Listen to the Land - 11

Farm Ugly

Robby Bevis uses cover crops to blanket his soil during the winter. They act as a defense against chemical injury and require no tilling. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Benjamin Krain)

Robby Bevis didn't decide to chuck his farm-management plan and get closer to nature on a whim. It took some convincing by friends and finally a commitment to let plants and biology tell him how to manage the crop.

The transformation began back in 2012, when former college friends working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service started telling Bevis about the benefits of cover crops. "They told me about how the biology of the soil worked and how I could make the soil healthy again," Bevis recalled.

He wasn't so sure, although he had already adopted no-till for several years -- primarily to cut costs. Still, Bevis decided to try cover crops on about 900 acres with the help of a government program that paid all the costs.

He noticed two things. First, farming got even uglier, which didn't make much of an impression on Bevis. He said farmers don't like driving the turnrow and not see a pretty row of corn standing from end to end because the cover crop is there. He said they don't like waiting three weeks to see a stand instead of the typical 10 days with no cover crops.

UGLY BENEFITS

On the other hand, tangible benefits were starting to surface. "I saw my irrigation costs going down. I started cutting back on potassium (K) and phosphorus (P) in corn, and went to zero P and K in soybeans. Today, we're starting to cut back on some nitrogen and still turning out 175- to 195-bushel corn. We are running 50- to 55-bushel yields on soybeans."

When all was said and done, ugly won, which sent Bevis down a road of discovery -- and trial and error.

One of the first things that became evident after the transformation was that Bevis spent less time in the tractor seat and more time walking the fields. He scouted fields looking for earthworms and beneficials that were thriving due to healthier soils and fewer pesticide applications.

"We, as farmers, need to spend more time in the fields looking and seeing, and letting the plants tell us what we need to do instead of automatically doing certain things," Bevis pointed out. "Instead of just looking at insect pressure and worm pressure early in the spring, we need to be sweeping (with a net) and trying to find beneficials. If we have a good number, then we're not going to have near as many pest problems."

MORE COVER

Bevis, who farms with his father, Bob, and son Trey, southwest of Lonoke, Arkansas, quickly expanded his use of cover crops to 2,700 acres. Typically, Bevis chemically terminates the cover crop based on its condition and biomass. "It's hard to say when the sweet spot for termination is going to be," he explained. "We had a mild winter in 2016, and the cover crop did well. We began terminating around the end of March.

"In 2017, we had a hard winter and a dry fall, and the cover crop didn't do as well. I had to wait until about mid-April before I started terminating it. At times, I've pushed out my planting date two weeks beyond everybody else's on my first plantings of corn. They told me when I got into this that my cash crop would start revolving around my cover crop. That's turned out to be true."

When it's time to plant soybeans, Bevis' cover crop will be anywhere from waist high to 6 feet tall. He uses a roller/crimper ahead of the planter to flatten the cover. He has found the mechanical action of the roller along with a chemical application do a better job of cover-crop termination than a chemical application alone.

In corn, Bevis said he doesn't roll his cover crop because it typically hasn't gotten enough growth by planting time to give him any problems. "But, it can go from manageable to hard to manage very quickly," he explained.

The planter runs right behind the rolling operation. "I don't use no-till coulters or trash sweeps, but I do have a serrated disk opener," Bevis said. "Once you do cover crops and no-till for several years, your soil becomes more mellow, so it's not hard to plant into."

Cover crops require the presence of farmer footprints in the soil, as well, Bevis stressed. "You have to get out and look a little closer for weeds to make sure your covers are thick enough to suppress weeds. Make sure you don't have any thin spots in the field where you could have some weed escapes."

Bevis' go-to blend for his cover crop going into soybeans is cereal rye, black oats, vetch and some type of brassica. In corn, he'll add more legumes to the mix.

He also has adopted a no-till practice he called "have to till," where he tills only if he has to, for example, if rutting occurs during harvest.

Bevis credited Ray Archuleta, former soil conservationist with the NRCS, for setting him on the right path to soil health. "Ray would say, 'I want to get you to the point where it hurts for you to do tillage.' Today, it hurts me to watch my neighbors do tillage," Bevis said. "I used to love the smell of fresh-tilled dirt until I realized that the smell is the death of your biology."

SPREAD THE WORD

Bevis is returning the favor of Archuleta and others by convincing more farmers to adopt soil-health practices. He is assisting other farmers to ease into the soil-health movement. "My passion is to get more farmers interested in soil health. We have figured out a lot of answers in the alliance. We want to get that information to other farmers wanting to try soil-health practices," he said.

The alliance is a partnership with the University of Arkansas, Arkansas State University and the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts. "We're working on research and getting some trials started so we can have scientific evidence behind what we're doing," Bevis explained.

Soil health is not always about having the best yields, he added. "It's about having the best margins. I would much rather be a profitable 40-bushel soybean farmer than a break-even 60-bushel soybean farmer."

Mother Nature can work for farmers just like it does for natural prairies and forests, Bevis added. "Think about it: Nobody fertilizes Mother Nature. Nobody applies insecticides; nobody irrigates. Now, are there years that there's not as good an acorn crop? Yes. But, if you really look at it, Mother Nature will fix herself if you'll just get out of her way."

(ES/CZ )