Conservation Tillage Systems in the Southeast

Case Study: Glenn Acres Farm, Hillsboro, Alabama

Overview

Editor’s note: This case study was written in 2009 and updated in 2018.

“It was the worst farm in the Valley in the fall of 1995,” Don Glenn says to describe his farm when he and his brother, Brian, took it over. There were gullies big enough to bury a tractor and creeks that were silted in from decades of conventional tillage and abuse. One farm had 238 acres of cotton but the eroded hilltops were not planted. Today, that same farm has 385 acres of no-till corn, wheat and soybeans. Ultimate plans are to produce five crops in three years and to continue to improve soil quality. The farm has not seen a plow since the Glenns took over.

Figure 17.2

FIGURE 17.2. Panoramic view of a portion of Glenn Acres Farm in the Tennessee Valley of northern Alabama.

The Glenns are fourth-generation farmers in northwestern Lawrence County near the Tennessee River. Their father, Eugene, raised alfalfa and sold hay. The family had been in the dairy business, the cattle business and the poultry business until they sold their last farm for a City of Decatur industrial park. Today a huge steel mill sits on the former farm. Brian notes that when they gave up commercial hay production, they could no longer afford to have cattle. Today, it is all grain. The Glenns never were traditional Tennessee Valley cotton farmers, a fact that probably contributed to their ability to implement no-till practices. Today, the farm consists of about 2,000 acres of grain crops, primarily corn followed by double-cropped wheat and soybeans. They have had canola in the rotation but currently are not growing it due to the loss of their market for it. Both brothers emphasize that they take a systems approach to farming and look for crops that fit into their system. They stick with the system regardless of commodity prices. The brothers do most of the work with some help from their families. There is only one hired laborer.

The following are questions about Glenn Acres Farm asked directly to Brian and Don Glenn. The answers to the questions are direct quotations and combined responses from both brothers.

Why do you use conservation tillage?

To stay in business. We wouldn’t be farming today if it were not for no-till. Economics and labor costs cannot justify the time it takes to till the land. When we first began, our plans were to no-till for three or four years and then come back and deep rip the land. As we saw our bean (soybeans) and corn yields go up with no-till, we decided not to till in spite of research that showed you needed to deep-till wheat. We thought we’d just give up some yield on wheat and make up for it with increased corn and bean yields. Soon we saw that our wheat yields were going up because of soil improvements from no-till, better drainage and more root channels left in place. Roots do a better job of tilling than a subsoiler.

What conservation tillage practices work best for you?

We’re 100 percent no-till into the previous crop residue. We’ve never been cotton farmers because it’s easier to make grain work with no-till than cotton. We saw so many neighbors no-till grain and maybe one cotton crop and then complain because of soil compaction. They’d get out the moldboard plow to correct the situation and they were back where they started. We’ve found that the more residue we have, the easier it is to get back in the field. Every crop is rotated. We’re working toward a rotation of year one, corn followed by canola in the fall; year two, soybeans planted after canola harvest with wheat in the fall; and year three, soybeans following wheat harvest.

What is the biggest advantage of conservation tillage on these soils?

The residue. Residue is as important as the crop itself. We have seen yields go up as organic matter increases in the surface soils. We attribute this to increased water infiltration and increased soil water-holding capacity. We used to sell wheat straw when we were in the hay business. When we stopped selling the straw, our fertilizer bill went down. The residue is our friend. We just have to learn to manage it better. Because of the residue, we can plant our entire crop in four to five days and harvest in 10 days without hired labor. We can have a crop planted using no-till while you would still be waiting on the soil to dry out for conventional tillage.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?

Initially, all this land was severely eroded. In addition, our soils are highly variable. In one 50-acre field, there are 16 soil-mapping units that we have to treat differently. This is one reason we went with precision agriculture along with no-till. High crop residues have caused some problems, but these are the kind of problems we can manage. For example, the toughest challenge is drilling soybeans into wheat residue behind a conventional combine. We bought a stripper head for our combine to harvest the wheat because it left the wheat standing so we could drill soybeans the same day we harvest the wheat. We did have a difficult time planting soybeans after our 100 bushels per acre wheat yields.

Do you use or have you tried any in-row subsoiling like they do in the sandy Coastal Plain soils?

Subsoiling pulls up clods in these soils. We use absolutely no tillage and we let the plant roots do the subsoiling. We’re always looking for deep-rooted crops to include in the system.

Do you use cover crops?

No. We never could find a cover crop that fit into our system other than another grain. Residue from our crops is our cover crop. The only winter when our soil has no crop is the winter before planting corn. We harvest soybeans so late in the fall that no cover crop would be able to make significant growth before corn planting in late March. Because of the residue it leaves, wheat was the first crop we planted when transitioning to a conservation tillage system. Get a good stand of the wheat and from then on it is easy.

Any final comments?

It’s all about organic matter, organic matter and organic matter, and residue, residue and residue. When we first started farming this land and tried to take grid samples, we could not get a soil sampling tube into the ground. However, we noticed that where there was a clump of crop residue, we could scrape off the residue and the tube went easily into the soil. The soil beneath the residue was moist, not dried out like the bare soil. Now, we have no problem sampling every acre whenever we need to. We were inspired by the early no-till research and the field days at Milan, Tenn. Then, a 1999 trip to Brazil convinced us that we could be just as successful as the Brazilians at no-till farming.

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