Research HighlightsReddick Farms Leads the Way in Regenerative Agriculture
When farmers think of leaders in regenerative agriculture, they may not think of a farm tucked away in Carlisle County, Kentucky, or a family that has been tending the land since the Civil War. But after just a few minutes of visiting with Brad Reddick and his son, Joel, it’s easy to see that these men eat, sleep, and breathe soil health. They’re working hard to be good stewards of the land they farm with minimal inputs and an eye to maximum profit.
What even IS regenerative agriculture, anyway? Is it just a new buzzword that sprung from the sustainability bandwagon? No. Regenerative agriculture is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems. It focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing ecosystem services, supporting biosequestration, increasing resilience to climate change, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil. On a regenerative farm, yield should increase over time. As the topsoil deepens, production may increase, and fewer external inputs are required. Actual output is dependent on the nutritional value of the composting materials and the structure and content of the soil.
The Reddicks’ “new way of doing things” story isn’t a long one. In 2018, Brad and Joel attended their first No-Till Conference with Chris Stewart, Kentucky’s Precision Conservation Specialist, neighboring farmer/mentor Jerry Peery, and Peery’s grandson Jonathan Reynolds. The Reddicks had been proponents of no-till and had been utilizing good conservation practices for years, but Brad said that the speakers really got him to thinking more about profit than yield.
Joel said that on the way home from the conference each year (they are now regular attendees), he and his dad work through what they learned and how they can implement new ideas and practices into their operation. Joel is thankful for his two summer internships with Bayer, because that’s where he learned to conduct farm-scale experiments in a meaningful way. He said that adapting concepts learned at conferences and from other farmers to the Reddicks’ unique operation is interesting to him.
During a recent visit we discussed one of the more innovative things the Reddicks are doing – one that earns a number of second looks from people driving by – the way they plant. Cover crops are a key to their success, and rather than killing off the cover crop with a chemical burndown prior to planting, the Reddicks “plant in green,” using a drill rather than a planter to plant soybeans into the standing cover crop. “That’s one of the things we learned at the no-till conference,” Brad said. “Why would we spend money to kill what we invested in, even if it isn’t a cash crop?” Joel said this practice helps to protect the seed and the emerging plant, as well as helping to prevent weed seeds from germinating to compete for light, water, and nutrients with the cash crop. In addition, he said that planting into the cover crop takes 20 to 30 degrees off the soil temperature during the height of summer, due to the insulation of cover crop residue.
Whereas some farmers use wheat as a cover/cash crop and others use a simple mix of tillage radishes and crimson clover, the Reddicks have a number of different cover crop “recipes” for different uses. Planted in September, the cover crop pictured below had soybeans drilled into it on May 11 and was a mix of crimson clover, balansa clover, Austrian winter pea, winter oats, cereal rye, winter triticale, and daikon radish. While the clovers boast flowers, which attract and nourish pollinators, the cereal rye and oats keep the soil in place and the radishes (pictured on the facing page) do a great job drilling through the compaction and breaking up the soil.
Using their grain drill in the fall to seed cover crops is a full-time job for Joel. His goal is to follow the combine as closely as possible to ensure that 100 percent of their row crop acres get seeded. If he sees that weather or row crop conditions won’t allow him enough time to drill the seed, then he will hire an aerial applicator to sow the seed while the row crop is still in the field.
The Reddicks have minimized input costs to maximize profits through their regenerative ag techniques. The cover crop residue prevents weeds from germinating, and obviously there’s no need to spray herbicide if it’s not needed. The Reddicks average about a pass and a half per acre each growing season, in an area where many farmers make twice that many passes. They’re saving on input costs, manpower, fuel, and wear and tear on the equipment. They have applied no fungicide or insecticide the past two seasons, which helps with the beneficial insects and the bottom line.
Because of the large quantity of cover crop residue, soil never touches the foliage of emerging plants, greatly reducing the risk of any disease or fungus spread by splash. The Reddicks no longer have slug damage, Brad said, since they quit applying insecticide. Cessation of insecticide application has boosted the population of ladybugs, Joel said, which are known to eat a number of soybean predators.
As the conversation evolves and the Reddicks get deeper into talking about benefits to the ecosystem and carbon sequestration, Brad said, more than one person has asked, “y’all are trying to do a lot more than weed and erosion control, aren’t you?” He tells them erosion and weed control are positive side effects to the techniques they are utilizing.
So, what’s the “why?” Why would a farmer turn his operation on its head and try all these different approaches? Brad said the number one reason is so that there will be something here for Joel and his brothers to farm. “We don’t want to be 10,000-acre farmers,” he said. “And there’s just not that much ground available around here. We’re not going to win the yield contest; we’re not going to produce 100-bushel beans. What we are going to do, though, is produce 60-bushel beans year after year without even having $200 invested in an acre, so we can make money on $9.00 beans.”
Joel acknowledged their farm is diversified with row crops, four broiler chicken barns, and beef cattle. However, he is proud they take time to monitor every acre of soil they tend for the benefit of themselves and the landlords of their rental ground. He said that Reddick Farms is limited by the sunshine and by the rainfall on the ground that’s not under pivot, but that with the right cover crops, planting times and regenerative practices – they can hedge their bets to a large degree.
As the soil continues to improve, Joel said the cover crop input cost decreases. The Reddicks spent $30-$35/acre in 2020 and Joel projects about $29/acre for the 2021 crop year. As for enriching the soil, the Reddicks didn’t buy any DAP (phosphorus) in 2020, nor did they buy any potash.
With the decrease in inputs comes profit, certainly, but another benefit is the lack of runoff. “When it rains here, most of the water is held by the soil for use later, but what does run off is crystal clear,” Joel said. “And seeing that is a really good feeling.”
Overall, Joel is pleased with the progress they’re making but frustrated that it’s not moving faster. The soil is darker, he said, than just a few years ago. It’s retaining more moisture, making more topsoil, and, basically, healing from all the years of tillage, intense fertilizer use, and frequent pesticide applications.
Brad is a bit more patient, and said he’s just trying to raise crops on the land that God gave him and make a living for his family. In doing that, he said, Reddick Farms can survive and grow for future generations.