A dozen profitable ideas for soil health from an "inexperienced" young no-till farmer

Each season, no-till farmers are realizing more fully how to replace costly fertilizers and chemicals by unleashing soil biology.

An enthusiastic example: Russell Hedrick, who farms in the rolling hills of Catawba County near Hickory, North Carolina. From our travels in that region, we can appreciate the challenges he faced when he started farming about 10 years ago. He tells farmer audiences that he had little capital and no farming experience, but saw both limitations as an advantage: "I didn't have any bad habits." 

He developed the best possible habit for today's ag economy: a low-cost, biologically based, no-till farm which emphasized profit margins, not high rates of purchased inputs and "economy of scale" in more and more acres.

We encourage you to watch the video and other press reports linked below.

But here are a few teasers which Russell and his wife accomplished. These points are especially relevant now, when the need to be resilient is critical to survive through a prolonged stretch of low grain prices.

— He teamed no-till with cover crops, leveraging the mild climate of North Carolina to take full advantage of the long growing season. Results: Organic matter on his rolling soils climbed into the 4% to 5% range. He hasn't needed fungicide or insecticide. He can raise 175-bu. or better corn with less than a half-pound of applied nitrogen. It's not bushels he's after, it's profit per acre.

__ He includes rotation-grazed cattle in his operation, extracting pounds of beef from cover crops before planting cash crops into them. Also has hogs.

Russell Hedrick's no-till beans emerging

— He applies low-cost technologies such as a Yetter Devastator on the front bar of his planter, to flatten and crimp tractor-tall cover crops with the planting trip. The photo here shows soybeans emerging through the laid-down cover crop of cereal rye, oats, triticale, winter peas, crimson clover and canola. (His video explains his cover-crop mix of six species.) Each species of cover stimulates at least 10 species of microbial life. This rich array of bacteria and fungi devour the previous year's crop residue, converting it into nutrients for a second harvest.

— Because of diverse soil biology, he hasn't needed fungicides or insecticides. He doesn't use glyphosate. If some of the crimped-down cover crops need termination, he sprays a blend of non-selective herbicides to reduce the odds of resistant weeds. Generally, the flattened cover crops suppress weeds between rows. He plants only when soil is warm enough for quick emergence, so corn and beans pop up and shade weeds in the row.

— He grows only non-GMO crops. And markets 90% of his crop via the internet, usually for a premium. Some of his corn goes at a premium to a North Carolina distillery for a unique brand of bourbon and moonshine called Seventeen Twelve

Here are several sources for the rest of Russel's story. Main one to catch his enthusiasm is the 35-minute video. If you're on Facebook you can review his farm, JRH Farms LLC at this link.

Russell Hedrick's 35-minute presentation at No-Till Farmer's 2018 conference:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?=141&v=Qg8Kbq6Ak_g

You can also go directly to YouTube.com and do a search on that site for Russell Hedrick hickory nc and see a variety of videos on his farm.  Here's a brief commentary that sums up the need for his approach: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjBch3Z3rsw&frags=pl%2Cwn

Summary on the National Association of Conservation Districts website: 

http://www.nacdnet.org/soil-champs/southeast/russell-hedrick/

Two overviews from the Southeastern Farm Press, dating back to 2014:

http://www.southeastfarmpress.com/grains/north-carolina-farmer-russell-hedrick-gets-max-cover-crop-mix

http://www.southeastfarmpress.com/soybeans/russell-hedrick-turns-just-four-inches-rain-good-dryland-yield#slide-0-field_images-115801