Cover crops have positively impacted producers in Arkansas
More and more farmers and ranchers are using conservation practices to improve the health of the soil on their operations. How are they doing that? By using soil health management systems that include cover crops, diverse rotations and no-till. Sam Pirani is a believer in soil health and cover crops. Sam, a fourth-generation farmer in Crittenden County, grows soybeans, rice, corn and cotton on 4,000 acres.
“My great grandfather, Antonio Pirani, came from Italy, moved to Arkansas and got started in farming,” he said. “He had several brothers and from them, several other generations of Piranis began farming in the Delta.”
Sam originally got into cover crops by watching a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Rainfall Simulator demonstration at a producers’ meeting in Marion. He saw during the demonstration how to get better water infiltration with cover crops. The NRCS Rainfall Simulator provided a demonstration of how conservation practices such as no-till and cover crops benefit soil health and improve the water cycle on soil by increasing infiltration and reducing runoff and sedimentation.
“Everyone in this area is seeing how conservation practices are helping to reduce soil erosion,” Pirani said. “We’re flat ground here in the Delta. Cover Crops help reduce the amount of soil that erodes away into the watershed. The verdict is still out, because we’re still learning about cover crops. In this area, sandier soil seals off. When we irrigate it or we get a big rain, a lot of it can wind up in a ditch. I’ve noticed that we get better infiltration on fields where we have produced cover crops and I feel like the plants retain water for longer.”
Cover crops provide a protective “blanket” through the winter months. They have the potential to provide multiple benefits in a cropping system. They prevent erosion, improve soil’s physical and biological properties, supply nutrients, suppress weeds, improve the availability of soil water, and break pest cycles along with various other benefits. Cover crop roots penetrate the soil and make the soil more porous. The roots also give a place for microbes and worms to exist. The species of cover crop selected, along with its management, determine the benefits and returns.
“The cover crop trend is starting to catch on here in Crittenden County and the word is starting to get out,” said District Conservationist Wade Hamilton. “We had three Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative projects here and cover crops was in every one of them. When farmers have it in their contract, they will do it. After they’ve done it a couple of times, they begin to see a change in the soil. It could be an erosion, infiltration or compaction change. They’ll see something and begin to adapt to cover crops more and more.”
Pirani has adapted many conservation practices on his operation to make it more productive.
“We do land leveling on our fields and irrigation water management, including PHAUCET (Pipe Hole and Universal Crown Evaluation Tool). We’ve been using PHAUCET for a long time and I wouldn’t water without it. You’ll use less water because you won’t have to over water one area; you’ll water your fields more evenly.”
PHAUCET was designed by NRCS engineers in Missouri to calculate existing irrigation system performance and define alternatives for improving irrigation efficiency.
Hamilton said Pirani is also participating in nutrient management, reduced tillage, flooding for ducks, pump automation, soil moisture monitors and will start utilizing surge valves this season.
“With all the conservation practices he’s doing, he’s got almost a complete package,” Hamilton said. “I mean , I would say it’s just about as good as you could do on a field.” NRCS conservation programs help farmers, ranchers and foresters reduce soil erosion, enhance water supplies, improve water quality, increase wildlife habitat, and reduce damages caused by floods and other natural disasters.
“NRCS is just an avenue to be able to help you get started doing conservation practices,” Pirani added. “For me, it was a perfect fit. It was something I wanted to do. They gave me an opportunity to be able to do it with their assistance. I just want to thank Wade, Soil Conservationist Elisha Throesch, Program Support Specialist Kolby Jones, and Irrigation Water Management Specialist Phillip Gahr. They really make it easy for a farmer who shows interest in getting into these programs. They show you what you need to do to get signed up and I just appreciate their help.
For more information on no-till practices and incorporating cover crops into your farming practices, contact an NRCS district conservationist at your local USDA service center.
Producer Sam Pirani (left) and Crittenden County District Conservationist Wade Hamilton discuss the impact of cover crops on his soybeans.
Left to right, Program Support Specialist Kolby Jones, District Conservationist Wade Hamilton, Sam Pirani, and Soil Conservationist Elisha Throesch in front of Pirani's irrigation water management system.