Arkansas farmers switch to cover crops and keep the family farming for another generation

Adam Chappell knows cotton like only a farmer who lives and farms near a town called Cotton Plant, Arkansas, possibly could.

For four generations the Chappell family has raised cotton, just like their neighbors have since before the Civil War. Conventional wisdom and generations of cotton farmers say that there is only one way to raise a cotton crop, and that’s to use tillage and crop protection inputs. No matter the cost.

But Chappell and his brother Seth took a leap of faith in 2010, and changed the family farm to using cover crops for weed control instead of tillage and herbicides, he said. It was a leap that neither knew would end up well, but was forced upon them by Mother Nature, economics and the highly prolific glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth.

A decade later and they’re still farming. They still have competitive yields, but they’ve also reduced input costs by 50 to 60%. It’s a success story Chappell shared with attendees at High Plains Journal’s 2020 Soil Health U and Trade Show, in January, in Salina, Kansas.

Backs against the wall

“I was broke, my family was broke, we had a weed that was putting us down, a grain elevator that had gone out of business after we delivered corn and never paid us, record flooding in 2010 that took our homes, and then record drought in 2012,” Chappell said. “If we had kept doing things the way we had been doing them, I’d have been broke and doing something else. But cover crops and regenerative agriculture meant survivability to me.

“Our backs were against the wall,” he added. “We either changed or we would die.”

At the time, in 2010, Adam, his brother, Seth, and their father were sharecropping cotton, corn and soybeans on about 10,000 acres. Soybeans were gaining more of a slice of the farm pie, even though, as Chappell explained, his father was getting more for his soybeans in 1973 than the $8.14  they were getting in 2010. Sure, the yields were doubled from 1973 to 2010, he said, but the cost of inputs had risen 400%.

Adding to the situation was that Palmer amaranth was becoming resistant to Roundup.

“So, when it quit, that’s when the wheels started coming off,” Chappell said. Sure, they could use more products with differing modes of action. They could overlap the use of residuals, add chopping crews and go back to using cultivators in the field, but that was throwing money at the problem that they didn’t have, he said.

“Those methods will work if you get the weeds before they get out of the ground, or if at the cotyledon stage, or if you get a rain to activate it and have good coverage,” he said. “But if the plant goes to seed you start all over again the next year.” And with an herbicide bill upwards of $150 per acre, Chappell started looking at alternatives from the organic sector. There he found a Pennsylvania farmer using cover crops to block weeds for his pumpkin crop. And that’s when he decided to take the plunge into cover crops.

If it worked for pumpkins, surely it would work for soybeans and cotton, he surmised.

The leap of faith

Chappell told Soil Health U attendees that they started with cereal rye planted as a cover crop that first fall on just 3,000 acres because that was all they could afford.

“That first year we saw immediate reduction of pigweed,” he said. By using cereal rye as a cover, rolling it down and planting corn, soybeans, and yes, cotton, into it, the cereal rye cover doesn’t allow the pigweed to get a toehold in the field. That cereal rye cover increases the water infiltration and holding capacity of the soils as well as eliminating the need to apply nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. They’ve also increased the number of crops that they are using in their rotations, to bring back rice, and small grains like oats and wheat, and not just corn, cotton and soybeans.

“There were fields that we farmed that had been planted to cotton shortly after they were cleared of timber, just before the Civil War, and had been in cotton every year since,” Chappell said. That continuous cotton for over 100 years had a real affect on the capacity of the soil to support a healthy cotton crop, and yet getting the landlord on board with switching to a regenerative agriculture approach was a challenge.

It was a leap of faith for the Chappells and their landlords. Sharecropping is a highly competitive business, Chappell said.

“If you start slipping with your yields, and the landlord isn’t getting what they think they should be getting for yields, they will find someone else who will,” he said. For a move to regenerative agriculture methods to work, it was imperative crop yields stayed in the same range or better than before. And they did.

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“We’re making the same crops with 50 to 60% of what our budget once was, and that’s huge, that’s big money,” he said.

Reduced costs

Chappell ran down the list of reduced costs during his session at Soil Health U. He said they had less equipment time in the field, which reduced their immediate equipment and fuel costs. “We stopped doing tillage and that put $100 an acre in your pocket in our part of the world,” he said.

 By covering the ground all year, the soils are better able to weather the torrential 3- to 5-inch rains that his area can receive, reducing crusting and increasing water infiltration and holding capacity of the soil. That in turn cut their irrigation costs and their replant costs. The only time they have to replant now, Chappell said, is if the crop stood in water too long, and not because heavy rains caused the soil to crust over.

“We’ve cut applications of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, we just don’t need it,” he said. “We’ve proven that with soil sampling, tissue sampling and sap sampling.” Each one showing that there was ample phosphorus and potassium for the crops, and even that they had been over applying nitrogen for years.

But the real proof came in 2012 when the area faced immense drought. On the acres planted without covers, Chappell said they raised 30-bushel soybeans, instead of 50-bushel soybeans where they had covers. Everything burned up except the acres that had covers, he said. After that, he made a believer out of his father, and their landlords.

The next steps

Another key component of the Chappells’ farming methods is the switch to non-GMO seeds as a cost reduction.

“Everyone says that you can’t grow non-GMO soybeans in our area, that the weeds will carry you off,” Chappell said. “Well, we’re doing good without them.” With their cover crops serving as barriers to the pigweed, they don’t need the weed resistant traits of the GMO seeds.

Instead, they use public varieties, which they can save back and plant the next year without the trait agreements that come with GMO seeds. He’s been able to double his returns using non-GMO public varieties of corn, soybeans and cotton. He has markets for his non-GMO soybeans in nearby poultry operations that market non-GMO fed chickens. His non-GMO cotton grows a little over 2 bales per acre on 76-inch rows. And they’ve been able to switch from flood irrigation to furrow irrigation on rice planted into cover crops, which has dropped their water use by 30% and reducing their pumping costs.

But, maybe the most drastic change to the Chappell family farm operation is the addition of cattle into the cropping mix.

They started with just 40 head of cull cows that were fed gin trash and sweet potatoes until the cover crop forage could green up and feed them.

“We bought them for an average of $400 a head, and moved them out to feed on the paddock,” he said. “We sold them for $1,100 a head, some with calves on the ground and others pregnant.” The cattle, Chappell said, also improve the soil health of the paddocks they graze. The grazing deposits urine and manure, and attracts dung beetles and cattle egrets, and the cattle provide cash income through their sales. Next year, Chappelle hopes to add sheep into the grazing mix.

Changing their approach to farming and adding regenerative agriculture methods was a risk, to be sure. But, Chappell said that doing things the way they’ve always been done wasn’t going to help them out of their situation. Using cover crops for weed control and soil health, switching to non-GMO and public seed varieties, and adding livestock to their farm may have raised neighbors’ eyebrows, but it’s working for the Chappell family and their landlords.

And it’s keeping them farming for another generation.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or [email protected].