We went from farming white sugar sand to farming the heaviest of clay soils when my family moved our farming operation from Florida to Alabama in 1989. To say the move made farming a bit different would be a drastic understatement.
In Florida, we could disc in the morning, get a decent-sized rain in the afternoon and be planting in the field by 5 p.m. In Alabama, the tight clays have earned the title “12 o’clock soils”— before 12:00 it’s too wet to do field work and after 12 it’s too hard and dry.
There are literally brick facilities here using these soils as their base material. When farmed conventionally our soils would form cracks so bottomless you could drop a 6-foot stick down them and it probably ended up in China.
Challenging soils are one of many reasons we practice conservation-based farming, including using no-till and cover crops. When we first arrived in Alabama we were dealing with seriously degraded soils.
- Each 1% of SOM allows soils to hold and release 20-30 pounds of N and 4-½ to 6 pounds of P.
- Radishes in warmer climates can survive the winter. Have a termination plan.
- Reduce cover crop costs by cutting the seeding rate. You’ll still see benefits and possibly use less water for termination chemicals.
There was tremendous compaction, terrible weed pressure and soil fertility was almost nonexistent, thanks partly to the fact the ground had been leased and heavily used for years without many inputs going back. That wasn’t good for our business, nor was it good for the people we needed to feed.
I’m very passionate about food security on the local, national and world levels. I’ve even teamed up with Howard Buffet on initiatives with the goal of feeding our growing world population.
What it all comes down to is that our soils are the foundation we must strengthen to achieve food security. Soils and the environment must be maintained in a way that they can feed us both in the short and long term. We also have to be profitable as a business so we can keep producing food for generations to come.
I farm in partnership with my brother, Mike Dee, and my sons, Seth and Jesse. We farm like we’re going to be here forever. We want our farm to be in the best condition possible so our children and grandchildren can continue to produce food here and feed the world if they choose.
Implementing no-till and cover crops are two of the tools helping us become, and continue to be, sustainable in that goal.
CHECK THE SPECS…
NAME: Annie Dee
FARM: Dee River Ranch
LOCATION: Aliceville, Ala.
YEARS NO-TILLING: 22 years
CROPS: Corn and Soybeans
No-till wasn’t an easy fit for us initially. My father tried it in the early 1990s, but our extreme weed pressure — especially stubborn sicklepod — made it impossible prior to the Roundup Ready (RR) technology. Once RR soybeans came available we made the shift. We now use Roundup and a variety of other herbicides to effectively control our problem weeds and successfully no-till.
Weeds weren’t our only challenge, though. Due to the extreme nature of our soils, we have some extra prep work to do in the fields prior to no-tilling.
We use a hipper to build raised beds where we then no-till the crop. We use RTK guidance to plant right in the middle of the raised bed. If we plant into a flat field, the heavy soils allow rainwater to pool, drowning out crops. By creating raised beds, water from large rain events collects in the valleys between the rows instead of flooding out the plants.
While conventional farmers rebuild the beds every year, we’ve figured out we can make them once and continue using them for years without bringing out the hipper again.
The 16-row hipper is 40 feet wide and makes 30-inch rows, which matches our planting and harvest equipment. Using controlled traffic, RTK guidance and no-till we’re able to keep farming the beds for 15 years or more in some cases.
To maintain the beds, it’s critical to stay out of the fields when it’s too wet. Occasionally we’re forced to go in at harvest or something when conditions aren’t quite perfect and then we’re forced to re-bed the field.
COVER COMMITTED. Every acre on Annie Dee’s farm gets a cover crop every year if possible. Starting with wheat, the family has experimented with up to 7-way mixes before settling on 4- to 5-way mixes. In cutting seeding rates they still get excellent cover and benefits without producing an excess of biomass that can cause trouble at burndown and planting.
When we do have to re-bed a field we’ve found cover crops can ease the soils through the disruption. We’re not completely tilling the field, just pulling a little dirt from the valley and throwing it on top of the beds to build them back up and reset any that have shifted. This helps retain the soil structure we’ve built, but we also want to secure the soil we’re disturbing.
This year we needed to reset some beds so we tried a new tact. After corn was harvested we spread a cover-crop cocktail with our fertilizer application. We then bedded the field and used a flail mower to pulverize the standing corn stalks, leaving the residue on top of the seeds to help retain moisture and improve germination.
It seemed to work well as that cover crop was up and growing this fall. It’s just the latest in years of experimenting with cover crops on the farm.
As I mentioned, our soils were in poor shape when we took over their management. Soil testing showed some fields had soil organic matter (SOM) of less than 1.5%. That may be low for some areas, but it’s essentially zero here.
To put it in perspective our SOM now can be as high as 7.5%. That change adds up to a lot of benefit for our farm and has been achieved through years of no-till and cover crop use.
As you increase SOM, you also increase the soil’s cation exchange capacity (CEC), or its ability to hold nutrients. Each 1% of SOM allows the soils to hold and release an additional 20-30 pounds of nitrogen (N) and 4.5-6 pounds of phosphorus (P).
Increasing SOM from 1% to 3% doubles the soil’s water-holding capacity. On the fields we’ve moved from 1.5% to 7.5%, that’s 120-180 more pounds N, up to 36 pounds more P and a lot more water retained.
These results have proven out time and again. Our soil-testing program has shown we’ve needed to add less fertilizer over the last 5-8 years to maintain soil levels all while pulling off bigger and bigger crops. There’s also evidence the cover crops can impact the chemical interactions in our soils.
Millenia ago, our farm was under an ocean. We find fossilized shark teeth in our fields. Where there was ocean we have lime rock outcroppings causing soils in some of our fields to have pH levels of 7.5 up to 8.2. That’s incredibly high. We also have parts of our farm where lime applications are necessary.
RESTORING LIFE. Soils that were once severely degraded are now thriving and filled with life thanks to no-till practices and covers keeping live roots in the soil year round. From microorganisms to monster earthworms like this one, life is abundant. Soil organic matter has increased from 1.5% to 7% in some cases and soil tilth has drastically improved.
One year we had to re-bed half of a high-pH field. We put cover crops on the half we re-bedded but not on the other half. Where there were cover crops the soybeans yielded 20 bushels higher where there wasn’t a cover crop.
Our high pH and compaction-prone soils make our soybeans vulnerable to iron chlorosis. We think the cover crop and the soil life they support interacted with the soil chemistry to negate the iron deficiency, resulting in the higher yields.
Wheat was the first cover crop we used. We wanted to keep a living root in the soil and build soil structure, and it was a crop that fit easily into our rotation.
Eventually it was suggested to us that we should try cereal rye, since the roots would reach deeper than wheat. We had been planting it behind soybeans and learned we shouldn’t as it could act as a bridge for insects and disease that can impact the subsequent corn crop.
We avoid creating that bridge now by planting a cover-crop cocktail ahead of corn instead a monoculture.
I have the privilege of serving on the United Soybean Board, which has given me the opportunity to meet with some great farmers and talk about what they’ve done on their farm, what’s worked and what hasn’t. One of my friends on the board mentioned they used cover-crop mixes and that we should give it a try.
We’ve tried a variety of combinations with up to 7 different species in the mix, but now we’re down to just 4 or 5 and those change depending on the price and what we’ve learned from growing them in the past.
Every year it’s a little different. In 2018 we used turnip, radishes, Austrian winter pea, black oat and an early-maturing clover developed at Auburn University.
Though we were told radishes would die over winter, one of our early lessons was that radishes can survive most winters on our farm. If left to grow they can hold too much water and really make a mess in the spring. Now we know we must terminate our cover crops.
Up until this year we would fly our cover crop seed onto the standing crop right before harvest. In corn we would seed covers the last week of July and start harvesting corn in early August. The corn residue then would be mulched down on the seed.
This fall we had to start harvesting before the plane could seed covers so we cut the corn high, seeded the cover crop and then used a flail mower to shred the corn stubble. By the time we finished harvesting soybeans at the end of September the cover crops were sprouting. It is one of the best cover crop stands we’ve had.
For termination we watch the weather patterns and play it a bit by ear based on our experiences. We prefer to terminate 6 weeks prior to planting. We used to start planting March 1, but for the last 4-5 years it’s been much later, even into April. To account for that we’ve been terminating the cover crop later to avoid having bare soil. In 2018 we didn’t terminate until February.
Another shift we’ve made is to significantly reduce the seeding rate of our cover-crop mixes. Initially we did it for financial reasons. The cost was quite high and when crop prices started to fall it made sense to cut back the rate.
Where we were putting down 50 pounds of seed per acre, we’ve reduced the rate to 15-18 pounds of seed per acre. We’re still getting great coverage, all the benefits of the varying roots and plant diversity, and we’ve found it’s easier to terminate.
When we produced a very thick, very dense cover crop it wasn’t that it would take a lot more chemical to terminate, but it did take a lot more water. If we didn’t use enough water to get good coverage we would have to come back and spray it again.
One aspect of cover crops we have not adopted is using grazing. We do have cattle on our operation, but choose not to graze them on the cover crops.
The grazing period would be during the rainy season. We get 56-60 inches of rain each year and most comes from November to February. They are big rains and the ground stays saturated. If we tried to put cows on the fields we would see significant compaction.
STEADY STREAM. Nitrogen applications are spread out over the growing season to improve availability to the corn plant and decrease risk of loss. The first nitrogen (N) goes down as starter fertilizer with the planter. During the growing season 28% N is knifed in once or twice depending on the weather. On high-producing irrigated acres, two or three more N applications are made through fertigation with pivots.
In fact, we stay completely out of the field during that time. We use an airplane to terminate the cover crops so we don’t rut up our fields with the sprayer and ruin our raised beds.
Our fields don’t seem to be as wet, though, after years of no-till and covers. Earthworm populations have increased as has soil structure, allowing moisture to move more easily into the soil profile. Instead of being brick hard, the soil is almost fluffy. The increased SOM has really made a difference in our soil tilth.
When we purchased our farm we soil tested the entire farm early on and now rotate so each field is soil tested once every 3 years. Soil pH is a wide, swinging variable for us. Some of our soils have pH in the low 4s, while others are up past 8. We lime our low pH soils and manage our nutrient applications based on crop removal and soil tests.
Each year we apply what the crop removed according to yield maps, plus 10% more fertilizer to help build the soil reserve. We want the soil to supply everything the plant needs to achieve the highest yields possible. We can’t control if the sun shines, but we can supply the nutrients and the water the plant needs.
That includes N. We want to make sure the crop has as much as it needs, but we also don’t want any to be wasted or end up where it could cause damage. As a result, N applications are split into multiple applications.
We’ve found it’s essential to put down some N at planting in our area. We have two 40-foot, 16-row John Deere planters on 30-inch centers equipped to apply a 2-by-2-inch starter fertilizer.
For a while we didn’t put down starter because it would slow the planting process. But we’ve found a significant yield lag when we don’t use it. The N needs to be there so the plant can get to it as quickly as possible and get growing.
Throughout the growing season we come back and knife in 28% liquid N once or twice, depending on weather conditions. We then make two or three more N applications through fertigation with our pivots, which allows us to put a higher rate of N on for those acres capable of producing more. We have 3,000 irrigated acres.
We try to be conscious of the environment, which is one reason we put N out in small doses. If there’s a rain event we want to make sure the N is staying put, not leaching into water or other places it’s not supposed to be.
In the future we hope to be applying less N overall in relation to yields. Right now, we apply around 350 units of N. With the products we’re testing, our goal is to be able to cut back our N applications by 25% or improve our yields by 25% while keeping the N rate the same.
To accomplish this feat, the plan is to make the plant provide its own N. We think the next big jump in fertility will be seeds treated with microbials that enable the plant to procure their own N. We’ve worked with several different companies testing products, and one of them is Azotic.
They have a new in-furrow product or seed treatment that allows the plant (any plant) to pull N from the atmosphere instead of the soil. Our fields served as the first commercial trial for the product, N-Fix.
At 100% N levels, the corn seed treated with N-Fix yielded an average 9-bushels-per-acre more (3.5% higher) than the untreated control. This was just a first try and the results were on the lower end of the up-to-21% increase expected, but the results were promising.
If this technology develops, we could apply less N to the benefit of both our bottom line and the environment while still producing top yields.
Protecting the health of our plants is an active job in our warm, often wet environment. Every year we apply a fungicide to our soybeans at the R3 and R5 growth stages.
We don’t wait to see if fungal disease is going to show up because it inevitably does. Fungicides are necessary to keep our soybeans healthy and producing a high-quality, high-yielding crop.
We take a similar stance on corn. We routinely apply a fungicide to our corn at tasseling, just as it’s about to determine yield for the year. The goal is to keep the crop alive, functioning and producing as long as possible.
Every year we have diseases come in: common rust, southern rust, grey leaf spot. It’s best to just plan on applying a fungicide to protect the crop instead of trying to retroactively chase down a problem.
With all the efforts we make to manage excessive water, you would think lack of water would never be an issue for us. But because our rains are very seasonal, our crops can indeed suffer from dry conditions.
CRACKING DOWN. Heavy clay soils used to make planting a timing nightmare. They'd go from too muddy to too dry in the blink of an eye and form huge cracks in the hot summer months. Years of no-till and the addition of cover crops have added tons of organic matter that has helped mellow the soils, making planting a far easier task.
Year after year we would get a good stand of corn growing, fertilize it well, get it all the way to tassel and then the rain would shut off. It actually rains very little during the critical stage of corn development for yield.
In 2011 we built a pond and put in an irrigation pivot so we could water the crops at those critical junctures. That year ended up being a drought. Corn was at $7-$7.80 per bushel.
Where we irrigated we got 136-bushel corn — which wasn’t a bumper crop but was very good considering just outside the pivot we harvested just 18-bushel corn. That pivot paid for ¾ of the investment in the first year.
With that success we decided to hurry up and irrigate as many acres as we could right away. Today we have 3,000 of our 4,000 cropping acres under irrigation.
To implement our irrigation program we built a 110-acre reservoir to collect water during the rainy season. We then redistribute it during the growing season. It’s a very sustainable approach because if we didn’t collect the water it would just go down the creek and end up in the Gulf of Mexico. We’re not depleting any aquifers — we’re just collecting runoff.
We have five Watertronic 150-horsepower pumps that serve water to 18 Zimmatic center pivots. The pumps have variable-frequency drives, making them extremely energy efficient.
Our farm was serving as a showcase for this technology, but we were worried about the cost of having 5 pumps instead of one large pump. With this system, the smaller pumps kick on as needed based on water pressure and flow requirements. It uses far less electricity than one large pump.
Though many of the management decisions we make serve to conserve the land and protect the environment, everything we do boils down to being efficient, effective and profitable.
If we don’t manage to be profitable, we won’t be farming or feeding anyone. We’ll be getting jobs in town. Fortunately, we’ve found conservation and profitability can go hand in hand.
With our no-till system we’ve not only saved money, but we’ve also repaired our soils and set our farm up to be productive for generations to come.