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Cultivating resiliency through soil health

Martha Hoffman Kerestes for Progressive Forage Published on 02 April 2021
Burton and Deborah Heatwole and family

Long-term profitability, preparing for the next generation and fostering human, plant and animal health all hinge on managing the farm for soil health improvement. Everything revolves around healthy soil for Burton Heatwole.

He is seeing the fruit of this focus, and he is in it for the long haul.

On the sandy coastal plains of Georgia where Heatwole farms, most soil in full tillage has half a percent of organic matter, but his tests are 1.5% to 2% after years of reduced tillage, cover crops and livestock. His goal is 4%, and he thinks it’s very reachable.

Soybean harvest begins

“The fact is that if you can raise organic matter 1 percent, you can hold another inch of water in the top foot of soil,” Heatwole says.

This has very real benefits, particularly on non-irrigated land, where it can spell the difference between losing yield in a dry spell or making it through to the next rain.

He sees tremendous numbers of earthworms and beneficial insects, and his insecticide use is minimal. He attributes this to the high diversity on his farm, which raises corn, corn silage, cotton, peanuts, soybeans, wheat and forages.

Heatwole's headquarters gets a brief rain shower

Georgia NRCS agents did a soil health training on his farm and found his soil could soak in 6 inches an hour, whereas across the road in conventional management, the soil could only absorb about half an inch.

“Seeing that difference is incredible,” he says. “That’s drought tolerance in a world of sand and heat.”

He sees no erosion and no runoff problems with the healthy soil that’s kept covered with plants most of the time.

Heatwole is continuing his father’s focus on conservation farming that he learned as he grew up watching his father farm regeneratively, careful in choosing what fertility and chemicals to apply.

“Daddy stopped full tillage in the ’70s,” Heatwole explains. “He was one of the very first adopters of strip till when that option became available.”

Back then, they did an early form of cover crops for cattle grazing by overseeding cereal rye and ryegrass by airplane into soybean fields when the leaves were dropping.

Since 2005, Heatwole has been taking cover crops to the next level after learning about the benefits of diverse living roots to microbial activity in the soil. These days, he typically uses an 8-12-way blend. There are two main mixes: a summer and an overwintered one.

The summer mix goes on after the corn comes out in August or September and consists of sun hemp, cow peas, mung beans, buckwheat, sunflowers, sorghum-sudangrass, millet, radishes, kale and mustard. The wintered cover goes on after cotton, soybeans or peanuts are harvested in October and November. The mix has cosaque oats, cereal rye, ryegrass, winter peas, radishes, kale, two kinds of clover and two kinds of vetch.

Most of the time, he uses his 30-foot drill after the crop has been harvested, but he will sometimes aerially seed a little on to get it started earlier.

Added benefits of livestock

While reduced tillage and cover crops can do a lot for soil health, Heatwole wants to utilize the next step of capitalizing on the tremendous benefits of livestock. He currently keeps 250 feeder-to-finish cattle that graze cover crops and permanent pastures while eating a silage-based ration until they reach 1,100 to 1,200 pounds, when they are moved into the feedlot to finish.

Cattle in the background

Having the cattle pay the price of cover crop seed with added weight gain is great, but Heatwole also appreciates how the animals process the cover crop and put it right back on the soil as soil-building, biologically active manure.

“To me, it’s a win-win,” he says. “That’s the next greatest untapped potential I’m trying to implement wider on our farm.”

He’s building more fences to enable him to keep more “four-footed recyclers” on more of his land to speed up building organic matter.

The cattle are part of the way soil health can pay for itself, but there are other components to the puzzle.

Soil health for profitability

“In my opinion, the key to sustainability in agriculture is not to try to increase yields with a lot of increased inputs,” he says. “It’s to decrease inputs and maintain yields.”

The focus is on net returns, not gross income, since high yields might be bragging rights – but if it doesn’t make more money, it’s a waste of time. That’s something he learned from his daddy.

“It’s easier to save a dollar than to make a dollar,” he says.

One powerful example of this is how raising soil organic matter provides fertility much more efficiently than purchased fertilizer.

“Soil health is definitely the key to farming economically,” Heatwole asserts.

Fostering thriving soil biology is also the gift he wants to leave his children should they decide to carry on the family farm.

Burton Heatwole

Heatwole and his wife, Deborah, have 10 children, and he wants to provide them the opportunity to join the farm business if they decide to – but only after they spend a few years working off the farm so they can bring their own ideas and thoughts.

He wants to give them soil that’s in better shape than when their grandfather started, along with some knowledge that can sustain the next generations in profitable farming.

Heatwole’s vision for the future of agriculture is soil health and crop diversification, and he says it’s exciting to think about.

“I don’t think we’ll do it with bigger tractors and wider disk harrows and more nitrogen and potash. I think we’ll do it with smaller tractors, less inputs and more biology,” he says. “And we’ll be able to make a living doing that.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Burton and Deborah Heatwole take a break from farming for a family photo at Sunshine Place Farms Inc. in Georgia’s coastal plains.

PHOTO 2: Soybean harvest begins alongside a field of cover crops.

PHOTO 3: Heatwole’s headquarters gets a brief rain shower across a cotton field in August.

PHOTO 4: Cattle waiting in the background look anxious to graze summer cover crops.

PHOTO 5: Burton Heatwole. Photos provided by Burton Heatwole.

Martha Hoffman Kerestes is a freelance writer based in Illinois.

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