s mind, the ultimate goal of the alliance “is to be the support group for someone trying to change their situation. This is for guys who are looking to try a soil health system instead of heavy inputs, lots of tillage and the rest.”
To go big into cover crops like Chappell does take a shift in perspective.
“In many farmers’ minds the only way to gain profit is to get bigger yields. But for most guys that means they have to spend more on inputs.
“We look at things from the other side. If we can reduce our input costs and maintain yield levels, we can build in profit without worrying about record yields. We take costs down at the front end instead of struggling for record yields every year. It’s just a different approach.”
Walking a field
If you want to see what’s possible with cover crops, check out the fields where the system has been in place the longest. “There’s a color difference in the soil – it’s darker. It smells different and there are tons of earthworms in it. It has nice structure with little crumbles.
“There’s so much going on. Honestly, there’s a night-and-day difference between tilled soils and soils that have been in our program for three or four years.”
You don’t even have to get out of the truck to see differences. “If we get a big rain there will be water sheeted up on the tilled fields. There won’t be any water standing on the cover crop fields. The water infiltrates and that means we don’t have gullies in our fields anymore.
“During the growing season, our soils stay moist longer. It holds moisture and keeps it from evaporating. Once the cover crop is dead, it acts just like mulch in your flowerbed.”
Currently, “we’re cleaning furrows out. We try to do that now so the cover crops will grow over the soil exposed with the middle buster. We’ve still got to irrigate if necessary so we have to have the furrow. But we want the cover crop to lean over and shade that exposed soil.”
Planting will take place “the same time as everyone else, mostly. We may delay our corn planting a little bit so we can get more biomass from the covers.
“It’s true the soil temperature changes slower because it isn’t exposed to the sunlight.” But the trade-off is cover crop debris “also keeps it cooler in the summer. There aren’t wild temperature swings with the sun beating down on bare soil.”
In the end, says Chappell, “this isn’t as hard as folks assume. You don’t have to have a bunch of new equipment, you just have to figure it out. You can do it.”