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Young Farm Family's Award Winning Farming Operation Depends on Healthy Soil

Chris & Rebekah Pierce - Photo by Ky Farm BureauBy Christy Morgan, NRCS in Lexington, KY

Chris and Rebekah Pierce are no strangers to agriculture in Kentucky. They’ve been in the news recently for winning the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s ‘Outstanding Young Farm Family’ award and the national ‘American Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer and Rancher’s Achievement Award.’  So what makes their operation so successful? It all comes down to what many refer to as the ‘National Soil Health Movement.’ 

The Pierce’s grow corn, soybeans, wheat and canola on 3,400 acres. They started farming full time in 2007 and experienced droughts their first two years and again in 2011 and 2012.  After struggling through those droughts the Pierce’s knew there had to be a better way of farming.

Chris not only farms, he is an agriculture professor at Somerset Community College. It was in this role that he first heard about soil health. “Our state director for the Kentucky Adult Agriculture Program, Bruce Metzger, encouraged all the Adult Ag Teachers to attend regional soil health meetings,” he said. The meetings featured several national spokespersons for the soil health movement, but what really peaked Chris’ interest was a NRCS field demonstration conducted locally in Pulaski County. 

One of the key components of soil health is no-till farming. This was not a new concept to the Pierce family, in fact, Chris’ great grandfather was a no-till farmer in the late 1960’s. Today, Chris and Rebekah’s sons, 9 year old Riley and 8 year old Colson, are the 5th generation of no-till farmers in the family. “The boys have already no-tilled double crop of soybeans under my supervision,” Chris explained. 

In addition to no-till farming, the use of cover crops is important in improving the health of the soil. The Pierce’s planted their first cover crop on 267 acres in 2012 after a drought in hopes of preventing drought stress in the future. They tracked the progress of the soil with the help of UK Agriculture Extension Agent Richard Whitis. “We found some great nutrient scavenging and organic matter accumulation from the use of a high bio mass cover system,” Chris said.  The Pierce’s increased the cover crop mix planting to 691 acres in the fall of 2013 and to over 1,000 acres in the fall of 2014.

They turned to NRCS for technical assistance on the specific mixes for cover crop planting, as well as guidance on crop destruction methods like roll down or burn down.  Extension Agent Whitis continues to provide assistance as well as John Burnett from the Pulaski County Conservation District.  Through the conservation partnership of these three (NRCS, UK Extension, Conservation Districts), farm families like the Pierce’s get the best technical assistance available.  “Richard has put together what I see as the best live data set for soil health in Kentucky by tracking fertility, moisture, yields, and biomass,” Chris said.

So we are back at the original question, what makes this award winning operation so successful? Chris can give us three ways no-till farming and planting cover crops has improved the operation’s bottom line. First is in pesticide cost. “Balancing pesticide cost versus adoption cost is how I made the first acres cash flow,” he said. Second is fertility. With greater nutrient retention and elevated soil organic matter levels the overall fertilizer cost decreased. Finally, and Chris stresses the most important, has been a way to manage soil moisture without irrigation. He said, “We can plant earlier in a wet spring because the cover crop is using excess moisture. The crop fields are also holding soil moisture in the summer. We always get a benefit.”

For the Pierce family, keeping their eye on the health of the soil provides confidence in the year’s production. Chris says understanding what you need from a cover crop is a good start in arriving at the perfect mix. “Be cautious about seeding dates so you don’t waste your investment on a poorly suited species for the planting window,” he advises.  And finally, he encourages farmers to manage the cover crop like a cash crop. “Don’t treat it like a second class crop. Plan to establish it timely, plant it precisely, and it will perform like you need it to,” he said. 

For more information on how to be a part of the soil health movement, contact your local USDA Service Center or visit http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/ky/soils/health/