John Shepherd is a staunch believer in the ‘never till’ concept, and a big part of his southwest Virginia farming operation is based on keeping his fields green year-round by incorporating cover crops into his management program.

The Blackstone, Va., farmer has made a name for himself by taking pieces of mostly unwanted farmland and producing high-yielding, high-quality grain crops.

Most of the land he farms was at one time or another growing tobacco. Much of it, he says, is land that most people don’t want. To get marginal land back in shape took several years of work, and cover crops have played a key role in the program.

“I believe soil microbes like cover crops, especially hairy vetch,” he says. “Soil tilth in the fields I farm also has benefitted from cover crops. I feel I get a benefit both from an erosion standpoint and from a microbial standpoint. It’s a win-win situation for me, primarily because of the soil types and the way many of these fields have been treated over the years.”

Typically, in the fall Shepherd flies hairy vetch on fields he plans to plant to corn the following spring. In his area of western Virginia, he says, he needs to get vetch seeded by Oct. 1. For areas to the southeast, October 15 or later would probably work fine.

He leaves the cover crop on as long as he can and takes it out with glyphosate or similar herbicides as near planting time as possible. On some occasions, he’s even planted into green standing vetch, with good results.

The cost of flying on hairy vetch at 10 pounds per acre is about $15 per acre. In the fall of 2012, he says, he had a hard time getting enough vetch seed, but got enough on his fields to make a difference. This year he plans to plant less corn and more conventional or full season soybeans, so he cut back on the vetch that was applied in the fall.

Hairy vetch is a hardy winter crop that tolerates southwest Virginia winters well, if it’s planted on time in early fall. It does best on well-drained soils and is not recommended for poorly drained areas. It prefers a soil pH between 6.0 and 7.0 and is adapted to high soil fertility (phosphorus, potassium, and sulfur).

Shepherd says if he leaves hairy vetch in place long enough he can get as much as 200 units of nitrogen credit from the crop. “I usually expect 100 to 150 units of N, so I base other applications on that number, though I think we usually get a little more out of the vetch.”

Decomposition and nitrogen release rates are faster if the vetch is incorporated, but total amount of nitrogen released over the entire growing season is similar to vetch left on the surface as a mulch. Typically, hairy vetch contains 3.5 percent to 4 percent nitrogen (dry matter basis). Conservative estimates are that 50 percent of this will be available to the following crop.

Though Shepherd flies on the hairy vetch, in other areas of the U.S. it is mostly seeded with ground application rigs. For ground application, best results appear to come using a drill and 15 pounds to 20 pounds of seed per acre. It’s also common to broadcast seed at 20 pounds to 30 pounds per acre, using a light disking or field cultivation to improve seed-to-soil contact.

In only six years of farming on his own, Shepherd has won several regional and national awards for his environmentally sound crop production practices. He is the winner of an annual Virginia Farm Bureau Conservation Award and the 2012 Bayer CropScience Young Farmer Sustainability Award.

He has a story to tell for anyone interested in getting into farming without the benefit of inherited land or modern equipment.

“Virtually everything I farm is land nobody else wanted,” he says. “I haven’t taken any land from anybody who was taking care of the land and trying to make a living on it. Planting soybeans continuously for 25 years without adding lime or fertilization is not trying.”

When he started farming in 2007, Shepherd worked full time as a salesman for an agricultural chemical supply company and farmed at night. A nocturnal encounter with a power line convinced him that he needed to either farm full time or find time during the day to farm.

“It’s been an uphill battle,” he says, “but I believe when you put everything you have into something and get good results, it means more to you. I like to take time to understand all that’s going on with a crop, and do everything as timely as I can to produce the best crop I can.”

Shepherd now farms about 1,000 acres, with half that double-cropped and all of it in continuous production of either grain crops or cover crops.

He has no-tilled every acre of land he has ever farmed and says he will continue to do so. “I had a great mentor, Mark Alley, when I was in school at Virginia Tech. Dr. Alley is a great example of how one teacher can have a profound impact on a student’s life.

“Some people think no-till is all about planting soybean seeds in wheat stubble, but Dr. Alley taught us that no-till farming is a system. A part of that system is cover crops, and I try to keep something growing on the land all year-round.”

In 2013, he planted 350 acres of grain sorghum, which will force him to revamp his cover crop strategy. After the grain sorghum was harvested this year, he intended to fly on rye for a winter cover crop.

“I’ll probably plant soybeans in those fields, and I don’t need vetch on beans,” he says. “Oats might be an option, but I think it will be a bit too late to plant oats.”

Growing grain crops in an area of the country not ideally suited to them can be a challenge, Shepherd says, but he’s proven to himself at least that how the land is treated is directly related to its productivity.

By applying to the land what it needs and paying attention to the details of growing a crop, he says, his rough Virginia land can be productive.

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