Jackie Brinkley and his son Clint farm about 3,200 acres of corn, cotton, peanuts, soybeans and wheat in Bertie and Hertford counties. Clint is the fifth generation of his family to plant crops here. Perhaps that's one reason why this family tends the land so carefully.
“The Brinkleys are soil stewards. They want to know how to make land produce better,” said Wayne Nixon, regional agronomist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Agronomic Division. Nixon has worked closely with the Brinkleys for many years, advising them on various nutrient and soil management issues. Most recently, he has been helping them expand their use of cover crops.
In eastern North Carolina, it is not uncommon for agricultural land to develop a hard layer inches below the surface. This “hardpan” can be difficult for crop roots and rainfall to penetrate. Many farmers deal with this problem by cultivating or pulling a chisel plow through the soil.
Although effective, tillage is time consuming and costly and can also increase the likelihood of erosion. Planting cover crops, however, may be a better way to reduce hardpan problems.
By planting seeds into the stubble as the crop is harvested, growers can save money several ways. One, they make fewer trips across a field. Two, they don't have to purchase specialized equipment and the fuel necessary to operate it over thousands of acres. Three, the roots of the cover crop itself push into the soil, improving water penetration and helping to undo the effects of the hardpan. Four, cover crops lessen the chances of erosion and help prevent the loss of fertilizer nutrients through runoff or movement into groundwater.
So far, over the past three years, the Brinkleys have planted cover crops on about 1,000 acres.
“We started out planting wheat after corn and cotton as a kind of test,” said the elder Brinkley. “I believe it's important to ease into a new management regime gradually to see if it ‘fits’ your operation. When we saw that we were saving money and reducing the need for irrigation, we planted more acres in cover crops. We're not sure yet if there's an effect on yield or nitrogen costs, but we are sure that we have realized some real benefits.”
Clint Brinkley looks forward to broadening the “experiment” in reduced-tillage this year to include no-till cotton, corn and maybe some beans.
He's convinced that cutting back on tillage protects the land and reduces costs. Since crop prices are variable, successful farming depends on protecting soil quality and striving for as high a yield as possible.
The Brinkleys have a long history of innovation and commitment to excellence. In 1972, their farm was the first in eastern North Carolina to win statewide recognition for soil conservation. In 1985, Jackie Brinkley was honored as Soil Conservationist of the Year.
In recent years, they have used cost-share monies to implement water and soil conservation projects, such as installing field strips and grassy borders for nutrient and erosion management. In 2002, the Brinkley's farm participated in a cotton nitrogen rate study with the NCDA&CS and the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service to develop estimates for realistic crop yields for better environmental stewardship. The Brinkleys acknowledge the agronomic services provided by the NCDA&CS as an important asset in achieving their successes.
“With an agronomist like Wayne, we have field representation,” said Jackie Brinkley. “That's important. And the soil testing is free, which is almost unheard of in other states. Then there's the easy access to online information. North Carolina has a super Department of Agriculture.” His son Clint agrees.
“Wayne helped us learn how to download information from our agronomic reports. Being able to do that makes it so much easier for us to keep up with the large number of fields we manage. It's easy to keep the data with us while we're in the truck, in field, anywhere. It's really convenient to be able to find our soil test reports online — current ones and older ones. It's a very valuable resource.”
North Carolina farmers have access to one of the most comprehensive agronomic testing and advisory services in the nation. Although best known for its soil testing services, the NCDA&CS Agronomic Division also performs a nematode assay service, checks plant tissue, composted materials, animal wastes, industrial and municipal wastes, nutrient solutions and source water for nutrient content and other chemical properties relevant to agricultural production.
To support these testing services, 13 regional agronomists are available to visit growers; evaluate suspected nutrient problems; help take samples, give advice on sampling, liming and fertilization; and help identify and manage nematode problems.
Visit the Agronomic Division's Field Services Section online at www.ncagr.com/agronomi/rahome.htm  to find contact information for the NCDA&CS regional agronomist assigned to your area.