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Cover crops helped reddish North Carolina soils resemble “chocolate cake” and reduced fertilizer and herbicide expenses, an innovative conservation farmer told an Illinois agriculture audience Thursday.
“Nitrogen management is critical now … I’m seeing on our farm 46 more pounds (per acre) in organic nitrogen. It will save me $50 an acre in the upcoming growing season,” said Russell Hedrick of JRH Grain Farms, Hickory, North Carolina. Hedrick described his conservation practices during an online Conservation Cropping Seminar organized by the Illinois Natural Resources Conservation Service and Illinois Department of Agriculture.
When Hedrick started farming in the hills an hour north of Charlotte, soil erosion and winter wheat issues were problems in 2012. Neighbors told the first-generation farmer cover crops wouldn’t work, but he harvested 197-bushel corn where yields total 118 bushels in a good year.
“On our farm, we focus on profit not on yield,” Hedrick said. “We’re seeing a higher return with regenerative practices.”
Over 10 cropping seasons, no-till and cover crops created a foundation that built soil organic matter, increased biological activity in the soil and improved soil structure and water infiltration while suppressing weeds. Cover crops “are well worth the (reduced) cost for herbicides alone,” Hedrick said, adding post applications are no longer needed on at least 80% of the fields.
Hedrick seeds a mix of cereal rye, triticale, oats, crimson clover, vetch, rape and winter peas. He plants cash crops into standing green cover crops using a planter and crimper that “plants and rolls (cover crops) in a single pass.” If needed, a sprayer will follow the planter to terminate the cover crop.
Weed control is an additional, cost-saving benefit thanks to a mat of biomass on the surface. That doesn’t mean Hedrick’s fields are weed-free. The farmer said he’d found a 2-foot pigweed growing in a mat of cereal rye, but the weed couldn’t break through the cover crop and turned white.
Along with the soil surface, Hedrick also pays close attention to conditions in the soil profile. He has soil samples as deep as 12 inches tested for fertility to get a better picture of the nutrients available to crops. The farmer illustrated why a more in-depth understanding can be important.
Hedrick said he probably would have been advised his field needed potassium based on test results showing 103 pounds of potassium per acre at a 4-inch depth. However, more tests measured another 57 pounds at a 4- to 8-inch depth and even more was available at an 8- to 12-inch level.
Along with soil and agronomic benefits, Hedrick’s cover crops provide forage for cattle that graze fields soon after harvest. The farmer explained he trades a 4-bushel per acre yield loss for 8,100 pounds of biomass to feed his cows.
To Hedrick, his soils’ resiliency proves the system works — even through a drought. Despite only receiving 4 inches of rain between March and September, his farm averaged a corn yield of 128 bushels per acre.
“It maximizes our resources,” the farmer said of his conservation system.