Soil is one of our planet’s most vital resources. Healthy soil is a starting point for farm productivity and sustainability, and that is why soil health is one of the six Better Cotton Principles and Criteria, which BCI Farmers adhere to.
Some BCI Farmers are advancing this principle by implementing innovative practices, in order to not only care for soil health, but also, to give something back to the soil. Zeb Winslow is one of these farmers.
Based in North Carolina, USA, Zeb is a fifth generation farmer who is prioritising soil conservation on his family’s cotton farm. Always at the forefront of more sustainable farming practices, the family switched from conventional tillage 17 years ago to strip-till, which can provide soil conservation and efficiency benefits, plus increased erosion resistance. They also implemented Integrated Pest Management practices to manage insecticide sprays and to utilise as many beneficial insects as possible.
However, the family didn’t stop there. They are now leading the way with a farming practice called ‘cover cropping’. A cover crop is a type of plant grown primarily to help suppress weeds, manage soil erosion, improve soil quality, and control diseases and pests. However, it is not a common practice in cotton farming but that could be about to change in the US.
Along with Zeb, there is a new generation of farmers who are more environmentally conscious and more open-minded to trying new practices. “North Carolina as a state is one of the larger adopters of cover crop use in the US, and across the entire country we are seeing a soil health movement. With cover crops, people are trying to look at a more holistic way of treating and using our soil as the valuable resource it is,” comments Zeb.
“Cotton is a greedy crop, it takes quite a lot from the ground and doesn’t give a whole lot back. Cover crops help by feeding something back into the land during the off season,” he explains. Having used a single grain cover crop for many years, Zeb switched to a multi-species cover crop blend four years ago to increase his above ground bio-mass further. The benefits of this method were noticed immediately, and within the first year of using a multi-species cover crop, Zeb saw increased weed suppression and soil moisture retention. He believes that he has been able to cut herbicide input on his plants by 25% in the past two years. As the cover crops begin to pay for themselves, and Zeb reduces his herbicide input, economic benefits may be realised in the longer-term.
Is Zeb’s father, also named Zeb Winslow, and a cotton farmer from the previous generation, supportive of this new method? “In the beginning, I thought it was a crazy idea. But now that I’ve seen the benefits, I’ve become more convinced,” he says.
As Zeb explains, it isn’t easy for farmers to move away from traditional and proven farming methods, and until recently, cotton farmers didn’t know as much about soil biology. In the last 10 to 15 years, great strides have been made in understanding what’s going on under the ground. Zeb thinks that as soil knowledge increases, farmers will be better equipped to harmonise better with nature by working with the soil instead of fighting against it.
With an eye to the future and to the next generation of Winslow cotton farmers, Zeb believes that, “Eventually, if there is going to be cotton it is going to have to be sustainably produced, as is everything else. As the population increases there will be less and less land, and as we try to increase yields to meet demand it’s also important that we ensure soil, as a vital resource, is there for future generations.”