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“No-till can mean no yield if you're not doing any other practice. In our plot with cover crops and livestock integration, we are seeing higher nutrient densities. We see corn test weights in the 60-64 pound range. That's what regenerative practices have done for us.”

— Russell Hedrick, No-Tiller, Hickory, N.C.

North Carolina no-tiller Russell Hedrick made history with his 2022 corn harvest, raising a dryland no-till corn crop that topped 459 bushels per acre. His willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, try on-farm experiments and use regenerative agriculture practices all contribute to his success.

In today’s episode of the podcast, brought to you by SOURCE®️ by Sound Agriculture, we bring you a replay of Hedrick’s 2023 National No-Tillage Conference presentation detailing the specific practices that propelled him to record-setting corn and soybean yields. He also explains his philosophy about regenerative farming, soil testing, nutrient management and much more.

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No-Till Farmer podcast series is brought to you by SOURCE®️ by Sound Agriculture.

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Full Transcript

Michaela Paukner:

Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Podcast, brought to you by SOURCE by Sound Agriculture. I'm Michaela Paukner, managing editor at No-Till Farmer. In today's episode of the podcast, Russell Hedrick, the North Carolina No-Tiller who broke the world dryland corn yield record last season details the specific practices that propelled him to that record setting corn yield and explains his philosophy about regenerative farming. This episode was recorded live at the 2023 National No-Tillage Conference.

Russell Hedrick:

I'm going to talk to you all a little bit about our capturing high yields and some of the stuff that we worked with in the 2022 season. For those of you that don't know where we farm, this is where we call home. We're in the western part of North Carolina, somewhat hilly ground in our West County ground. As you go east, it gets flattened out into the Piedmont. This is where we started at. I was a career fireman for 12 years. Decided to go into agriculture, started with 30 acres. I got introduced to the NRCS, a DC introduced me to this really crazy guy named Ray Archuleta, and somehow they talked us into planting cover crops. That's how we started our journey. One of the key things that we have focused on on our farm is looking at return on investment. If we apply a pound of nutrients, we want to get more than a pound of grain.

So we do tissue sampling on our cover crop. We run a cover crop analysis. We go out into the field. We cut about three foot sample. You can do it any way you want as long as you maintain a known number of square feet. We dry that on a trailer and we send that to the lab. That's how we used to do it. Now we just bundle it up into essentially just a trash bag and send it into the lab to get an analysis ran on it. It gives us a carbon and nitrogen ratio, how many tons per acre that we had. It also gives us a breakdown of the available nutrients that we're going to see from that cover crop.

One of the key things I think farmers miss the mark on is they go out, they use a cover crop and they don't really understand what is the nutrient load inside of that cover crop. What's the benefit? How many farmers in here have ever heard somebody plant cereal rye and it dinged their corn yield? It's quite a few hands. The big reason is if we get that carbon and nitrogen ratio too high, we're going to tie up that nitrogen and then we're not going to see it. Our carbon and nitrogen ratio on this cover crop was a 16 to one. It was really heavy in legumes. If you go over 40 to one, you're going to start seeing that tie up. If you go over 80 to one, you probably won't see nitrogen for up to 12 months out of that cover crop residue and farmers just don't understand that.

So this is where we started at. You can see that we've really got some great, I don't know, I state ground right here on the left. This is typically what we start with is very depleted soils, no aggregation, low organic matter. It's been beat up, tilled to death. After four years of cover crops. You can see we start seeing a little bit of color change in the top eight inches. That's a 16 inch sample there. But the big thing for us as we monitor on our farm, we utilize the Haney test to look at our biological indicators, carbon sequestration. For CO2 respiration, we've seen a 720% increase over the last nine years. That's been critical for us in nutrient release and nutrients getting into the crop and actually being available. And then we've also seen our increase in our water carbon was also a 590% increase. It's essentially the food that the microbial community can eat. We've been able to sequester enough carbon pump it into the system. We've actually started to change the structure and the color of our soils that we farm in North Carolina.

Then there was this guy, he came out to the farm, Ray Archuleta. We were working with David Montgomery. We wanted to get some baselines on our farms. Understand how critical earthworms are to your operation. So me and Ray did a sample that was a foot by foot by foot deep a cubic foot. We had 93 earthworms per cubic foot. It's about 3.3 million earthworms per acre. Those 3.3 million earthworms are turning roughly about 120,000 pounds of soil a year. So that really does help a lot with our nutrient stratification. It helps keep that soil mixed up. It moves organic residue up and down in the profile and it really has helped us with that stratification issue.

So this is where we started at. How many of you have ever rolled cereal rye that was over five feet tall? I used to do it in an open station tractor. It is the longest nosebleeds that I've ever had in my life. We started with a cultipacker simply rolling the cover crops down. We would plant into that no-till. If you've never had anxiety before, do that for the first time in cereal rye. That's about six or seven feet tall. Didn't sleep too good back in the beginning years. This is where we're at now. We have an issue finding labor and help for us to be able to actually get a cover crop rolled in one pass, come back and plant another pass, do our spray pass. We've integrated it in.

We went to a farm show and I saw these yetter stalk devastator that were for a corn head. They've done an excellent job. We've been running those now for six years. We simply just mounted them to the front bar. We've mounted these on a couple of different planters that we have now. We've got the new ones now with the torsion bar instead of the spring. We've also went to looking at nutrient placement. We do not broadcast phosphorus or potassium anymore. We inject it into the ground. We're using liquid. We're looking to go to a dry system as well. But we're also able to go in here and place all of our nitrogen at planting time that we need for the front end of the crop. We're usually running anywhere from about 40 to 60 pounds of nitrogen in phosphorus if it calls for it or potassium thiosulfate.

So you can see the cover crop comes up really good. We lay it down, we get our corn crop planted. We haven't had any issues with stand establishment. We've had a pretty good time with getting the corn crop up out of even all that residue we have good even in emergence. One of the things I'll say to farmers, how many of you in here plant your corn deeper than two inches? How many of you plant it deeper than three inches? There's a few. Start playing around with that stuff. I've heard other people that are farming and trying to push yields and trying to see where the ground will actually work at. We actually plant corn sometimes three and a half inches deep depending on the farm that we're on. If you have good soil aggregation from these regenerative practices, you can plant that corn even a little bit deeper and pick up some extra nodal roots and it'll actually help with a lot of your uptake.

We utilize a lot of sensors and technology on the farm. There's a company called AquaSpy based out of North Carolina. They build a sensor. That sensor goes in the ground 48 inches deep. We measure root depth, we measure temperature, water, infiltration depth. We can also measure electric conductivity, and I can actually map where my crop is pulling our fertilizer out of what zones in the soil throughout the growing season and see where we actually need to look at nutrients. We started looking at electric conductivity where we had cover crops. Our highest readings were 12 to 16 inches deep as the season progressed. That crop was fed us nutrients through the top 16 inches.

Where we did our no cover crop strips. We actually only had a highest readings between four to eight inches and our nutrients were actually only fed to that crop in the top eight inches. So that means where I had cover crops, where I did regenerative farming practices, I was actually get about double the amount of profile that were feeding that crop and getting nutrients into that corn crop and getting those roots deeper, and that's a massive difference when it comes to increasing our yields.

We're also doing our injection systems. We run two inches to three inches on each side of the road and we're injecting this fertilizer when we use our liquid anywhere from about six to eight inches deep because we maintain moisture. In North Carolina, we're always 10 days away from a drought, so that means if we don't get moisture every 10 days, the top two to three inches of the ground are going to dry out. We're not going to have nutrient availability, and so even with what we're looking at, we're trying to get this stuff down.

So what's the comparison? Where we had our cover crops in our sensors, we actually had seven to nine inches more moisture. How many of you in here are dry land farmers? I'm going to pick on somebody. How much would you pay for another seven to nine inches of moisture? I was always told cover crops use moisture. They do. They use moisture to grow, but our pan evaporation and our soil temperatures, we maintain such lower soil temperatures during the summertime. We actually can prove that we're actually saving what we use plus an additional seven to nine inches of moisture.

Then we look at root depth. Root depth was deeper by 28 inches. That's a massive amount of profile that we're getting 28 inches deeper into the profile. We're also looking at coolness. On average, and this is pretty much from March the first until about November the first, we were averaging anywhere from about six to eight degrees cooler in the top four inches of the soil. That's a lot of moisture that we were conserving. This is where we're at today in 2023. I will say this, so many people talk about fertilizer is bad, chemicals are bad. You'll hear a lot of speakers talk about it, a lot of people online. I think everything is a tool. Fertilizer is a tool. Chemistry is a tool. If we use it as best we can in the appropriate manner and balance what we're doing on our operation, they're necessary tools that we have to have to farm, and that's how we treat it on our operation.

Five years ago, we got challenged to see using regenerative practices and what we were doing on our farm, where could we push yield to in North Carolina? This is the mapping system that we've used. The reason I show this is I want everybody to pay attention to this right here. From planting to V6, 10 pounds of nitrogen, six pounds of phosphorus, 14 pounds of pot ash and four pounds of sulfur. That's all it takes for us to get to V6. That is the complete opposite of what we were used to whenever I first started farming. I thought we had to preload this corn crop and get more nutrients out there in the beginning.

We really focus on the later end nutrient cycles now, and the biggest thing that stuck out to me was our potassium needs. We go from only using 2.3% of our potassium at V6 to 31% by V10. So just in four leaf stages, we're seeing almost a 29% increase in potassium needs. We make sure that our potassium, there is a way that potassium cycles in the soil solution where it can... I mean, you can't just super load potassium in the soil without it being tied up, especially if you have clay content. But there are ways that we can use cover crops in the organic acids that secrete out of those cover crop roots to actually help us free up quite a bit of potassium in our soils, and that's why plants feed soil biology.

We all look at Y-drop systems and precision placement and nitrogen in the root zone. Our plants are doing the same thing. I mean, how many of you in here have ever saw your corn plant make this mucus on these crown roots? I mean, has anybody else in the room ever saw that? That right there is nothing more than sugar that feeds biology. It leaks right here in the road just like they talk about a Y-drop system and it's sugars and proteins. We're feeding biology, which then mineralizes nutrients. Our plants help us grow the crop as well if you pay attention.

Then we look at this. I'll tell you a funny story. We talk about fungal and bacteria dominance and we want a balanced system. If you're too bacterial, you have too fast of a cycling system. If you're too fungal, the system's too slow and the crop will suffer, and we try to find that balance. And about five years into this journey, we started seeing mushrooms growing. So I'm going down the road one day, I had a neighbor farmer call me and he said, "Russell, you got mushrooms growing in your field by mine." And I was like, "Okay. Well, what do you think? And he's like, you got to get out there and spray. You got to get out there and spray them things." I was like, "Oh my gosh." I was like, "What's going on? Are these mushrooms going around the field with a machete? Are they cutting the corn crop down? I mean, I've never seen a mushroom move. So explain this to me. They're a fungus and fungus is bad."

So these are visual indicators. I mean we do do a lot of laboratory testing. We do a lot of work with universities, but these are key indicators that you can see on your farm and you can tell which direction you're heading. So what we do is we try to plant a multi-species cover crop every single year. So that time about August, Ray Archuleta sprouts up out of them and he helps us with determining what our residue breakdown looks like. Look at different carbon to nitrogen ratios of the cover crop seeds that we're planting and how that's going to affect the nutrient release to our crops.

So this picture was taken on my birthday. This is July the 3rd, North Carolina, it's probably 95 to a hundred degrees and with cover crops about two inches deep, we were maintaining soil temperatures of about 77 degrees. That's massive for our water holding capacity. This is what our crop looked like this last season. We were averaging anywhere from 14 to 15 foot tall corn. We had an excellent growing season. When I say that we yielded, well, we did, but we did the preparation. Mother nature provided the rainfall and the right temperatures for us to hit that crop.

So some of the testing that we do on our farm is we still do some small tillage plots. We still do some just normal no-till. So many times whenever I first started looking at no-till, I always heard no-till, no yield. I have no idea how long that phrase has been around, but I think I will agree and say that no-till can mean no yield if you're not doing any other practice. If you're burning organic matter, you're not planting cover crops, putting in manure, compost, something to supplement that system, you will see the ground get hard, you will see issues, and that's what we saw right here. The corn ear on your left is the same exact variety. The only difference is there was a five foot pathway. Our plot on the right had cover crops and livestock integration. The corn crop on the left was strictly no-till with chicken litter and a conventional type fertilizer package. That's the difference. That's what regenerative practices have done for us on the right.

We are seeing higher nutrient densities. We see test weights in the 60 to 64 pound range. Typically, every year our corn's weighing about 62 to 64 pounds on test weight. Same thing with soybeans. When we first started farming, I hated soybeans. I called them peasant peas. When you farm on a mountain and no ground is flat, it's typically hard to pick soybeans. It's just one of the crops I don't really like to harvest. But when we started paying attention to when we plant our crop, what our day length is, we started looking at the same factors that we treated our corn crop with. We started looking at different varieties. We started seeing a lot of our soybean crops also have the same effect from these cover crops and regenerative practices.

Just wanted to give you all a picture of what we see, where we see our stacking on our nodes. We've been able to keep them pretty tight. It looked like a bunch of soybean trees out here in the field when we started harvesting that year. And then we started looking at different things. So I met Jonathan Longen back in 2015. I will be honest, I was probably drinking bourbon at the time. He started telling me how bugs don't have a pancreas and they can't process complex sugars, and if you can increase the bricks content inside of your plants, you're still going to have a few bugs come into the field edge. But they don't like it. The sugar retains the moisture in their body, it bloats them and they leave. I thought this guy was completely off his rocker.

There's 14 farmers in the state of North Carolina that have been using this system since 2015 now. We're all seeing the same results. What I'll say is if you can get bricks increased in your crops, you can deter pest. If you already have pest in your crop and you're at the threshold or above the threshold, sugar doesn't work. It's a preventative, not a curative. It takes time for the sugar to get into the crop to deter the pest. If you've already got an infestation of insects in your crop, sugar's not the way to go, but we use it as a preventative. It costs me 50 cents an acre per pass, and that's if I use a pound to the acre. Typically, we run a half pound to a pound per pass.

So this is what we see with soybeans. Our check strip was a 5.2 bricks or molasses was a 15.6, generic white table. Sugar was a 34.2 and cold process was a 36.3. Your target is 14. You want to maintain a bricks of 14 or above. You can see bugs come into that outer perimeter of the field. If you have a really high bricks, you'll see that number then go down. But like I said, if your bricks level isn't adequate enough and you actually see your thresholds getting close, you're going to have to spray an insecticide. So we started doing the yield contest on the soybeans. The state came out, did our ways. 2021 set another North Carolina state record of 117 bushels dry land on our soybeans. We pay a lot of attention.

We do foliar. We do quite a bit of foliar packages. We actually don't broadcast much fertilizer on the front end of our soybeans anymore. You can see if we need it, we broadcast later in the season potassium sulfate mixed with symtrex and urea. I mean that's a pretty basic package. It didn't break the bank. I think our cost of production on those beans was roughly about $400 dollars an acre. This is what our corn production's looking like. We still do plots. So this ear here on the right had a full rate of nitrogen. The ear here in the middle had a half rate of nitrogen and the ear here on the left had no nitrogen at all. So we do have about two or three farms a year that we push for yield. We want to see what our enhanced ground can do. The rest of our farm sees about 50 to 80 units of nitrogen total throughout the entire growing season. This is one of those farms.

So the ear here on the right where we had our full rate of nitrogen, that was our set. The half rate of nitrogen yielded five bushels less and where we had no nitrogen at all, we only lost nine bushels with absolutely no nitrogen. The extra return on investment to the farm was $78 an acre. We made an extra $78 an acre net where we didn't use nitrogen at all. And I'm telling you right now, that's scary even for me to do now. I've been doing this system that is very tough for us to do on some of the years. It's so much dependent on nature, but we still do it.

So Gabe Brown loves to tell you about cocktails. I didn't know David Brant was going to be here, but he loves to tell you about his radishes. I want to tell you about my corn. Man, got a few laughs out of that one. So here's our corn. So if you can see the scale on the left, we started weighing some ears back in August. We just wanted to see what our crop was going to look like. We had ears that weighed over a pound each. Do not show any videos of this because this is what the USDA will do in the upcoming report. Then the market will probably crash. So we talk about nutrient placement and nutrient timing. We still run humates, fulvic. We used to be strictly humate in furrow and humates do have some extra elemental nutrients inside of them.

But for me, what we started looking at and what I would encourage you all to try is look at a fulvic instead of a humic. The carbon on a fulvic is about half as long. We'll see quicker breakdown, quicker release, and quicker microbial response to fulvic over humic's. And I'm not saying one's better than the other, but for me, I want to see biology come out of the spring and ramp up as fast as possible. Mineralize as many nutrients in that small root zone. So we've made changes on our farm to where we put humates with our nitrogen program and we still utilize them. But when we go in furrow, now we're using fulvic and we're trying those out.

This right here was a study, so the right hand side we had our in furrow with a fulvic. On the left hand side, we just had the regular corn planter. We didn't turn our system on. Even in no-till systems where we're getting high residue, high biomass cover crops, we are seeing a little bit of front end nitrogen tie up and these systems are really paying off for us. This is what it looked like during the growing season. I'm six foot six. You can see this is about the average corn height we got later into the season. It's hard for us to take time, but my sister came out, took some pictures of me standing in a corn plot just looking at ear size. Those ears were anywhere from about 11 and a half to 12 and a half inches in length. It was some of the better years that we've ever had on our farm.

Michaela Paukner:

I'd like to take a moment to thank our sponsor SOURCE by Sound Agriculture. Welcome to a better source of fertilizer, SOURCE from Sound Agriculture unlocks more of the nutrients already in your fields so you can add less fertilizer while getting the yield you're counting. On by activating soil microbes SOURCE provides more of the existing nitrogen and phosphorus to your crops. It's such a solid backup plan. You'll probably find yourself wondering why SOURCE wasn't the plan all along, visit to learn more. Now let's get back to the conversation.

Russell Hedrick:

This is what our plot turned out to be. This was our high yield plot. We ended up picking 1.33 acres and the yield monitor had 164 bushels. It ended up being 618 bushels across the scale is what we got weighed at. So here's our program. I don't mind sharing it with you all. You can take ideas from it. The last couple of years, one of the key things that we have started looking at is if you're doing a conventional soil test, we are seeing elevated numbers, especially in our micros and macros that we're not seeing in soil health tests. So instead of using milic three or Bray, Olsen extraction for say our boron, we're actually using a hot water boron extraction test with Regen Ag Lab's. It's giving us more of an even read of what the actual plant available boron is in the soil and it's considerably lower than what we've seen in our conventional testing.

So this is what we looked like going into the season. This was all of our passes. We spoonfed this crop. We did 30 pounds of nitrogen, V3/V4, and this is after planting at V3/V4, we did a foliar spray on a product called Aussie Sauce. We did a V8/V9 top dress. We came back in at tassel with a Y-drop at 30 pounds of nitrogen, and then we finally ended up the season with some AMS and a drone. Now, this is seven passes across this corn. We do not farm every one of our acres this way, but we do have ground that we like to push and see how we can increase our yield and which one of these practices will benefit us in our regular production. This is our grain economics. If you want to know what we're spending per acre, what it's costing us, the products, seed costs plant, Aussie Sauce, our bio stimulant passes, how much it was to spray, haul and dry, our drone, our cost per acre, and there's our cost per bushel.

The one thing I'll say is agronomy still matters even with healthy soils. I don't think we will ever get to the point where our farm is 100% fertilizer free. We can apply low amounts of fertilizer and see a massive return on investment, but we also utilize the Haney test to see what we actually need versus what we don't need. Using the Haney test, last year on phosphorus, we saved $34,000 on phosphorus. We saved a little over $8,000 on potassium. Our nitrogen savings using a Haney test was $92,000. Utilizing the Haney test and cover crops and cutting out part of our chemical program because of our wheat suppression with cover crops, we were able to save $164,000 last year.

These are some of the new things that we're trying on the farm. There's a algae made in South Carolina. We tried it out probably across 300 acres, different sugar formulations for increased bricks. These are some foliar packages that we're using on corn and soybeans. Like I said before, the humic and fulvic and different forms of micros. The biggest thing for us on nitrogen stabilizers, we were using a product that was a DCD. That DCD actually kills the bacteria in our soil. I need the bacteria. I know we say we want balance, we want fungal and bacteria and those DCDs were actually killing off some of our good bacteria and that's what was stopping our nitrogen conversion. We've now went to NBPTs or polymers. We go with a natural calcium-based nitrogen stabilizer. Essentially it gives a docking station with that positive calcium charge for that nitrogen, and that's what we're using now.

We haven't seen any adverse effects. And then we're also looking at organic acids. These organic acids are the same thing that we see in root exudates and it's helping us with some of our nutrient availability when we're putting in these bands. We're not seeing as much nutrient tie up from some of the different elements in the soil. Data is only as good as you can understand it. I'm terrible at data. For the last nine years, I had three ring binder notebooks. I took paper copies, put them in there, and if I had to reference it, I had to go back to that notebook and hope that I didn't lose it.

So we started working with a company called AGI. They've got the farm mobile puck. It goes in our combine, our sprayer, our planning tractor. They take all the digital data and send it directly to their platform and we're able to store that digitally. If I need to look at something on the go, if I'm here at conference and need to reference something, I can pull it up on my phone. It's been a really good digital platform for us. I dug back deep.

2015, our organic matter on our farm on Rocky Ford Road was 2.29%. When I got that farm in 2011, it was 1.7%. Everybody told me in my lifetime, if I raised it 1%, I would be doing good. Here's my Haney test from the... It'd be February of 2022, 7.5% in the zero to six, and then also we were at 6.4% in the six to 12. You can raise organic matter. Organic matter is a simple numbers game, how much you burn off versus how much you add back. If you're doing compost, if you're doing cover crops, if you're doing manure, if you're doing diverse crop rotations, you can build organic matter faster than what our university says.

I'll tell you the things that we look at on our Haney test. On our Haney test when we first get it, we're paying attention to this soil health part. I want to look at percent MACC. I want to look at organic carbon and soil respiration. Soil respiration, we typically want to see that over 200. So on this one right here in our zero to six, our soil respiration is 414. Our organic carbon is 181 and our percent MACC is 229. So that percent MACC, just to understand this, I'm going to give you all a quick reference. That percent MACC is your checking account That tells you how much of that organic carbon that you're spending with the microbes every month. If it goes over 100%, that means that you're dipping into the checking account to pay the bills, which is your organic matter. Organic matter is 52% carbon.

You don't want to see percent MACC over 100% for a very, very long period of time where you start seeing organic matter breakdown. But those are the things right there on the Haney test that we really pay attention to. On the Haney test down here, if we pulled a PSNT, if we pulled a nitrate soil sample, all we would get credit for is 18.4 pounds. That's how much that PSNT would say is available to that corn crop. It misses the ammonium nitrogen, it misses all the organic forms of nitrogen and it misses the mineralization of nitrogen by the microbial community. On the Haney test though, we take all of those into consideration and we put them right down here in an end credit in pounds per acre.

On this Haney test, we had 69.2 pounds of nitrogen in the zero to six, we had 61 pounds in the six to 12. That's 130 pounds of nitrogen that I would not have seen in a university sample. Nitrogen back home last year was a dollar to a dollar and 20 cents a pound. I saved over $130 an acre just on our nitrogen from this sample and it cost me a dollar and 30 cents an acre to run it. That's pretty easy math. When I started farming, the University of North Carolina told me that I was no-till, that I was going to have nutrient stratification and I needed to test from zero to four inches. My question is I don't farm in a flower pot, so why am I sampling that deep? We go down to two feet. We've had a giddings probe come out and on some of our farms we've sampled all the way down to four feet deep. There is a massive amount of nutrients that are available to our crops as farmers that we're not taking credit for, and every year we just keep on dumping more fertilizer on.

When you go home from this conference, my challenge to everyone in this room is pull a zero to six, a six to 12, and a 12 to 18, just three soil samples on one or two farms. You don't have to do your whole operation, but look at the amount of nutrient content that we have in the top foot and a half a profile. And the thing of it is a corn crop and there are limiting factors. If you have a high water table, I understand that. If you're farming, I don't know some of the people in Missouri, I've seen so many rocks in you all's field. I don't know how you all farm at all in Missouri. It's crazy. If you have limiting factors, I understand that. But if you have decent farm ground, start sampling deeper. Look at that available nutrient load and stop overloading. You're not making money that way.

So the day that we all understand this image, everything changes. So the reason I got up on stage and I showed you our entire production, I showed you what we used. The things that we did, is I hope that it sparks some interest in changing your operation, doing something a little different and you make more money doing it while you have fun farming. If farming wasn't fun, I don't know why any of us would do it, but we've all got to stick together and we've all got to help each other. So this is my team. These are the mentors, the people that have helped me in my journey. This is the reason I don't mind sharing our information so freely is in the last 10 years I've had so many different farmers tell me their information, tell me their failures, their successes, and it really has accelerated us to where we are today. Do you all have any questions?

Speaker 3:

How many years do I really need to do a cover crop before you would implement reduce nitrogen and fertility and all this kind of stuff?

Russell Hedrick:

How many years do you need to do cover crops before you reduce nitrogen and fertility? It depends on how intensive you are with the cover crops. You can do 30 pounds of wheat and call that a cover crop. But wheat's got a crappy root system. I mean, it'll hold dirt together. It'll stop some erosion, but you're not going to pull subsoil nutrients up. You're not going to see as much cycling, you're not going to see as much carbon in the residue of wheat as you would with rye, triticale and oats mixed together. All of these management decisions are a function of you, not the tool. It depends on how much you want to push the tool and utilize it. So if you're doing five to seven way cover crop mixes with grasses, legumes and brassicas, broadleafs, if you're pushing this stuff hard, you can see nutrient cycling start within as little as 12 to 24 months.

But it also depends on water. So where I'm farming at, we're getting 35 to 45 inches of rain a year. I mean, we're blessed with rainfall. Most of it comes in the wintertime. So if you can't store it's not much of a benefit. But if you're farming in, I don't know, the last couple of years, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Western Kansas, and you're getting five to 10 inches of rain a year, it may take you 10 years to do what we can do in one year with 40 inches of rain. So rainfall and water are always key, but the way that this stuff works, these Haney tests, these cover crop tests, the PLFA, those are the tools that we can use as farmers to know, not guess in months, but to know you pull that test and you see where your biological activity is and how it's changed and you can see the nutrient release on the Haney test. These are the tools that scientifically prove that this is when we can cut back. So that's how we do it. We use the tools.

Speaker 4:

We're interested in using the Haney test. We have used it to date. So how many times a year are you pulling that multiple times and was the best time prior to planning mid-summer, better understanding of how to use that test?

Russell Hedrick:

So the question was is when do we pull the Haney test? How often do we use it? Is it in season? Is it a certain time of year? When we first started using these practices, we would typically pull a Haney test in the spring, the summer and the fall. It gave us a good read on how it changes. So everybody says, "Well, if I pull a Haney test today and I pull a Haney test tomorrow, then it's going to change." It will. It's a function of a biological system, but it's no different than Olsen, Bray or milic. If you pull milic on Monday and then pull it again on Wednesday, you'll still get a different result because you're not pulling the same exact core.

Where we're at now is we pull a Haney test in the spring, typically when the ground's 55 degrees and warming. Just understand if you go out in Illinois right now or two weeks ago and it was like negative 40 degrees, your sole respiration on a Haney test would probably be like a two. So I mean, you are reading, functioning and active biological organisms in the soil. So if you have time to do it in the spring, I like the spring pools because it gives me a clearer picture of what I've got going into that season. If you're farming so many acres or you don't have enough labor, then pull it in the fall. But just understand that you're going to miss some of that nitrogen credit that you're going to build with cover crops or residue breakdown or that nutrient release back out of the residue.

So there's reasons to look at it in different ways, but fit it into your operation. But try to do it the same time every single year so that you're seeing even measurements throughout the season. Don't try to do something in November and compare that to one in April because they're definitely going to be vastly different.

Speaker 5:

There's a couple of questions on the whova app about soil probes. Someone's asking what the brand is, what the cost is, and then how do you determine how many you need per field?

Russell Hedrick:

So the soil probes that we use are from a company called AquaSpy. They've got a really nice website. They're based out of North Carolina. Steve Quinlan is their CEO. The cost on them is seven to $800 to actually buy the probe, the station and the receiver. It's a one-time cost to actually buy the system. For us to use their satellites. So I get an email on my phone, you can set up your alerts. Mine's like six o'clock in the morning and it gives me a read of what my crop did through the night. Did it rain? Where's our moisture at? The service or the subscription cost us $600 a year. So we have a one-time fee with the probe, and then we're paying $600 per year per probe to use their service and get the data.

How many you need per field? I mean, this was actually built for farmers with irrigation. They're running one per pivot. Like if you've got 100, 120 acre pivot, they're running one per pivot. I'm running in most of our fields two because we're using one in our regenerative practice plot. And then the other side of the field has our standard just no-till practices or our tilled practices that we're using within our demonstration plots. So we have one or two at least in the field. Some fields we've had three of them, but the cost is really not that high of a cost for the data and the management that we're getting from them. Did you have another one?

Speaker 5:

Someone's asking how does your system change in higher clay soils?

Russell Hedrick:

We've all got a shovel. So when I started farming, we had very tight... Is that Keith? So I'm going to pick on him for a minute. Hey, what year did we go to Arkansas that you came to my farm? So 2014, NRCS paid a bunch of their employees to come to North Carolina to do a soil health school. Ray Archuleta calls me and said, "Hey. I've got all these NRCSs DCs from around the country. I want to show them your farm." I was like, "Great, bring them out." So they drive from Greensburg to hickory hour and a half drive. We're walking one of my best fields, like this is my proud field.

While we're walking this proud field, I meet a man named Keith Goggins who farms in Arkansas, and Keith said, "How long have you been farming this?" I said, "Man, we've had this field for four years now. This is a great farm. We've really got the nutrient cycling up. The cover crops are doing great. I wouldn't pull my equipment out of the or out of my barn to farm this field." I never got to make fun of you for that, but I'm glad I did in front of an audience now.

So how it changed was it went from a high iron, clay content, no soil aggregation. Our soil respirations on the Haney test when we first started doing it in 2013, were anywhere from about a 60 to 80. Our organic carbon was probably 100 or less. If you plant a cover crop, if you do control traffic, if you limit your impact on that soil and you're doing these good regenerative practices, you will see one inch of aggregation per year. It doesn't matter where you go in the world. I've been to 46 states and nine countries. You go down to Brazil, Dr. Caligari, he's been doing these cover crops for about 40 some years. They dug a root pit 48 inches deep, about four to five feet deep in the ground. You saw complete aggregation from top to bottom in that root pit.

I've got a farm at Rocky Ford Road that we've been farming for, this'll be our 11th year coming up. And if you go on that side, you'll see about a foot of aggregation. You can take a spade shovel, dig down in the ground, you'll see roughly 12 inches. We cleared another 15 acres on that farm when we cut the timber off of it. And if you walk across that line where we cut that timber and cleared that ground, it's about five years behind where we started farming on Rocky Ford Road, you'll see about seven inches of aggregation.

So these are tools that you can look at as a farmer. Go dig in your shovel. See how much aggregation, it's not hard to tell because that clay will have a real... They call it a fragile pan, but it's just a bunch of smush clay particles in different silt layers, and you can see that visually. And then on top of that, you'll see that aggregated soil that almost looks like a brownie or chocolate cake. I mean, that's how we see our clays change and we also see them changing color instead of that iron content and that high orange color, we'll see them turn into that darker black and brown color.

Speaker 3:

When you're pulling bricks tests, do you take just the leaf parts or do you take the whole plant above the soil surface?

Russell Hedrick:

When we're doing our bricks readings, say on soybeans. On soybeans, we go to the newest leafs and we're taking those, just the leaf. We don't actually take the stem of the plant. I'm just reading the leaf because there are a few insects that are going to feed on the stem. Most of the ones I'm worried about are feeding on the leaf. So when we're taking it, we're checking our leaf content and we're doing it that way. Understand when you're reading bricks contents, it can change. If it's a sunny day, a cloudy day, what time you pull it. There's a lot of things that can influence the bricks level with inside of a corn or a soybean plant. So we try to do it at the same time in the morning, and we try to do it on a day where the sun's out without overcast, and that way we're getting as true of a read as we can on reading those bricks levels.

Michaela Paukner:

Thanks to Russell Hedrick for today's conversation. For a transcript and video of this podcast, go to and watch for an article detailing Russell's practices, including his soybean program that he mentioned in the October issue of No-Till Farmer. Many thanks to Sound Agriculture for helping to make this No-Till Podcast series possible. From all of us here at No-Till Farmer, I'm Michaela Paukner. Thanks for listening.