Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Jefferson County Farmers Discover “The Cover”

NRCS RELEASE, GAINESVILLE, FL, May 5, 2014— It had just started raining when Kirk Brock walked into his waist-high field of soybeans on his 1,000-acre farm nine miles northeast of Monticello, Fl. The rain gauge at the edge of the field showed only ¼-inch of water, yet as he watched, the rain was already flowing down the clean, cultivated rows, even though the slope was no more than two percent. Something was going to have to change.

That was 2001, when Brock, a second generation farmer who grows corn, soybeans, peanuts and cotton quit using the disc to plow up his fields and started using a combination of strip- and no-till methods to keep the soil relatively undisturbed when he planted. The next year he planted cover crops so the residue would help keep the rain from running off. He got the erosion under control, but that wasn’t the only benefit. Cover crops reduced pests, helps water get into the soil profile and modulated the soil temperature extremes, which is important in Jefferson County where it rains a lot in short periods with long stretches of hot dry temperatures in between. “No-till is important for keeping nutrients where we need them,” he said.

Changing his approach to farming wasn’t simple. Brock started by contacting the Georgia Conservation Tillage Alliance for information. He worked with USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, applying for cost share funding and getting technical assistance from the local service center. Equipment had to be modified for planting the proper depth and planting the cover crop. Trial and error has determined the proper timing and best cover crops for the climate; the timing for the following cash crop and Florida’s sandy soils is an ongoing experiment. His dad Gene modified an old harrow machine by replacing the discs with rollers that push the cover crop down prior to planting the cash crop. The neighbors call it the “Brock Annihilator.”

Working with the University of Florida extension scientists he has experimented with various combinations of cover crop plants, with and without nutrients and herbicides, year-to-year to determine the optimum benefits in building soil health and increasing his crop volume.

Brock has monitored soil temperature within controlled areas using cover crops showing a cool 85 degrees compared to bare soil areas well over 100 degrees. He said plant growth and microbial growth slow above 95 degrees. Brock primarily uses two varieties of rye grain for cover crops and has tried bitter blue lupine, daikon radishes and sun hemp. He wants to figure out how to best use legumes to increase the nitrogen contribution to the cash crop. “Fuel is only going to go up,” he said.

Now that his farm is completely converted, Brock said he doesn’t miss the four to five weeks a year he used to spend hauling his dirt back up to the fields. “I don’t worry about crop failure or soil erosion,” Brock said. His next big challenge is coordinating the timing of harvesting the cash crop with planting the cover crop. “It keeps it interesting,” he said.

Next door to Brock, seven miles northeast of Monticello, Fulford Farms has adopted the same no-till and cover crop farming on the 2,000 acres where they grow soybeans, cotton, peanuts and grain sorghum. Stephen Fulford is a fourth-generation farmer.  After working in North Carolina as an extension agent, he knew he wanted to convert the farm to no-till farming and using cover crops when he returned home in 2004. Fulford Farms share the same highly erodible soil with the Brocks, and field stability is Fulford’s primary concern. “I didn’t want to chase topsoil downhill anymore,” he said.  By 2006 he converted the farm, and it worked.  After significant rainfall events, Fulford said he had no erosion. What is next?  Along with Brock, he is looking at increasing cover crop diversity to gain more nutrients.  “Everybody puts mulch on their flower garden; we are basically doing the same,” he said.


NRCS provides technical assistance and programs with cost share funding to help agricultural producers get started with cover crops and no-till farming. Learn more about soil health on the website.


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