The gospel of high yields at all costs has a new apostate. In 2012, Johnny Hunter pumped massive amounts of water onto his crops, but could only watch as extended drought drained yield from his fields. Cost of production demanded 230-250 bu. corn, 70-80 bu. soybeans and 3-bale cotton. When those levels weren’t achieved, particularly with the worst corn harvest of his career, financial trouble followed. He steadied his nerve, pulled the handbrake on his operation, and began a manic search for a soil solution.
Hunter was victim to agriculture’s version of the death of a thousand cuts through endless rounds of $5 treatments. A switch to a no till cover crop system tailored to his Essex, Mo., ground changed his entire management dynamic and provided a booster shot to weed control, irrigation efficiency and overall soil health.
When the last tractor was shut down and harvest dust settled on a dismal 2012, Hunter was frustrated and playing against time. Despite pumping the most water of his career across a high tillage and big input system, another poor year in 2013 would place his operation in dire financial straits.
“One year and all the money I’d made was negated,” he says. “You can farm like that and make a living, but you can’t stub your toe or suffer a hiccup because you’ve spent so much money. It’s a fragile, uneasy spot and a lot of farmers are in it.”
Heavy tillage was the default practice on Hunter’s southeast Missouri operation, peppered with blanket fertilizer across all acres. Almost invariably, at least one treatment of some sort was sprayed weekly – an inordinate amount of money to increase yield.
“I was killing myself with $5 and $7 treatments to bring bushel increases,” Hunter says. “Yes, in some instances that’s exactly what happened, but we just kept bleeding profit.”
He typically doctored 2,450 acres of farmland with the intensive management of a man possessed: increased fertilization rates, tissue sampling, and micronutrient applications were only a portion of an ever growing regimen. The knee-jerk solution to go from red to black? Buy more metal in the form of a 20’ disk ripper and tear ground to shreds to increase water infiltration.
In December, while hunting online for the right machinery, Hunter clicked a tillage radish advertisement. In turn, the radish link led to a series of YouTube cover crop videos. He was hooked and hardly left his house for a week, consuming soil health videos and chasing more cover crop links. The penny dropped and Hunter knew he was on the trail of a turnaround.
In the mix of cover crop videos and literature, a particular name kept surfacing: National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation agronomist Ray Archuleta. Hunter emailed Archuleta on a Saturday night; Archuleta called Hunter on Sunday morning. Hunter’s journey to soil health had begun.
“Johnny was trying to find a better way to survive,” Archuleta recalls. “Cover crops are merely a tool, not the goal. The goal is simple: Copy nature and increase soil function to cut back on input dependency. Understanding what’s going on in the soil system and how to use cover crops is the key.”
“Ray patiently explained how a cover crop system would benefit my overall efficiency,” Hunter says. “Sure, I was scared and felt like I was walking out on a high-dive board, but I was more scared of keeping on with the same practices and going out of business. Another bad year and I was knocked out.”
Hunter’s cover crop scheme is a fluid mix, and he rarely repeats the exact recipe of cereal rye, annual rye, black oats, hairy vetch, crimson clover, red clover, and Austrian winter peas. He doesn’t kill covers early in the year and believes a loose 75% of benefits are derived in spring. Erosion benefits come in winter, but Hunter wants a living root as soil warms. Before corn and soybeans, he terminates covers 48 hours ahead of the planter.
“The last thing I need to do is kill covers in February,” Hunter notes. “I like a healthy balance of good biomass to put carbon in my soil, and having a good place to plant my cash crop.”
Most of Hunter’s farmland is precision graded and divided into 40- to 80-acre fields, with soils ranging from sandy to Sharkey clay gumbo. Cover crops serve as a sponge and can factor heavily in the delicate dance between early planting and rutted up ground. A big April rain on buckshot is stressful and can destroy a planting schedule, but cover crops wick away a significant amount of excess moisture and preserve precious time during early spring.
Termination occurs 48 to 72 hours before planting. When soil temperatures reach close to 60 F at midday, Hunter chemically terminates with Gramoxone (or a combination of Roundup and Sharpen) and may carry the mix with liquid fertilizer. The next day he leaves the field idle as chemicals translocate, and sends in planters with mounted rollers the following day.
“Getting a cover crop terminated and laid flat on the soil surface, and then planted into as quickly as possible provides the best results,” Hunter says. “I want the cover lying flat on the soil surface so it provides benefits fast: weed suppression, moisture retention, and soil health.”
Palmer amaranth loves sunlight, but can’t handle thick layers of cereal rye. Through 2012, resistant Palmer pressure caused Hunter’s herbicide bill to balloon, yet after a single year of cover crops in 2013, the reduction in pigweed was remarkable. When Hunter gets a cover laid down and no tills through the mat, he says the result is the best residual herbicide money can buy. The covers impede germination by crowding out weed seeds and blocking sunlight, but cereal rye and tillage radishes also produce natural allelopathic chemicals to hinder broadleaf weed seed.
Through a no till, cover crop system, Hunter is taking bites out of the herbicide monster. Blanket pre-emerge spraying is no longer a necessity. Contingent on the cover type, a stout layer of biomass won’t even allow pre-emerge chemicals to reach the soil. However, on gar holes, skips, and odd spots, Hunter still applies pre-emerge to avoid weed problem areas. Overall, by eliminating a chain of spray trips, he’s gained substantial herbicide cost savings.
“My goal is to continue dropping weed pressure to get away from weed chopping and high herbicide bills. These are the kind of savings that make us profitable,” Hunter says.
Fertilizer and soil nutrients remain in the soil far better with Hunter’s cover system, with generally clear water leaving the bottom of fields, instead of a mocha slurry. Irrigation was an initial worry for Hunter, but slicing through the mat with a furrow tool carved a clean water path. Most of his acreage is furrow irrigated with polypipe, and the covers slow down water flow to increase irrigation efficiency, according to Hunter. Essentially, it means increased soaking time for crops and more moisture contained by residue.
“No more turning on wells and never turning them off,” Hunter says. “Irrigation is another area to save money.”
During the brutal 2012 drought, producer Peter Rost, New Madrid, Mo., watched corn burn even under irrigation. As he saw soil health benefits blossom on Hunter’s ground, Rost took note and began implementing cover crops in 2014. Hunter and Rost are among a handful of growers using a cover crop system in adjoining Stoddard and New Madrid counties. In 2016, Rost had 50% of his 3,500 acres in cover crops, but plans to boost coverage to 95% in 2017.
“This is not a sprint and I can’t suddenly cut out fertilizer applications and spraying,” Rost says. “However, I’m getting weened off intensive irrigation, heavy nutrients and non-stop spray passes.”
Rost is already seeing returns through a reduction of input costs from a heavy cover mat to choke weeds and thick biomass to increase irrigation infiltration and ensure water doesn’t slide down a hard middle.
“I’m planting a lot of hairy vetch and clover, and I’m looking forward to curbing back my nutrient applications by year four or five,” he says.
The principles of soil health don’t rest on cover crops, Archuleta advocates. His aim isn’t to guide a producer toward cover crops; it’s to understand soil health context and biomimicry. Cover crops are merely a tool to put the soil system in motion and withstand drought, hold more water and cycle nutrients more efficiently. Harvesting corn and soybeans from a field and leaving it bare is a loss for the soil and ultimately a profit loss for the producer through energy and nutrient leaks, Archuleta emphasizes.
He believes the most effective way to make money on a farm is to capture solar energy.
“Is your farm running on ancient sunlight or new sunlight? Ancient sunlight is diesel, gasoline, pesticides, and chemical inputs. New sunlight farmers use cover crops to capture sunlight which pumps carbon into the soil ecosystem which significantly reduces those inputs,” Archuleta says.
And how do the numbers stack up? On average, producers following the soil health system have reaped astounding savings, according to Archuleta.
“I’ve already watched farmers reduce nitrogen needs by 50%, fuel consumption by 75%, and herbicide use by 75%,” he says. “I’ve seen some operations entirely eliminate fungicides and insecticides.”
In farming reality, weather and ruts dictate certain management necessities, but with 75% of his acreage in no till, Hunter’s goal is to continue minimizing tillage.
“I don’t care if you’re in Michigan, Mississippi or Missouri; tillage is detrimental to soil health. In a perfect world, my ground would be in never till. That’s the ideology I chase, but I also understand the nature of the beast.”
And what does Hunter advise other producers considering cover crop implementation? Education, research, and small steps.
“Educate yourself away from fear by looking at a ton of available resources,” he says. “Field days, soil health alliances, and NRCS professionals are waiting. It may sound silly at first, but YouTube is a treasure trove.”
As a third-generation producer, Hunter, 35, jumped to 5,400 acres in 2016: cotton, field corn, popcorn, soybeans, rice and pumpkins. Admittedly, he was once scared to make changes, but profitability and the future of his operation forced his hand: “Lots of people say they want to change, but the reality is otherwise. Everybody wants different results, but few are willing to change their business.”