Pictured Above: (L to R) Mark and June Turner with daughter Hannah, and Leslie and Mathew Turner with son Jack

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NAME: Mark Turner

FARM: Turner Farms

LOCATION: Livermore, Ky.

YEARS NO-TILLING: 33

ACRES: 450

CROPS: Corn, soybeans and tobacco

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IDEAL POSITION. Splitting up his cover crop cocktail into one row of radishes and crimson clover and one row of cereal rye and Austrian winter peas gives Mark Turner’s radishes the space and sun they need to develop a nice root growth instead of top growth, which helps break up soil compaction.

When that happened it would indicate to the germinating corn seed that it was already above the soil surface and negatively impact the development of critical nodal root systems, as if we’d only planted the seed ½ inch deep. The corn would come up and produce, but I could be losing 20-25 bushels in yield, depending on conditions during the growing season.

By removing the coulter and switching to spiked closing wheels, I’m able to better close the seed trench and break up the crust so the trench doesn’t open back up. After years of no-till, however, we’ve noticed our soils are much more forgiving and we’re overall less likely to have issues like the seed trench popping back open. Plus, the roots are better able to move through the soil profile.

Since adding cover crops to our systems, our soils have become even more inviting to our growing crops.

Perfecting Cover Crops

We’ve always planted cover crops after tobacco on our farm. It’s traditionally been a high intensity tillage crop to grow, so we would plant cover crops after harvest to help heal and secure the soil. About 7 years ago, we branched out with our cover-crop program. At the urging of our local NRCS representative, and with the help of Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) assistance to help offset the cost of seed, we planted 250 acres of cereal rye following soybeans.

Due to CSP requirements we seeded 108 pounds of pure live seed per acre. We quickly found 108 pounds to be an excessive amount of seed for a cover crop application in our particular situation. It produced a very dense cover crop. When we burned it down, it created a dense mat that prevented the sun from reaching the soil and drying it out efficiently so we could plant in a timely fashion.

We’ve cut our cereal rye seeding rate by more than half to limit the sheer biomass it produces and have added other species to the mix. Cover crops are now seeded on every acre, every year and include 65 pounds of cereal rye, 65 pounds Austrian winter pea, 2-3 pounds daikon radish and 2-3 pounds crimson clover. The cover mix is seeded with the John Deere 750 no-till drill. The drill has small and large seed boxes, allowing us to seed alternating 7½-inch rows with the cereal rye and Austrian winter peas together in one row and daikon radishes and crimson clover in the other.

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NO-TILL TOBACCO. Thanks to improvements in no-till setter technology and herbicides, Mark Turner is able to no-till all of his crops in Livermore, Ky., including tobacco.

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EARLY OUT. Planting short-season maturity soybeans early allows for an earlier harvest that gets Mark Turner in the fields with his no-till drill to seed cover crops sooner.

When we planted the cover-crop mix all together, we found the radishes weren’t getting enough sun and were expending a lot of energy putting on top growth instead of root growth. We wanted the radishes to address compaction so root growth is what we were looking for.

By separating the mix into two rows, we were able to give the radishes a little room and more sun, resulting in substantial root growth. The covers are usually planted in October, and by mid-December the root tops are up to 2 inches across and reaching 14 inches deep.

Our farm also includes a poultry operation, giving us access to phosphorus-rich litter to spread on our fields. Fall is the ideal time to spread litter in our area when we get gentle rains, as opposed to the hard driving rains we get in spring.

The growing covers also provide us an excellent canvas on which to spread our chicken litter. When we get around to spreading in late November and early December, the cover crops are there and growing, so they’re able to take up the nutrients from the litter. The covers then hold them in place all winter before returning the nutrients to the growing crop as they break down the following growing season.

Declining Inputs

Cover crops have pushed our yields to the next level, and in a very efficient manner. I strongly feel the cover crops are to be credited with our rising yields.

In recent years, our yields have increased by about 25% during a time we’ve actually reduced fertility. We’re yielding right along with our conventionally managed neighbors at about 150-180 bushels of corn per acre, but are using far fewer nutrients to accomplish that yield. My applied nitrogen (N) works out to about ½ unit of N per bushel of corn. I’ve changed my thinking in recent years, and I’m seeing 200-bushel-per-acre corn as a reasonable yield goal.

A variety of tests help us determine how to distribute our inputs. We test our chicken litter before it’s applied and then variable-rate spread it according to soil tests. We’ve used about every soil testing strategy out there: testing on grids, by soil type, GPS locations, everything. They all give different answers depending on the weather and any number of other factors. They do give us a good range to work from and our agronomist tells us our nutrient levels are great for our region.

In 2016 we soil tested by soil type to determine our variable-rate application of chicken litter using phosphorus (P) as our rate-determining nutrient. Chicken litter is only applied ahead of corn. We spent 20 years spreading an average of 4½ tons of chicken litter per acre and now, with cover crops, we’re down to spreading just 1½-2 tons per acre. We’ve also cut our N rates by 50%.

Part of why we’ve been able to confidently reduce our fertility inputs while maintaining yield is by knowing our soils and testing our crops. We look at our soil’s cation exchange capacity (CEC) on our soil tests. Our soils are such that they can only take and hold about 10 pounds of N at a time, a very limited amount. If we try to put on 200 pounds all at once, we run a high risk of losing the N instead of it making it into the plants. For that reason we’ve gone to applying some N with our planter and the balance in one or two sidedress applications.

Our John Deere 7200 corn planter is equipped with a 2-by-2-inch liquid N placement system. We apply our first pass of N — 10 gallons of 28% — with this system at planting. We also use an in-furrow starter with a little sulfur and some biological products to help get good root development — it’s a mix our agronomist at AgroLiquid fertilizer puts together for us. Our ground is a little cooler with the cover crop residue and no-till, so we find it necessary to use the starter and some N at planting to get the plants off to a nice, strong start.

Once the corn is about 6-8 inches tall, we come back and do Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Testing (PSNT) and tissue testing. We’ve done this for the last few years and found the tissue tests and in-season PSNT tell us a lot more about what’s actually going on with nutrients in the growing season than a fall soil test does. It can tell us if certain nutrients aren’t balanced, which means one is holding us back.

With that information we can add things such as potassium, zinc or P to our N sidedress application. When we have our mix calculated we use a disc sidedress implement. A disc opens a slit ½-1 inch deep and a high-pressure orifice jets the mixture into the soil.

Now that we’re more carefully controlling our inputs with more testing and improving our ability to hold those nutrients with cover crops, we’re spending less money to raise more bushels. We’re pretty happy with a 190-bushel average corn crop these days.

Soy Shift

We have made some adjustments to our soybean program to improve cost efficiency and accommodate cover crops. We now seed a shorter-season soybean so we can harvest and get cover crops planted as quickly as possible in the fall.

We also seed soybeans a lot earlier, usually about April 15 when we’re also planting corn. This gives them more time to grow and, in our experience, results in better yields.

Using a seed treatment that includes fungicide and insecticide is critical when seeding soybeans early. So is patience. Soybeans will grow a lot slower in the cooler spring temperatures, so it might take quite a few days to come up. I spoke to another farmer a while ago who planted his soybeans in March. They took 29 days to come up but they were also the best yielding soybeans he’s ever grown.

We used to have a lot of issues with crusting in our fields, which really impacted our soybean emergence, but with no-till we have much more even germination. As a result, we’ve also been able to reduce our soybean seeding rate. We’ve gone from seeding 180,000 seeds per acre down to 120,000. That’s saving us about 25% on seed cost, which is substantial considering the cost of our herbicide-tolerant seed varieties.

Solid Structure

At $20 per acre in seed for cover crops, a lot of people question the economics of the practice. For me, cover crops have earned their keep in multiple ways.

In addition to holding nutrients from litter applications and reducing our overall inputs, cover crops have mellowed our ground. The soil structure in our fields has improved and compaction isn’t an issue. A lot of guys spend a bunch of money deep ripping or using vertical tillage tools on their no-till acres. I’m getting far better results using cover crops to manage my soil profile and it’s saving me a lot of money in that they’re a lot cheaper than payments on the 300-horsepower tractor I would need for deep ripping, plus all the extra equipment.

I didn’t understand initially what good soil structure was, much less what it could do for my crops. I had a field day 3 years ago and our agronomist did some digging. In our no-till fields his shovelful of dirt clung together. I thought it looked too hard and would be difficult for our crops to navigate. But when we inspected it further, we found wormholes and a substantial amount of roots moving through it.

A shovel of soil from a nearby conventionally tilled field disintegrated into crumbles. It was just a big blob of nothing — no worms, no structure. That’s why when we get a little rain in the fall, I can get out in my fields and do what needs to get done without making a rut. My neighbors make huge tracks and then spend the rest of the fall filling in the ruts.

I was once told the only remedy to working the ground is to work the ground. It’s like a bad habit you just can’t stop. I’m glad I’ve gotten out of that trap and have soils that don’t have hard pans and are really working for me.

Stick With It

In my experience, after a couple years of no-tilling the soil goes through a rough spot, sort of a metamorphosis stage. This is where a lot of people give up on no-tilling. For us, we no-tilled successfully for about 3 years then we hit a wet spring. It seemed like all the nutrients were just locked in the soil. The crops looked like we didn’t fertilize them at all.

We went through a couple of years of our corn looking like death and some less than ideal yields, but then it’s like our soils balanced themselves and we had great looking crops again. Now we are growing crops that are just as good as those who farm conventionally and we’re even able to plant at roughly the same time. Best of all, we’ve seen incredible turnarounds on some of our acres.

We had one field with a gumbo soil that acts more like sand. My granddad tried to farm it, my dad tried to farm it and we’d all but given up on that piece of ground being a success. It had been seeded to pasture for our cows, but when they tried to row crop it they used a moldboard plow to work it in the spring. It would be too wet to plant in the morning and too dry to plant in the afternoon. Eventually they started farming it for a year and then returning it to pasture for 2-3 years.

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NUTRIENT BANK. Chicken litter is applied to Mark Turner’s cover crops in the fall ahead of corn, which hold the nutrients and distribute them to the growing corn as they decay. This has helped Turner reduce his fertilizer use.

Since we’ve made the switch to no-till and started using cover crops, it’s made an astounding transformation. We plant it every year, and for the past 5 years it’s been our best producing ground. I thought it was a fluke the first year, but it’s continued to yield phenomenally year after year. I really wish my dad could ride in the combine with me to see the 200-bushel corn coming off ground he’d determined too poor to grow corn. This transformation has everything to do with no-till and cover crops.

We’re excited we’ve been able to bring tobacco into our no-till program, too. We strip-tilled it successfully for a number of years, but recently equipment has reached a point where we can now effectively no-till tobacco.

Lasting Value

Getting 200-bushel corn off formerly poor ground is an amazing tribute to the benefits and profitability of no-till and cover crops. When it comes down to it, I’m farming to make a living and that’s been a huge part of why we’ve made the changes we have. However, I also am thinking about how I want my son and grandson to be a part of this farm and carry it on.

I not only have to take care of this place so it produces for me, I want to leave it better than I got it so it’s still taking care of the family generations from now. It’s not just about making the best crop I can this year, it’s about making the best crop 10, even 20 or more years from now. I think we’re doing a good job of setting our farm up for that long-term success with no-till and cover crops.