Regenerative Ag Brings Old and New Together

Start From the Ground Up

Russell Hedrick is running trials on 60-inch corn rows that provide more space to grow cover crops for his cattle to graze following harvest. (Des Keller)

Russell Hedrick is showing us the corn trial experiment he "hides" in the middle of a field. It is the first week of September at his 1,100-acre farm among the rolling hills, small communities and patchwork farms near Hickory, in west-central North Carolina.

"When you do something out of the norm in a field fronting the road, you become the talk of town," says Hedrick, who brushes his 6-foot, 6-inch frame into corn that towers over him. "So, we started doing some of our experiments and trials in the back or middle of a field."

The experimentation has paid off both personally for Hedrick and financially for his farm. In less than a decade of farming, Hedrick has been named North Carolina Innovative Young Farmer of the Year and has been a frequent guest on soil-health podcasts and a speaker at conferences such as the Southern Cover Crop Conference, No-Till on the Plains and the USDA Soil Health Expo. He's become one of the leading proponents of what is known as regenerative agriculture, the movement that melds old methods with new technology (such as the more involved Haney soil test), while generally eschewing chemicals and tillage. Major tenets of the system recommend employing cover crops and livestock to help build back organic matter and sequester carbon in the soil.

A DIFFERENT LOOK

There is a difference in his fields.

Just past the first few outer rows of corn, the row spacing doubles from 30 to 60 inches, and there is a thick mass of cover crops growing in between. The wider spacing, among other things, allows Hedrick more room to grow cover crops his cattle will graze for weeks following harvest.

The row width isn't the only difference. Much of the corn in this 10-acre field -- heirloom, non-GMO Reid's yellow dent -- is still on the green side. While most corn in this region is either harvested or about to be, Hedrick's crop is two weeks or more away from the combine.

"The neighbors planted at the same time as we did," says Hedrick, motioning to a nearby field. "Their corn is already brown and dead, and ready to be harvested. We'll harvest two weeks behind them but with 75 to 100 bushels per acre more. I'll wait a couple of weeks for 100 bushels."

As it turned out, the yields in that neighboring field were 204 bushels per acre in the 30-inch rows and 198 bushels per acre in Hedrick's 60-inch rows. Still, how can the yields for both row widths be so similar? Doesn't a doubling of the widths cut yields in half?

Not if you plant a lot more corn seed close together in those 60-inch rows. Hedrick closed off every other row on his planter and set the rate for 59,800 seeds per acre. That's not a magic number -- his planter settings don't go any higher. The plant spacing in the 60-inch rows was 2 to 3 inches, while in the more conventional 30-inch-rows, the spacing is 7 to 8 inches at a planting rate of 30,000 seeds per acre.

"My yield per acre was only a few bushels less but with fewer plants overall," Hedrick says. "Keep in mind the county average here for corn yield is 110 bushels per acre."

The financial advantage with the wider rows is the ability to grow more cover crops that provide additional livestock feed. Postharvest on the 10-acre field, Hedrick grazed 10 head of cattle for 15 days that gained an average of 2 pounds per day. Depending on the price of beef, that's an additional $400-per-acre income.

HOME RUN MIX

The cover crops are key. On this particular field, Hedrick planted the previous fall what he refers to as "the home run mix" of cover crops. We see the remnants of cereal rye, triticale, rape, oats, crimson clover, hairy vetch and winter peas.

Home run refers to swinging for the fences yieldwise through a variety of the cover crops' attributes, Hedrick explains. The cover crops also provide feed for livestock.

The cereal grains (cereal rye, triticale and oats) provide excellent weed control, he continues, and oats are particularly valuable at helping build mycorrhizal fungi in the crop's root system. Crimson clover, hairy vetch and winter peas help balance the carbon and nitrogen ratios in the soil -- they break down in intervals and "spoon-feed" nitrogen to the crop at different times.

Hedrick's experimentation at JRH Grain Farms and relative success has put him on a first-name basis with regenerative agriculture leaders. They include former USDA researcher and Understanding Ag founder, Ray Archuleta, USDA Agricultural Research Service soil test innovator, Rick Haney, and North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown, whose 2018 book, "Dirt to Soil: One Family's Journey Into Regenerative Agriculture," is a definitive how-to of the movement.

A key component of regenerative agriculture is the use of livestock as diversification to consume cover crops and crop residue. Hedrick can graze cattle on 10 acres for at least two weeks following harvest. He estimates the equivalent cost to produce or purchase that amount of hay would be $3,200.

The grazing might delay the planting of the "home run mix," but he says feeding them here can put on 2 to 3 pounds per animal per day. "Say at $5 per pound of meat, I'm making $150 per day and $1,500 for the 10 days they graze here," Hedrick says. That money makes it easier to sacrifice a bit of yield with the 60-inch rows.

"I will gladly give up $4 corn for $150 a day for cattle," he says. In this, his fourth year, with the 10-acre farm, organic matter has increased from 1% to more than 3%.

A Year in the Life of a 10-acre Hedrick Field:

The rundown for one field from fall through harvest:

-- The seven-crop "home run mix" is planted Oct. 1 to Nov. 15, depending on weather. The field had been double-cropped with small grains then soybeans.

-- In April, corn is planted into cover crops several feet tall with the use of a Yetter Stalk Devastator, which knocks down and crimps any remaining crops/cover crops. Phosphorus and nitrogen are applied while planting, 50 to 60 units of 32% UAN 2 inches from the furrow.

-- Hedrick injects a water-sugar solution in-furrow with the corn seed. A number of unwanted pests such as aphids, nematodes and earworms can't process complex sugars, and its presence deters them from the field.

-- Immediately following planting, Gramoxone is sprayed (16 ounces per acre) to kill any remaining cover crops. Cover crops are the primary weed control on 90% of his acres. "We might get a wet winter that drowns out the cover crops on a portion of a field, and we may need to spray herbicide then," Hedrick says.

-- Crops are scouted April through June for any weed or pest issues. If any spot-spraying is required, he might use atrazine or Steadfast Q.

-- Crop tissue samples are taken in June. If needed, urea and more sugar solution (pest prevention) will be broadcast.

-- A cover-crop mix of sorghum-sudangrass, pearl millet, cowpeas and buckwheat is planted Aug. 1. These crops will be the main fodder for cattle put onto the field postharvest. The seed is applied at a rate of 50 to 65 pounds per acre at a cost of $28 to $40 per acre. Hedrick experiments with different methods to plant the cover crops and has used a three-point broadcast spreader, a large fertilizer application rig, had the seed flown on with an airplane and has used a drill. His preference is to drill the seed for best emergence.

Putting Carbon Back and Getting Paid:

North Carolina's Russell Hedrick has been working with Indigo Ag for several years helping the company measure and quantify the value of particular cropping practices that sequester carbon in the soil, such as no-till and cover-crop use.

Farmers representing more than 2 million acres have enrolled in the Carbon by Indigo program and are implementing practices in return for payments for the carbon sequestered. Indigo Ag started the program in 2019. This year will be the first for which enrolled producers will receive payments.

Thus far, Hedrick's farm has only served as a locale for Indigo and partners to do research to set markers for the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil by certain practices. Beginning in 2021, he will enroll a newly acquired 28-acre farm for which he will receive carbon-sequestration payments in return for practices such as no-till, cover crops and livestock grazing.

"Industries need vast pools of carbon credits to stay within their requirements by law," Hedrick explains. "I might be able to sequester 100 tons of carbon, while a particular company might need 200,000 tons of carbon credits. Indigo Ag is helping create a market for those companies to buy credits."

In a recent national webinar on the topic, Indigo's vice president of carbon operations, Kari Hernandez, outlined a hypothetical case in which a Midwestern farmer would gradually shift a 1,000-acre farm to no-till with full use of multiple cover crops. Depending on the practices, the carbon market price and the amount of carbon sequestered, the producer could receive anywhere from nearly $17,000 to more than $144,000 over a five-year payout period.

"Even with hundreds of farmers on track to get paid that have enrolled with us, we are on track to need hundreds more," Hernandez says. Indigo Ag began enrolling farmers in its program in 2019. It is one of several businesses trying to create efficiencies and monetize an agricultural carbon market.

In the meantime, Hedrick has been among the producers helping Indigo set markers for the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil by certain practices. The goal of the initiative is to remove massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Companies as varied as JP Morgan Chase and Co., The North Face and New Belgium Brewing Fat Tire have signed up as parties interested in purchasing carbon credits.

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