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When first generation farmer Russell Hedrick from Hickory, N.C., took up farming, he couldn’t afford the high horsepower tractors and big tillage equipment he was told he needed in order to be successful.

With some well-timed visits to his local Soil & Water Conservation District to get ideas on dealing with erosion, Hedrick learned about no-till and cover crops and was soon on-board with regenerative ag practices.

For this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies podcast, contributing editor Martha Mintz chats  with Russell about how he has used conservation practices like cover crops and no-till to stop erosion, improve soil function and build soil aggregation by about an inch each year.

He discusses how using the Haney soil health test has helped him save $183 per acre on his best ground, why he does zone testing instead of grid testing, how he picks cover crop species for his farm based on carbon-to-nitrogen ratios, how he calculates nitrogen release and credits from cover crops, and more.

Montag precision metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs.  For establishing cover crops, Montag’s family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer, or on the Montag Manufacturing website.

 
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The Cover Crop Strategies podcast series is brought to you by Montag Manufacturing.

Montag precision metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montag’s family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer, visit www.Montagmfg.com or call Montag at (712) 517-2775.

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Full Transcript

Julia Gerlach:

Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies podcast. I'm Julia Gerlach, Executive Editor.

Julia Gerlach:

Montag precision-metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops Montag's family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems, that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer or on the Montag manufacturing website.

Julia Gerlach:

When first generation farmer Russell Hedrick from Hickory, North Carolina took up farming he couldn't afford the high horsepower tractors and big tillage equipment he was told he needed in order to be successful. With some well-timed visits to his local soil and water conservation district, to get ideas on dealing with erosion, Hedrick learned about no-till and cover crops and was soon on board with regenerative ag practices.

Julia Gerlach:

For this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies podcast, contributing editor, Martha Mintz chats with Russell about how he's used conservation practices, like cover crops and no-till, to stop erosion, improve soil function and build soil aggregation by about an inch each year. He discusses how using the Haney soil health test has helped save him $183 per acre on his best ground.

Julia Gerlach:

Why he does zone testing instead of grid testing. How he picks cover crops species for his farm based on carbon to nitrogen ratios. How he calculates nitrogen releasing credits from cover crops and more.

Martha Mintz:

Today we're visiting with Russell Hedrick of Hickory, North Carolina. Hello Russell. Thanks for joining me.

Russell Hedrick:

Hey, glad to be with you today.

Martha Mintz:

All right, so Russell, you're a first generation farmer, but you've also got a lot of other business ventures going on. You are custom milling, you've got stuff going with seed stores. You're even into bourbon production. I'm sure I missed a lot of stuff. Why don't you just tell me a little bit about yourself and what all you're doing that keeps you busy?

Russell Hedrick:

So we started farming in ... our first crop season was 2012. We'll be coming up on our 10th year now. So, that's kind of exciting. We focus predominantly on grain production for either direct to consumer marketing with grits, corn meal, and flours. Or we actually do make the first bourbon in North Carolina since prohibition. We also make vodkas, whiskeys, moonshine, rum. We do a lot with alcohol production.

Russell Hedrick:

And then we also ... crazy guy named Rich, let him talk me into looking into livestock. And we added cattle, pigs, and sheep to the operation. So we started integrating livestock back in 2014.

Russell Hedrick:

And then I partnered with Dr. Liz Haney at Soil Regen, and we're doing farmer education, consumer education, business education, all on farming practices that are ecologically better. And then we also started Regen Mills, which is a mobile mill. And we can grind and actually sift and package direct for consumer sales or we're working with some fairly large companies that are looking at, volume as far as integrating these different grains and commodity products into their product lines.

Russell Hedrick:

And then we're also partnered with Foothills Distillery. That's where we started with, and we still work with Foothills and Old Nick Williams. And then we actually started up our own distillery this last year called Farmers Reserve Distillery. Anybody who's in production agriculture or supports production agriculture, they can invest in this company. And it gives a way for farmers to market their grain at a higher premium to sell to the distillery. And then also on the back end, have some profit sharing in that distillery as well.

Russell Hedrick:

Then we also have a trucking and grading company. We needed trucks on the farm certain times of the year, but it really didn't justify really having, the amount that we needed. So we started doing custom hauling. We utilize those trucks pretty much year round now in that operation, when the farm doesn't need them.

Russell Hedrick:

We stay fairly busy. Not a lot of sleep.

Martha Mintz:

Well, I was just going to say, you keep saying we, I hope that's a team of like 30 people because you just described quite an impressive amount of things to tackle.

Russell Hedrick:

It's actually not that many people. I think there's about, between me and my partners, I would say there's a total of four people. And then we have quite a few employees on the trucking and grading side.

Russell Hedrick:

But we actually launched Regenerative Verified. Actually No-Till Farmer helped us do our press release with that. And being able to actually take soil samples and have a non-biased opinion on whether ground is regenerative or not ... the amount of people that have reached out and wanted to sign up for either Regenerative Verified, or Regeneratively Grown, the last couple weeks has been pretty amazing.

Martha Mintz:

That's great. So, with all the complexity that you have in your life, you run a very straightforward farm I'm assuming. Just corn and soy beans and nothing else.

Russell Hedrick:

So we do predominantly corn and beans, but we also do quite a bit of small grain production working with malt houses. They could be barley or anywhere from red wheat, white wheat, triticale. We do some specialty types, different grains than you would see in a conventional crop rotation, but they're on a much smaller scale, in acreage versus the whole farm.

Martha Mintz:

Okay. Well, and I was being sarcastic because I know what you do is very complicated on the farm. And I just, I'm still grasping at how you manage to do all this. So talk to me a little bit about, you said you've been farming for 10 years. Did you start out quite conventionally or did you jump right in with cover crops and all of that? Tell me a little bit about your journey from the farm side of things.

Russell Hedrick:

So when we first started looking to go into farming, we went to a local couple farm stores. There were a few farmers in my county I knew that we went and talked to them and everybody said, "Hey, 150 horsepower tractor, a 20 foot disc and a six row planter." And the one positive thing we had is going into farming, we didn't have the capital to purchase all of the tillage equipment. And I wouldn't say that we were full blown, conventional tillage, like our neighbors would've been. But we were, I would say halfway in between.

Russell Hedrick:

We had winter erosion issues. We had winter weed issues that I went to my local soil and water district and ended up meeting a district conservationist. He was a DC at the time named Lee Holcomb and Lee introduced us, really, into what no-till was. What cover crops were.

Russell Hedrick:

And really, we were just looking to satisfy that winter erosion issue and suppressing winter weeds. We had really no idea of the vast number of benefits that we could see from covers when we first started this journey. But 2013, our second year, every acre since then's been cover crop where no-till. And I say, we're no-till. I face the same issues other farmers face. 2018, we had a hundred inches of rain. We rowed it up fields with the combines, the tractors tripping it out. And we had to go in there and do some soil maintenance, and get some stuff leveled up. But we didn't do full scale wide passes across the entire field.

Martha Mintz:

Yeah. And that rain situation hasn't gotten any better. You said when we were chatting earlier today, that it was currently raining and has rained, how much in the last week?

Russell Hedrick:

We've had about eight inches in the last three weeks. Today alone we've had close to two inches. It's pretty wet. And it's really weird. The Eastern part of North Carolina, they are fairly dry, if not moderate drought. And then Western side, we just, we keep picking up these showers and it's making our springtime a little difficult getting on the fields and getting either fertilizer out or lime, or getting ready for planting.

Martha Mintz:

Okay. Are all of your fields covered with a cover crop right now? I guess, what is, what is your [inaudible 00:08:08] look like right now?

Russell Hedrick:

I would say probably 75% of our acres have at least a five to seven way species cover crop on them. The other 25% is either in small grain, or we had a few farms that we were able to pick up in the last, 30, 45 days that we call that the bottom of the barrel ground. It's pretty much starting at ground zero and we're working on getting it into our system. So it's just something we picked up late that we weren't able to have covers on this last fall. I have put cover crops on in the springtime just to get some growth and get a benefit out of it. But with the wet weather we've had it's just not working out yet to get anything established.

Martha Mintz:

When you first started cover crops it was for erosion ... are you in an area where erosion is a significant problem? I guess, describe the landscape there.

Russell Hedrick:

So, Western county ground. So we're pretty much at the foothill of the mountains. Our Western side county ground is very hilly. Very rolling. Goes into river bottoms or, or little flat plateaus. When you start getting a little bit more in the Eastern part of the county and then moving into the county beside of us, it starts getting more towards that flatter Piedmont. It's not quite as steep a slope. So, erosion there isn't, isn't near as bad but just annual rainfall.

Russell Hedrick:

For us to really look at every different acre, the way that we can, it really, even a no-till production system without cover crops will actually lose topsoil. And turbo tills came out and everybody started running those. And a lot of people don't understand it, but soil and water people, NRCS. We're actually classified as a 303(d), which means that there's full sediment from top to bottom in some of our lake systems. Just from the amount of erosion that we're seeing.

Martha Mintz:

Okay. So erosion was your initial goal. So were you able to stop or slow erosion on your farm with cover crops?

Russell Hedrick:

Yeah. I mean, based on our observations and then working with NRCS. They've got a program called Russell too. Based on what we're doing with no-till, with covers, how we're implementing our rotation. They're saying that we're not losing top soil and based on what we've seen with organic matter changes and all of the, I guess you could say the key indicators that we actually look for, we're seeing topsoil actually being built. So we're going the opposite direction of what we were just 10 years ago.

Martha Mintz:

Yeah. So you're not only not losing it, you're improving that soil. So in what ways do you measure how your soil is advancing? Is it just being able to see that it looks better, or in what ways are you quantifying that advance in soil health?

Russell Hedrick:

So we farm predominantly either a clay type soil or a silt loam. Typically bright red or orange in color. We have a higher iron contents here. It almost looks like the color of rust when it's wet. And within two years of us implementing no-till with cover crops and some of the farms that were, I would say truly even the worst degraded ones we've picked up, we had introduced livestock grazing into those. You start seeing the top two inches start to turn a little bit darker. And then by the time you're getting about six or eight inches deep, and you're seeing that color change those top two inches instead of being an orange or a red clay, it literally looks like chocolate cake. I mean, it is a dark brown, almost blackish looking color. And then that color kind of lightens up as you move deeper in the profile.

Russell Hedrick:

And so like visually, that's what we look for. We look for that color change. For that, essentially, that carbon capture and how that's changing the soil structure. We look at soil aggregation. Instead of having layers that are compacted. We start seeing that aggregation. It doesn't matter where you go in the world. I've been to 46 states and nine countries. And typically with no-till, with cover crops and using regenerative practices, we can actually see ... we can go to your farm and dig with a spade. And if that, if that aggregation is about two inches deep, you're typically about two to two and a half years into those practices. We're almost seeing an inch of aggregation every year. And there's some pretty cool people from South America that have been doing this 20, 30 plus years now, and they're seeing that two, three feet deep.

Martha Mintz:

Oh, wow.

Russell Hedrick:

So those are those are visual indicators we look for. And then I got introduced to Dr. Rick Haney and Dr. Liz Haney back in 2015. And we learned about the Haney test. Actually in '13 is the first year we pulled it before we even really understood it. It was through a cost share through NRCS. And we implemented that test over our farm in 25% increments. So about four years in we were utilizing that test on every acre. And Rick has what I call the biological indicators built into that test, which is the CO2 respiration rate, which gives us an eye idea of building our microbial pool and that CO2 release and nutrient mineralization. Then we also, we look at, at that point in time, it was simply WEOC. Water extractable organic carbon. And that was the food source in which we were putting into the soil solution for that biology to be consumed.

Martha Mintz:

Okay. So when you got that testing done and over the progress of four years, what surprised you about that test?

Russell Hedrick:

I don't mean to sound degrading towards our state universities, but what surprised me the most being first generation, I have no bias in agriculture. So we simply look at what is the best return on investment. What is the best return to improving our soil quality and our ecosystems that we affect through farming.

Russell Hedrick:

And we are really being let down by conventional testing, because even if you do a KCL or a nitrate test to see how much nitrogen is in your soil profile, they're only testing for one form. And with Rick's test, we're picking up nitrate, we're picking up ammoniacal, we're picking up about 23 different forms of organic nitrogen that's in that amino acid form that is already plant available, that other tests just don't test for. And I travel a lot with Lance Gunderson and I get to talk with Rick a lot.

Russell Hedrick:

I would say I'm very privileged to have those two guys to be able to speak to. But across 40,000 samples across the U.S., average farmer save 20 to 30 pounds of nitrogen on that test alone that we're not seeing on any other test. And you take a year like this, where nitrogen's a buck-fifty a pound, or a buck-seventy five a pound, depending on your region, you're starting talking about $50, $60 an acre pretty quick. And so, to see that change, I mean, agronomy does not go out the window just because you're doing regenerative practices. It still takes a pound to a pound and a quarter of nitrogen to make a bushel corn. But if I can pick up an additional 40 pounds and scientifically know that it's already there in my soil profile, that's 40 pounds that I can cut back additionally, on the farm.

Russell Hedrick:

It cost about $1.25 an acre for me to run that test. And I just told you, on average, people are saving 40 to 50 this year to give you an idea. I saved $183 an acre on some of our best farms that we have high organic matter and high CO2 respiration rates. Those biological indicators that we look for the test actually showed that we had about 130 pounds of nitrogen in the top foot, in the top 12 inches of soil when we tested it. And that's $183 an acre.

Russell Hedrick:

I mean, you take a thousand acre row crop farmer that has a thousand acres of corn. That's $183,000 in savings this year. For spending about $2,000.

Martha Mintz:

So how are you ... you know, you said you took four years to test your whole farm, initially. This seems like something that would be a moving target. Are you now testing every acre every year? Or how do you test now?

Russell Hedrick:

So, we've done grid sampling with the Haney test. Really if it's ... we test by zones now. We found it to be the most economical. And we actually got as consistent of data as us doing two and a half acre grids. And so we look at a farm, you say you a hundred acre farm, and we have 80 acres of one soil type and 20 acres of another soil type. And we know that there's that difference there based on soil testing and yield. We use a lot of our yield map monitoring. And so we'll test that 80 acres as the one sample and then we'll test the 20 acres as another sample. And that's really the only way that we're differentiating is by soil type or zone management. And that's just as consistent as what we saw on two and a half acre grids. And it dramatically cuts down on the cost of our testing as well, and really does help our bottom line.

Martha Mintz:

But you're doing that test every year ahead of corn or where is it getting tested and how often?

Russell Hedrick:

So when we first started doing this, yeah, we pulled samples every single year. And we do a lot of consulting with other farmers around the country. And I would say the first two, possibly three years. Yeah. You're going to be pulling this sample every year. I'm to the point now I don't have to. I know what my crop coming off is. I know what my fertility management is.

Russell Hedrick:

If we're going to soybeans, I don't have to test in front of that because if I have my back year's data, plus my yield mapping, and we know that our P and our K are within levels. And our pH is where we want it to be. I don't have to apply nitrogen. So we don't Haney test all the time on all of our bean acres.

Russell Hedrick:

Going to corn. Absolutely. All of our corn acres get tested. So, typically in a rotation, corn is in a field every other year or every third year. So we have either a double year rotation or a three year rotation where there'll be corn there. So that's typically when we pull the Haney test on that farm. And you start understanding as a farmer, if you get out in your field while you're pulling this data and having these tests ran that you can actually learn to observe how these functions work within your field without having to do as much testing. And that's what we try to do for us and other farmers as well, that we work with, just to ... if it's something we don't need, then why are we doing it?

Martha Mintz:

Right. So when you're looking at that Haney test on the years that you do take it, or especially before corn, is nitrogen your primary concern? Is nitrogen your only concern?

Russell Hedrick:

Nitrogen would be primary before corn. It's typically the one that we have to ... farmers if you look at their bulk of their fertility, largest amount they're putting on is nitrogen. If it's a farm that it's cycling well, we see high microbial activity and we already have our other nutrients where we want them to be say, phosphorous, potassium, sulfur. It's not something that is as critical as looking at the nitrogen aspect and being able to really cut back. And that really does save us the most money is taking that nitrogen credit and being able to utilize that.

Martha Mintz:

As you advanced in your cover crop system, and were testing along the way with that Haney test, were you able to watch your soil move forward, move ahead in that test with your cover crops?

Russell Hedrick:

Yeah, absolutely. And I'll give you an example. Year one on one of our farms our CO2 respiration was like a 60 or a 70. Our soil health score might have been like a five to seven. Our WEOC, that food source for the biology was fairly low, probably fifties or sixties. And we actually have one farm that we have Haney test every year. I mean, the main one that I speak about when I go to conferences. We tested every single year. We tested multiple depths, and I can show you that like simply no-till and cover crops in one field added CO2 respiration rate may have went up 30 points per year, and WEOC may go up 10 to 15 points per year. And then on that same farm in the same soil type, you may see adding livestock integration.

Russell Hedrick:

Well, your CO2 respiration may go up by 100 or 150. And if we, in another field on that farm, instead of doing a three or five way mix, we do a 7 or 10 way mix cover crop, and you may see it exponentially even better than that.

Russell Hedrick:

So we try to do a lot of research on our farm. We, we do work with quite a few universities and private companies to do testing and management and find out how do we do it the best way, most economical, and what is the best return to the farm and the ground.

Julia Gerlach:

We'll get back to the podcast in a moment, but I want to take time once again, to thank our sponsor. Montag precision-metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs For establishing cover crops Montag's family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer or on the Montag manufacturing website.

Julia Gerlach:

And now back to the podcast,

Martha Mintz:

Why don't you walk me through your rotation, or a year of production. Tell me what you're planting, when you're planting it, and how cover crops and livestock fit into the whole picture.

Russell Hedrick:

So if we want to look at like our two year rotation, which is corn with full season beans, and that's probably the easiest one, it starts to fall before. We'll establish a cover crop. We focus on carbon and nitrogen ratios. What we've seen pretty much down here in the south, anything over a 40 to 1 carbon and nitrogen ratio of the actual cover crop, we'll see nutrient tie up. So you can either terminate the cover crop small, which is not what we want. So we look at balancing it with different species. So we'll do cereal rye with triticale and oats. And then we put in vetch, winter peas and crimson clover. Which helped to balance that ratio out. And then we put at least one brassica in there. It may be a forage collard. It could be a black oilseed rape, which is fairly cheap.

Russell Hedrick:

We started with radishes back in 2012, but we kind of went away from them because they winter kill. And we want to be breaking up that compaction and scavenging nitrogen and sulfur as long as we can with those brassicas.

Russell Hedrick:

So once that cover crop is established in the fall, the next spring, it really depends on weather outlook. Most years we plant maybe a week or two, or three weeks later than most of our neighbors, because we want to get that residue biomass up in numbers, as far as pounds per tons per acre. And then we will come in and we plant everything green. If possible.

Russell Hedrick:

I know that's a big topic among farmers is, "Hey, if you plant green, you get the maximum benefit." The only time that we discourage against that is like, say 2015, we were already in a D2 drought going into planting season. We terminated ahead of time. We had to have at least some soil moisture there to get the crop up and growing. So we did terminate probably about a week or two ahead of planting time.

Russell Hedrick:

Other than that, we're planting into it green and standing. Our planter has a roller on it now, so we don't have to roll ahead of, or behind. We put Yetter Stalk Devastators on our corn planter. So we can, we can crimp and roll and plant all in one pass, which saves us quite a bit of money.

Russell Hedrick:

Corn varieties in our area typically run like 114 day, about 120 day. We shorten those up. We plant about 105 to maybe 115 day corn. So we can harvest a little bit early and get that cover crop established. And we don't see that we're sacrificing yield by doing that as well. So we've changed up our planting varieties as well to kind of narrow up that season window to get a cover crops established timely.

Martha Mintz:

Okay.

Martha Mintz:

So when you're deciding what kind of cover crops to plant or what kind of mix to plant, has the data that you've brought in through your yield monitor, through the Haney test, has that adjusted what you plant or how has your mix evolved?

Russell Hedrick:

Oh, it changes every year. So many times you hear farmers say, "Well, what Russell's doing in North Carolina won't work in North Dakota." They're absolutely right. They should not plant the same mixes, the same rates. You move from North Carolina to Kansas you're probably going to cut your seeding rate at least by half, just because they don't have the same amount of moisture we have. They can't sustain the same number of live seeds. But the principles still apply. Water's just ultimately the limiting factor.

Russell Hedrick:

But as far as changing our mixes, yeah. When we first started and we didn't have a lot of biological activity, we probably only had maybe 20, 25 pounds of small grain in the mix. And as you see biology increase and it starts breaking that residue down, because we want season long coverage, we had to increase our small grains. So instead of 20, 25 pounds, right now we're about 45 to 50 pounds.

Russell Hedrick:

And we had to increase that small grain seed to be able to keep that weed suppression, nutrient cycling, all the different benefits of keeping the ground cooler, especially here in the Southeast, just keeping it shaded out with cover. We do have to make those adjustments. We've done a lot of tests where 30 pounds of cereal rye was really good. And we were like, we were just like every other farmer, Hey, maybe more's better. So we did 60 pounds. And then in the same field, we did 120 pounds. And where we did the 120 pounds of rye in the mix, we actually dinged our corn yield by about 40 to 50 bushels. And that was actually our first year that we started even thinking about that carbon and nitrogen ratio and tying up nutrients.

Russell Hedrick:

You can tie up nutrients with these cover crops, if you don't have the biology there to break them down and you have that carbon and nitrogen ratio in balance.

Martha Mintz:

Can you tell using any of your tests when those nutrients are going to come available or when they would be tied up? How do you dial in when you're going to get those nutrients back from those cover crops?

Russell Hedrick:

So Regen Ag labs runs the total nutrient test for cover crop residue. So we go out each spring and we'll cut ... I mean, Lance doesn't tell you a definite number that you have to do, but like on our farm, we sample a two foot by two foot area. And we'll take that across maybe three or four spots in the field. So we good representation of that cover crop biomass. And you put it in a big old trash bag and ship it to the lab, and they'll take it and they grind it up and they tell us how much carbon's in there, how much nitrogen is in there. So now we can actually tell what our carbon and nitrogen ratio is. They tell us phosphorus, potassium, sulfur. I mean, there's so many different nutrients that come with that test that we can also utilize.

Russell Hedrick:

University of Georgia has the nitrogen calculator. We tell a lot of farmers about it. You can do the same thing I just told you about with Lance's lab, where you send it to them. They don't give you any other nutrient other than nitrogen, but they give you a really nice XY graph where it says this is when the expected release of nitrogen will be. This is how long the release will be. And this is the total number of pounds of nitrogen that'll be released.

Russell Hedrick:

It's kind of like a way for us to kind of double check what Lance's lab is doing with another outside source on nitrogen. And we've seen those correlate the last five, six years to be pretty much within 95 to 100 percent of each other. And so the way we look at nitrogen management, and what's released from cover crop, is we take a 60% credit for nitrogen first year. If we're within that 40 or 50 to 1, and then on phosphorus potassium, we're about 75 to 80%, and farmers just have to learn this is not a silver bullet.

Russell Hedrick:

If your carbon and nitrogen ratio is lower than 40 to 1, you're going to see a faster release and more release. If you go up from 40 to 1 and say, they're at that 60 to 1, they're probably going to cut those numbers down by a third. As far as the release numbers go.

Russell Hedrick:

So, I mean, yes, we do have valid testing on it and we see what that release is. But as farmers, we have to learn how to start doing some of our own agronomy now, too.

Martha Mintz:

So is it, you would take that test and then control the cover crop right then, so you know exactly when those nutrients are going to be released? Because I imagine it changes the more mature the cover crop gets. So I guess I'm looking for the timing on when you would be taking that test and then steps you're taking, how soon after you've taken that test.

Russell Hedrick:

So we pull Haney tests when the ground's at least 55 degrees and getting hotter. Because we want to see that microbial activity. So to give you an idea, probably around March 25th to April the first in North Carolina, we're starting to see spring weather come in, the ground's getting warmed up. We're seeing that biological activity. That's when I go pull my Haney test.

Russell Hedrick:

If I know I'm going to be planting a corn crop, I will pull those biomass samples typically about a week ahead of time from planting. Yeah. We're going to see a little bit of change in that week window, but it's not as critical to be like the day of. And it also gives us a timeframe there to actually get the work done. Because I mean, everybody's so busy in the springtime it's just what's worked out for us.

Russell Hedrick:

And we top dress. That's one thing that we have lower CEC soils. We don't have a lot of nitrogen. We don't front load nitrogen and put 200 pounds up pre-plant. We probably run anywhere from about 50 to 80 pounds of nitrogen out of our corn planter. That's our pretty close to our standard practice. And then we take and look at what the Haney credit is. We take a look at the cover crop credit, and then we adjust our top dress nitrogen based on those credits. Which is not going to be a huge rush for us because we've got about another 45 to 60 days before we're even looking at going over with our top dress nitrogen. So it gives us ample amount of time to make that adjustment and not be in such a rush.

Martha Mintz:

So you've made a lot of changes to your cover crop strategies and how you test them. How has that knowledge allowed you to change either your cropping rotation, or what you grow, or how you grow? I know you raise Non-GMO crops, is that correct?

Russell Hedrick:

Yeah. We're raising Non-GMO crops. Even some of them are extremely old open pollinated corn varieties from the 1800s. I would say our cover crops and our regenerative practices have cut our chemical usage by about 90%. Most of the time now we're a single chemical at burn down. We don't have to post spray a lot of our acres. Insect management. We don't have to spray insecticides and fungicides. And I'm not knocking on that stuff. I've got a whole chemical building that's full of fungicides, insecticides, and chemicals. And if it's the difference between losing a crop or spraying for a pest I'm going to go spray. That's just how we look at it.

Russell Hedrick:

But if we don't need it based on our scouting, and walking fields, and our management strategies, it's just money that we don't have to use. Being able to do the Non-GMO and the specialty crops really has helped with the economics of the farm. Instead of ... grain prices are never going to stay this high that they are right now with all the turmoil going on in the world. Typically, corn's 3.50 a bushel on the board. And we typically get about 7.50 To $10 for straight grain.

Russell Hedrick:

If we're cleaning it and going into a bourbon, or selling it for seed, or grinding it up into grits and corn meal, you're talking anywhere from 100 to $300 a bushel for that crop. And yeah, there's a little bit of more work left into it, but definitely for the return on investment, it's worth our farm. You don't have to do a thousand acres of what we're doing to really see a good net economical return.

Martha Mintz:

Great. So looking at what you've done and what you've achieved, how critical has the testing component of your of your strategy been to making those changes and moving forward in your various businesses? Have they helped guide your decisions? Are they just a nice fail safe, or, or what role does testing and understand what's going on in those cover crops, what's going on in that soil? How has that impacted your decision making process?

Russell Hedrick:

I would say in the first three or four years very critical. As farmers, we continually hear, "Farmers are creatures of habit." And the way farmers have been doing it for a very long time now, it is hard to unlearn some of those bad habits and pick up better ones. So for us to have real non-biased data that we still pull a Mehlich 3 standard university test and still compare that to our Haney test, to this day, for us to even understand what our cost savings are. And for me to spend a little bit of money to get that Mehlich 3 test done at the same time, and to really put a pencil to how much money we're truly saving, it really was critical in those first three or four years.

Russell Hedrick:

And we still do it to this day in our corn crops. We'll still put a full rate of nitrogen out on say a 90 foot spreader pass. And we'll replicate that across the field, say two or three times. And then we look at the yield monitor. Is the Haney test yielding as good as an extra 200 units of nitrogen? But typically we only see that extra 200 units of nitrogen make another say three to five bushels of corn. And even where the corn board's at right now at seven bucks, that still doesn't justify me spending two to $400 an acre more in nitrogen this year to make an extra five bushels.

Russell Hedrick:

And so that's really what we pay attention to is we do check strips on the farm. We really monitor the data. We don't have to do it near as intensively now, just because we've learned how to manage that on our own farm without it. But we still utilize the testing.

Martha Mintz:

There's no blind trust. You want to make sure everything's doing what it's supposed to be doing.

Russell Hedrick:

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, and weather does play a big role in that. If farmers get so relaxed when it comes to soil testing, they think if they get a soil test in April, that means that's exactly what's going to happen during the year. And even with a Haney test ... you know 2015, when we went into the drought, I called down to Rick's lab at ARS probably the 1st of June. And I was like, "Hey man, my residue is not breaking down. We don't have water. It is extremely dry. What should I do?" And Rick's first comment was, "You need to pull another test because you've changed. You know, you're not having a normal year."

Russell Hedrick:

And so we pulled that test and based on our nitrogen reductions on the front end, we actually had to apply about an extra 30 units of nitrogen for the yield goal that we wanted. So it doesn't matter if it's Rick's test or a conventional test. I mean, it can change every single day and it's all dependent on something that we have very little control over as farmers. And that's the weather.

Martha Mintz:

Oh, the weather. Doesn't matter what you're doing, it's always there to test you. So all of this testing might seem intimidating to someone, but if somebody is wanting to get a into cover crops or is already into cover crops, but kind of wants to evaluate like you are, where should they start? What's the first thing they should do,

Russell Hedrick:

Establish your baselines. I wish there's things that I would've known to do in 2012 that people would've told me about that we learned later on. But pull a Haney test. Pull a PLSA test. You can send those to Regen Ag Labs. And that gives you a baseline of what your biology counts are. Where your soil, carbon and nitrogen ratio is. Where your microbial activity is. Those are two really great tests for farmers that are just starting out, to kind of set the bar where you're at currently.

Russell Hedrick:

You can also look at other testing. Pull some cover crop samples and send them in for that total nutrition, nutrient availability on it. There's another test that just came out this year, that we're going to start pulling on some of our farms. But it's actually a total digest nutrient testing, where we have so many nutrients in our soil profile that are not plant available, that you can actually test and see what the total nutrient availability is. And then we can look at cover crops or management strategies on how to unlock those nutrients that are already there that just aren't crop available. And that's a really cool test. I haven't ran one yet, but our plan is this year we're going to start utilizing it. Seeing the data we can get from it.

Russell Hedrick:

But water infiltration testing. Dual water infiltration test, because we didn't start that until 2013. And we were at about a half inch an hour on water infiltration. Now we're up to 7 to 14 inches an hour. So like you said earlier, you can hear on the phone that it's raining right now. We don't don't have water leaving our fields anymore. It's soaked up in the profile and stored there for the crop later when we need it. And it's really nice having that big sponge there for during the growing season. Because if it rains and you don't get it into soil profile, it doesn't matter. You're not going to have it available to make the crop live.

Martha Mintz:

Great. Well, it sure sounds like you're doing a lot of things right and are probably going to change more things in the future. I look forward to hearing about those when the time comes, but I think that's that's enough for today. And Russell, thank you so much for your time and best of luck when it stops raining.

Russell Hedrick:

Yep. Thank you for having me.

Julia Gerlach:

Thanks to Hickory, North Carolina, no-tiller Russell Hedrick and contributing editor Martha Mintz for that conversation about building soil structure and function with no-till and cover crops.

Julia Gerlach:

Once again, we'd like to thank our sponsor. Montag precision-metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops Montag's family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems to help conserve seed, and nutrients, along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer or on the Montag manufacturing website.

Julia Gerlach:

For more information about all things cover crops, visit us online at covercropstrategies.com.