Pictured Above: NEW START. Johnny Hunter is taking a leap of faith, replacing a system of intensive tillage and furrow irrigation in the Missouri Bootheel for a model that focuses on rebuilding soils, ‘planting green’ and reducing irrigation. “We’re starting with the basics by cutting out the tillage and keeping the ground covered for as many days out of the year as possible,” he says.
The journey Johnny Hunter is taking isn’t for the faint of heart. It started during the summer of 2012, when a historic drought blasted the Missouri Bootheel and much of the U.S.
Hunter, who has been farming on his own since 2006, was irrigating but raised his worst crops ever that year. He’d been able to raise 200-bushel corn and 70-bushel soybeans in good years, but the numbers weren’t adding up in his favor.
Even though his farmland near Essex, Mo., sees 50 inches of annual rainfall, most growers in that area use raised beds, cultivation and furrow irrigation for crops. Hunter attributed his losses that fateful year to a lack of water infiltration from years of discing, field cultivating and landplaning.
“It really scared me because I always thought irrigation could save me from anything. But it didn’t,” Hunter says.
One Saturday, he started watching YouTube videos about cover crops and a presentation by NRCS soil health expert Ray Archuleta.
Hunter was moved enough to contact Archuleta and he called the next day. They talked for an hour and Hunter decided to make big changes — plowing under the raised beds in his fields and implementing a no-till, cover-crop system in 2013.
Hunter plans to wean his farm completely off of irrigation and use the area’s plentiful rainfall to raise his crops, as well as utilize improved soil health to reduce the farm’s dependency on fertilizers and herbicides.
Hunter is one of a handful of growers in southeastern Missouri converting their farm management to no-till, and they’re supporting each other. Their fields covered with tall, yellow rape in the spring have been hard for other farmers to ignore.
“This planter signifies the future and direction we’re going — less equipment, less maintenance and more profit…”
“If I achieve success with no-till and cover crops, it will be because I have a group of guys I’m doing this with,” he says. “If I was doing this by myself it would be easy to get discouraged, because I would be a laughingstock. They can’t laugh at all of us.”
Shaping Up Soils
Up until recently, Hunter was no-tilling about 2,200 acres of crops, but he’s adding 3,200 acres to the fold after connecting with a farmer looking to retire. Hunter says this partner didn’t want to make seismic changes to his operation as retirement approaches, but he’s supportive of Hunter’s use of no-till and cover crops.
Hunter is beginning to manage that land, which had been farmed with conventionally tilled, 38-inch raised beds, so it’s calibrated to no-till practices.
So now Hunter no-tills 1,100 acres of field corn, 800 acres of popcorn, 850 acres of soybeans, 1,200 acres of cotton, 1,000 acres of rice and 400 acres of pumpkins. He raises corn and soybeans in 20-inch rows, cotton in 40-inch rows and rice in 7½ inch spacings.
Hunter is bringing the new farms under the Albrecht method for soil sampling and determining appropriate soil amendments and running them through the Solvita and Haney tests to get a reading on soil biological activity.
One immediate challenge for Hunter has been developing a management system for highly variable soils. He can drive 30 minutes from his office and find absolute blow sand, as well as heavy clay gumbo and silty clay loam.
“It’s like trying to eat an elephant,” Hunter says of the transition he’s facing. “It’s a lot to take on at one time, so we’re starting with the basics by cutting out the tillage and keeping the ground covered for as many days out of the year as possible.”
He’s been surprised to learn that in fields where pH levels are acceptable, liming based on calcium saturation levels is beneficial because it can improve soil texture and water infiltration, and it helps soils hold nutrients better.
“In farms that I’ve taken on that were brought into that system, you can tell a difference in productivity,” he says.
Another thing Hunter learned early on about converting fields to no-till is paying attention to vehicle traffic.
GREENING UP. Essex, Mo., no-tiller Johnny Hunter uses this 36-row John Deere DB60 planter, outfitted with DawnBiologic’s ZRX cover crop roller-crimper-row cleaner units (inset), to plant corn, soybeans and cotton into living cover-crop mixes.
“Even if it’s spraying or fertilizing traffic, one bad session with a piece of equipment can force your hand on keeping that field in the shape you want it,” he notes.
The machine that most symbolizes the transformation taking place on Hunter’s farm is the reconfigured planter he rolled out this past spring to plant most of his corn, soybeans and cotton.
Last fall, he bought a 36-row John Deere DB60 planter from a seller in Kentucky and began planning some changes to the machine so he could plant corn and soybeans in 20-inch spacings into a living cover crop.
After some preliminary phone discussions, he shipped the machine up to Dawn Equipment’s headquarters in Sycamore, Ill., to have the company’s ZRX hydraulic roller-crimper-row cleaner system installed, and finished off with Dawn Curvetine closing wheels.
LESS WATER. This former 18-row Orthman Mfg. BedLister was transformed into a “Furrow Runner” with 20-inch scalloped disc furrowers to cut a narrow, deep groove in the soil that allows irrigation water to run through high-residue fields. Missouri no-tiller Johnny Hunter uses the rig to sidedress 20-inch corn with 28-0-0-4 or 32% in corn in the V2-V4 growth stage.
The special row units are designed to roll and crimp covers flat to the ground as corn is planted. The smooth or hipper rollers that Hunter hired someone to pull across fields with a tractor to kill covers in previous years worked, but was still costly.
“I’m trying to scale down to a more profitable size and knew I wanted cover crops on the ground,” he says. “Now we’re rolling and planting at the same time. This planter signifies the future and direction we’re going — less equipment, less maintenance and more profit.”
The conversion was indeed a challenge, Hunter notes, because Dawn hadn’t put the ZRX rollers on such a large planter before. But he was happy with the engineering and custom pieces the company fabricated to make it work.
“One of the bigger challenges was making the roller system fit where a tire was going to be in the way,” Hunter says. “The whole back row runs close to the tires, so Dawn had to come up with a bracket to set back the planter units to set back the roller unit.
“We’re starting with the basics by cutting out the tillage and keeping the ground covered for as many days out of the year as possible…”
“On the winged frame there is a lot more clearance so they were able to mount the planter unit as normal.”
This past April, Hunter planted corn into a cover-crop mix of annual ryegrass, hairy vetch, radish and crimson clover, 48 hours after terminating the vegetation.
“Annual ryegrass doesn’t historically lay down quite as well as cereal rye or barley, so we like having different things in the mix that will hold it down,” Hunter says. “We want to let it go until it’s waist high or so, so we’re getting as much biomass in the soil as we can.”
Hunter says his stands were good for the first year. With rainy weather delaying planting this past spring, two planters were rolling on Hunter’s farm and that gave him a chance to evaluate the results with the ZRX planter vs. another Deere DB60 with a more typical no-till setup planting into cover crops.
He says having the cover crops put flat on the ground by the rollers at planting vs. planting into standing covers allowed corn and soybeans to emerge an average of 2 weeks earlier, most likely due to receiving more sunlight.
Hunter’s second planter for planting soybeans and cotton is 36 rows and includes Martin trash wheels, cast iron closing wheels and Precision Planting’s 20/20 SeedSense monitor and CleanSweep pneumatic down-pressure system for the trash wheels.
Although he feels the brittle fittings for the down-pressure system presented another opportunity for something to break, “I liked the fact that I can quickly change the settings from the cabin and not have to get out and adjust 36 individual rows,” he says.
Splitting Up ‘N’
Hunter splits his nitrogen (N) applications several ways with corn to keep it available for the crop at the right time. Ahead of planting, he has diammonium phosphate (DAP) and potash spread at a variable rate determined by the fertilizer co-op he works with.
“I always thought irrigation could save me from anything. But it didn’t…”
At planting, Hunter usually applies 5-10 gallons of 3-18-18 in furrow, followed by sidedressing at the V2-V4 stage.
Hunter also normally does a late-season dry application of urea (46-0-0) around pre-tassel if his crop scout detects a need for more N through chlorophyll monitoring done throughout the season.
“If we get to tassel and find that we don’t need it, we won’t put it out there,” he says.
Hunter is also doing some soil probing to find out how much N cover crops are fixing. Last year, he found covers made him an average of 74 pounds of N.
“We made the decision not to make any additional N applications to the corn,” last year, he says. “That was a savings of $28-$29 an acre, which almost paid for the cover crop.”
The predominant irrigation method in southeastern Missouri is furrow irrigation, where water is run down large channels in between ridge-till beds created by disc hippers.
But Hunter and a few other farmers in his area are using a machine developed by Perkins Sales in Bernie, Mo., called a “Furrow Runner.”
Also known as a “Perkins Plow” by some growers in the region, the unit uses 20-inch scalloped disc furrowers to cut a narrow, deep groove in the soil to allow irrigation water to run through high-residue fields. The furrowers are followed by torsion-loaded steel packer wheels.
Furrow Runner in Action
To see a video of the Furrow Runner being used in the field, go to www.no-tillfarmer.com/furrowrunner.
Hunter’s machine is a former 18-row Orthman Mfg. BedLister on 40-inch spacings that he uses not only to water every other row middle, but also to sidedress 28-0-0-4 or 32% in corn in the V2-V4 growth stage.
The fertilizer is injected through nozzles located where the furrowers meet together. Hunter outfitted the rig with a GreenStar rate controller, along with CDS-John Blue Visa-Gage II flow monitors that he says are, “a very inexpensive solution for a very expensive problem of possibly not putting out enough fertilizer.”
While he’s not ready to abandon irrigation yet, the Furrow Runner’s narrow channels do keep more plant residue on the ground. A 1,700-gallon fertilizer tank is pulled behind the Furrow Runner.
“This machine is a bridge to get from where we are to where we’re going,” Hunter says. “With 20-inch-row corn we will need to be ‘Johnny on the Spot’ with this tool sidedressing corn.”
Hunter’s primary goals for cover crops are improving soil health, reducing soil and nutrient losses, scavenging nutrients for the next crop and fixing N with legumes.
COVER UP. In fields going to corn, Johnny Hunter likes to seed a mix of annual ryegrass, hairy vetch, rape, radish and crimson clover in the fall to address compaction issues and fix nitrogen (N) for the next crop. Last year he found cover crops helped him take as much as a 74-pound N credit.
Ahead of corn, Hunter likes to seed annual ryegrass, hairy vetch, radish, rape and crimson or red clover. Ahead of soybeans and cotton, Hunter opts for cereal rye, black oats, hairy vetch and possibly rape, radish or purple top turnips.
“We’ve got compaction issues and annual ryegrass alleviates that, so we keep it moving through the rotation so we’re always working on compaction,” he says.
“To say we have a science behind what we’re doing would be false, as we’re still in the learning phase on what works and doesn’t work. We can have a blistering cold winter or a mild winter, so we must gauge the weather.”
Weed control is another benefit Hunter is seeing from covers, as he notes soybean and cotton fields seeded with cereal rye appear to be keeping Palmer amaranth populations in check. And he adds that fields with cover crops did a better job managing spring moisture, even better than his conventional tillage neighbors in some cases.
Hunter is still evaluating the best seeding methods for his farm. Last year he was able to seed covers on 65% of his crop acres with either aerial seeding or a spreader truck, while this year he is shooting for 90-95% using aerial application or his 42-foot John Deere 1890 air seeder and commodity cart.
“Behind corn I want to be drilling them because I have a good window,” he says. “With cotton or soybeans that tend to come off later we will be relying on the airplane.”