By Thomas Durant
South Carolina Farmer
After decades of conventional farm practices of plowing, bedding rows, planting and multiple cultivations, the soil on our South Carolina farm seemed “tired,” and so were we. We recognized there is a need for a delicate balance between forcing the soil to produce an annual crop and empowering the soil’s natural ability to be productive. That’s why our farm decided to look into conservation practices of no-till, cover crops and wildlife management that could improve our soil, our area’s ecosystem, and hopefully, our crops’ productivity.
And with Earth Day approaching, now is a good time to remind people of the great conservation efforts that farmers are implementing every day to contribute to a better world. Here is an overview of what we are doing on our farm.
No-till is a farming practice that leaves the soil as it is after a crop harvest. In the past, farmers would take a steel implement (plow) and drag it across the field to loosen soil (think of a gardener using a tiller to loosen up a seedbed for a garden.) We implemented no-till a few years ago and have seen great results.
With no-till practices, we noticed our organic matter increased in our sandy loam soil types. Soil texture improved in the tight, poorly drained soils also, as they have more “tilth.” Water permeates the soil profile better, and we could return to field work quicker with heavy equipment. The no-till practice gets interrupted when we must smooth tractor wheel ruts in the field. When surface tillage is required, we use a vertical tillage tool called a turbo till. The turbo till keeps crop residue in the top two inches of the soil profile.
Cover crops are plants that we use to keep the soil covered between harvest and planting. They have two purposes; to provide nutrients to the soil and to minimize soil erosion.
Our soils have a rich nutrient bank that rest deep beneath the soil surface (12-16 inches). Cover crop roots can reach this bank and return these nutrients to the soil surface, thus reducing fertilizer cost and building soil health. A combination of no-till practices coupled with cover crops has transformed our “tired” soils into more naturally organic soil with a high level of earthworm activity.
The cover crop residues also help with weed pressure, as the residue blankets the soil and minimizes sunlight for weeds to sprout. This cover crop residue also protects soil moisture in our hot growing season and minimizes wind and water erosion in the winter.
At Commodity Classic this year in San Antonio, I attended a great cover crop seminar, and it convinced me that we have barely touched the potential on cover crop management. After being educated more on the benefits of cover crops, we will implement a long-range plan for their use on our farm.
On 600 acres, a friend and I have installed 45-90 foot quail buffer strips around field edges to provide a wildlife habitat area. This area has responded nicely, as evidenced in improved numbers of quail, turkeys, small game and whitetail deer. We also placed this tract in a Farm and Ranch conservation easement so that it will never be developed.
We use a control burn management plan in the pine forest on this land to eliminate undesirable undergrowth. This practice reduces competition for the pines but allows the regeneration of beneficial smaller shrubs. These indigenous species provide natural food and cover for wildlife.
Our wildlife management plan also includes a flooded uplands corn pond for waterfowl and a planted sunflower field for doves. Non-game species benefit from these practices as well.
We recognize that production agriculture and good conservation stewardship form a symbiotic relationship with one another and provide a balance to our local ecosystem. No-till residue complements these wildlife enhancements by leaving food and cover on the ground, especially in harsh winter months. The cover crops also provide food for the wildlife as well.
Through technology, education, and a comprehensive, earth-friendly agriculture plan, we can provide food, fiber and shelter not only for this generation, but also for many generations to come.
Thomas Durant is a third-generation farmer in South Carolina. He and his family—his wife, three sons, daughter and his mother—grow corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat. He is also a member of the America’s Farmers Grow Rural Education Committee.