Conservation Tillage Systems in the Southeast

Case Study: Jimmy Miller and Pat Whitley, Sandstone Plateau

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

Jimmy Miller farms with his nephew, Lance Miller, in northern Blount County, Ala., near the community of Snead. Most of his acreage is on Wynnville fine sandy loams on the southwestern end of the Sand Mountain plateau. Jimmy is a fifth-generation farmer in this area and notes that his great, great grandfather, who served in the Civil War, is buried near the family farm. Jimmy started farming in 1964 but, like most farmers in the area, did not try conservation tillage until the mid-1980s when he planted his first no-till corn. He planted his first no-till cotton in 1997 when Roundup Ready cotton was introduced. He has been using high-residue, no-till on his corn, soybeans and cotton ever since. He tries to strip-till one-third of his cotton each year so that every three years, all of the acres have been strip-tilled. In 2009, Jimmy and Lance planted around 400 acres of cotton, 100 acres of soybeans and 36 acres of corn using conservation tillage. For the first time since 1985, Jimmy planted 110 acres of peanuts in 2009. He was advised to use conventional tillage on his peanuts this year but he is already making plans to plant them into rye residue following cotton in 2010. Jimmy and Lance also own four broiler houses. Lance’s wife, Stephanie, works in them. Jimmy points out that in 2008, one 44-acre field of cotton planted in rye cover crop residue had the highest yield, over 1,300 pounds lint per acre. It still lost some bolls to an early freeze. Their overall farm average was 1,076 pounds lint per acre. All of the 2009 cotton was no-till. They usually try to plant behind a strip-till into the rye residue, but the planting window was narrowed due to a wet spring, and they did not have time to strip-till. They attribute the high cotton yields to soil improvements from conservation tillage. Jimmy serves on the Alabama Cotton Commission and is chairman of the Alabama State Cotton Committee.

Pat Whitley started farming in 1980. He lives down the road from the Millers and they farm similar land and work closely together. Both Jimmy Miller and Pat Whitley are part owners of the nearby Rainbow Gin Company, Inc. Pat looks at Jimmy and is quick to exclaim, “That’s my teacher!” They use very similar techniques on their farms and farm the same type of rolling, terraced fields typical of the Sandstone Plateau region. Pat has one field on a Decatur silty-clay loam (red land) in one of the narrow valleys in Blount County. He has about 850 acres of cotton, 200 acres of corn, 140 acres of soybeans and 140 acres of peanuts. In addition, he also owns six broiler houses that are managed by his wife, Kathy. The Whitleys have some cattle on pasture too. Pat admits that you can’t get more diversified than this and it does keep them busy.

The following are some questions about Jimmy Miller’s and Pat Whitley’s farming operations. The answers to the questions represent combined responses from both producers.

Why did you switch to conservation tillage?

Pat was quick to answer that the number one reason they went with conservation tillage was to save on labor. Jimmy and Lance do all the work themselves. Pat has one full-time farm employee. With conservation tillage, there are fewer trips across the field, which requires less equipment and fewer operators. A related reason was fuel savings. A third reason was ease of planting in the spring. In this region, cotton is truly a full-season crop. These sandy soils do not warm up as rapidly as the red soils of the valley and because of a slightly higher altitude, they can get an earlier frost than the Tennessee Valley region just north of here. They need to take advantage of every opportunity to get cotton in as early as possible. Later, the men pointed out that they have few weed problems since they no longer disturb the soil. They pointed to their conventionally tilled peanuts and said they had more weed problems since they tilled this land for peanuts than they ever had when it was in conservation tillage for corn, soybeans or cotton.

When did you switch?

Jimmy planted his first no-till corn crop in the mid-1980s because he could control weeds with atrazine and other herbicides. Cotton weed control was still very difficult and expensive even with conventional tillage and cultivation. When Roundup Ready varieties became available in 1997, he started planting no-till or strip-tilled cotton. All their fields are relatively small compared to Tennessee Valley fields and all are on highly erodible land. Conservation tillage is the only way to farm these soils.

What winter cover crops do you use?

Rye is their only cover crop. Jimmy quoted his friend, Tom Ingram, who has been no-till farming in the South Alabama Coastal Plain region longer than any other grower in Alabama. He says, “Rye is the poor man’s irrigation!” This quote is testimony to rye’s ability to increase soil organic matter on the surface, thus increasing soil infiltration and water-holding capacity. They also claim that rye is a natural subsoiler, putting down deep roots and opening channels in compacted soils. The straw also suppresses weed growth. Rye is seeded in the fall after crop harvest at a rate of about 60 pounds per acre. They use light disking to cover the seed. Pat noted that it would be best if they had a no-till drill to use in planting the rye, but most of the no-till drills, they claim, were too small and too slow for their purpose. The rye is terminated with herbicides as soon as it begins to head, or about 30 days before planting cotton. Cotton or corn is planted directly into the rye residue without using a roller/crimper.

What are your biggest problems with conservation tillage?

Getting the rye seeded early enough to get some good fall growth has been a problem. Then, if rye is planted too thickly and it gets too big in the spring to lay down [meaning rye biomass is flattened using a roller/crimper] we can get “wrapping” on the trash wheels of the planter. This is a big problem! We can’t plant until the dew has completely dried or the wrapping is worse.

Do you in-row subsoil like they do in similar sandy Coastal Plain soils?

Jimmy bought a four-shank paratill a few years back, tried it and then put it away. In order for it to work well, he has to pull it too deeply in these shallow, sandstone plateau soils. That uses a lot of fuel, which defeats one of our purposes for using conservation tillage. Most of the soils that Jimmy and Pat farm are Wynnville fine sandy loams and these have a natural fragipan about 2 feet deep. Tillage will not help with this naturally occurring, dense soil layer. Pulling the paratill shallow only pulled up clods. Unlike most Coastal Plain soils, they have found that most of the traffic compaction from the cotton picker is shallow, less than 6 inches. Strip tilling about 6–8 inches deep at planting with their Remlinger no-till rig seems to work just fine. Jimmy notes, “The ground is not as hard as it used to be. Rye roots do more than all the plowing you can do. We now have more earthworms to do the tilling than we ever had with conventional tillage.”

Do you use winter legumes as cover crops?

No. They have found that in this region, they would have to wait until May to kill the clover in order to get maximum benefit from the fixed nitrogen. This is just too late to plant for their region.

Final comments?

Both producers have built dry-stack facilities for temporary storage of broiler litter, which is the main source of nutrients used on their cotton and corn. As a result, most fields test very high in phosphorus and high in potassium. Today, the broiler litter is mainly used as a source of nitrogen. Jimmy has found that 2–3 tons per acre at planting is enough in most years to produce a crop of non-irrigated cotton or corn. A ton of boiler litter will contain about 60-60-40 pounds N-P-K. One of the reasons they wanted to grow peanuts, a legume, was to take advantage of the very high fertility levels without having to apply additional broiler litter for the nitrogen as in cotton and corn.