Tennessee farmers deeply understand the importance of conserving and caring for soil and water. After all, the land and its health are central to their livelihood.
Ricky Essary and Raymond Cooper are two of West Tennessee’s many farmers using innovative farming practices to manage soil nutrients – practices that are making their farms viable for the next generation.
“We used to do a lot of tillage,” says Essary, who lives in Milledgeville. “Then we started no-till farming to keep down soil erosion.”
Spare the Plow, Cover the Soil
No-till farming is a technique that abandons the use of a plow and other mechanical devices that turn the soil, also known as tillage farming. In contrast, no-till leaves soil undisturbed, reducing soil erosion and water loss. Farmers rely on natural processes to break down what is left in a field after a crop is harvested.
Essary farms with his son, Kevin, and son-in-law, Jason Cherry. They no-till 98 percent of their 4,000 corn and soybean acres, he says.
Essary started to improve no-till fields by seeding cover crops. His first cover crop was tillage radish. The specialty variety can quickly grow a radish root, longer than one foot, which decomposes after the first winter frost. That naturally exposes the soil, reducing compaction.
“The soil just seemed spongier when we planted, we could tell the seedbed was better,” Essary says.
Tillage radishes are just one ingredient in the cover crop “recipes” Essary uses each year. Legumes like Austrian peas and clover form symbiotic relationships with soil bacteria. They naturally take nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it in the soil to plant- available forms of nitrogen needed for the next year’s corn crop.
Sunflowers grow quickly after seeding; oats and ryegrass provide winter cover and soak up excessive rainfall. Forage varieties of turnips, kale and collards stay green over the winter.
“I feel like I need at least five or six different species in the cover; I like seven or eight better,” Essary says.
The vegetative cover helps keep nutrients in the soil, reducing potential water runoff from rain and snow while improving soil structure.
“We see less water runoff, more organic matter in the soil and more productivity from fields where we’ve had cover crops,” Essary says. “I see the money we spend on seeding cover crops as worth the investment. It makes the soil healthier.”
There’s a benefit to the local landscape, too. “Our neighbors and landlords, they just love seeing these fields green, even during the winter,” Essary adds.
Grass for Generations
At first, Cooper had no idea establishing more grassland on his 300-acre farm near Morrison would pave a path for the next generation.
“I figured if I could graze the cattle on pastures more, instead of feeding hay in the winter, I could cut my costs,” he recalls.
Cooper started dividing his pastures into smaller fields in the 1980s, adopting a system called intensive rotational grazing. He also started turning the farm’s 150 acres of cropland, mainly hay and corn, into permanent pasture. By the early 2000s, Cooper had sold all his hay equipment, and pastures supported 100 cow-calf pairs with minimal hay purchases
for winter feeding.
Most fields are a cool-season mix of perennial tall fescue and clover.
“The farm is now all grass; there are over 20 fields, each 10 to 15 acres in size,” Cooper says. A heat-loving hybrid, sorghum-sudangrass, is sown annually in a few fields, for faster-growing summer forage.
Rotational grazing involves careful attention to soil and pasture health, as overgrazing is avoided.
“You get better utilization of your forage and much better utilization of the manure,” Cooper says.
Manure more evenly distributed is more likely to return nutrients to the soil, and healthy pasture growth provides a winter cover, reducing potential surface water runoff.
A pipeline delivers well water to 13 four-hole livestock waterers in the pastures. Working closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Cannon County Soil Conservation District, Cooper fenced off his farm ponds and created a permanent buffer strip along the creek that crosses the farm. The creek is a potential habitat for a threatened fish species, the Barrens topminnow.
The rotational grazing system paved the way for Cooper’s son, Andrew, to return to the farm. Andrew established a grass-based dairy herd on the farm in 2008, when his father retired from full-time farming. He milks 125 cows from March to November, matching the most productive months of the perennial pastures.
“It has worked out very well as a dairy. He’s doing better than what I did with the beef herd,” Cooper says.
The Tennessee Department of Agriculture has participated with Essary and Cooper in conservation practices through its Agricultural Resources Conservation Fund, in partnership with USDA and the soil conservation districts in Hardin and Cannon counties. As demonstrated by these farmers, the investment in conservation practices often has an impact on the state’s resources lasting for generations.