October 15, 2021 |Success Stories
Strip-till Saves the Soil
J&K Whatley Farms | Odem, Texas
This South Texas farm family is improving soil through reduced tillage and adopts conservation practices to stop their soil from blowing away.
Jon and Kelly Whatley produce cotton, corn, and grain sorghum at J&K Whatley Farms in South Texas with conservation in mind.
Partnering with Mother Nature
Like three generations before him, Jon farms near Odem, just a few miles from the Texas Gulf Coast. With his wife, Kelly, and their sons, Payne and Jackson, he operates J&K Whatley Farms. Together, the Texas Farm Credit customers produce cattle, cotton, corn, and grain sorghum. For the first 11 years he farmed, he followed the same dryland practices his ancestors did, until 2005 when a sandstorm nearly destroyed his crops.
Jon won’t ever forget Easter Sunday, 2005. While his family attended church, he drove a tractor in a last-ditch effort to save their crops.
“My father and I ran sand-fighter plows all day,” Jon recalls, referring to an implement that roughens up the soil, so it doesn’t blow away. “But we were only able to save two-thirds of our crops. I remember thinking ‘There’s got to be a smarter way to stop the sand from sawing off our seedlings.’ That’s when I realized I needed to partner with Mother Nature — not work against her.”
Since that sandstorm healthy soil has become the number one goal of Jon’s operation.
A sustainable way of doing things
Jon started using sustainable practices by integrating a hybrid method of no-till and conventional till, and now uses conservation strip tillage. “I till the strips where I plant to seed and in between the strips l leave the ground in its natural state to allow organic matter to build,” Jon said.
Jon and his family also implemented sustainable soil and water measures of controlled traffic farming, crop rotation, terraces, grassed waterways, and surface roughening. They also brought sustainable practices over to their cow-calf operation.
“Our conservation practices put organic matter and nutrients back into the soil,” Jon said “Organic matter retains moisture, so it’s not lost to evaporation and erosion. As it decays, the matter releases nutrients that are available for the next plants. When I used to plow and disk, I was trying to get rid of organic matter because I thought it created issues. Now I want as much as I can in the soil.”
“Healthy soil became my No. 1 goal,” Jon explains. “I had to reduce tilling in order to leave behind more organic matter, which retains moisture and prevents erosion from water and wind.”
No-till was not an option for the Whatleys, so they switched to a hybrid of no-till and conventional till known as conservation strip-till. With this method, they till the strips of soil where seeds will be planted. Between the strips, they leave the ground in its natural state to allow organic matter to build.
Building organic matter
“Organic matter retains moisture, so it’s not lost to evaporation and erosion. As it decays, the matter releases nutrients that are available for the next plants,” Jon says. “When I used to plow and disk, I was trying to get rid of organic matter because I thought it created issues. Now I want as much organic matter as I can get in the soil.”
Conservation also plays an important role in the Whatleys’ cow-calf operation. They control brush and cross-fence pastures and manage grazing to prevent runoff.
“One way we manage grazing is through water traps,” says Jon. “Think of a bicycle spoke with water in the middle. We rotate grazing around, and cows always go to the water trap. We move grazing to each spoke to keep grass fresh and growing. We never overgraze spokes.”
Hard work pays off
In recognition of their conservation work, the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board and the Association of Texas Soil and Water Conservation awarded J&K Whatley Farms with the 2020 Conservation Farmer title, an honor that Texas Farm Credit believes they richly deserve.
“The Whatleys are good-hearted people who have a passion for farming and strive to be good stewards of the land,” said Texas Farm Credit Robstown Branch Manager Jason Floyd. “They stay educated and surround themselves with knowledgeable people.”
Jon and Kelly have financed farmland and operating expenses with Texas Farm Credit since 2013. “We couldn’t do what we do without them,” said Kelly, who manages the farm’s bookkeeping. “When we’ve needed to buy different equipment, such as a vertical tillage tool, they’ve always been supportive.”
Read the story about J&K’s award here on TSSWCB’s website: https://www.tsswcb.texas.gov/news/tsswcb-announces-2020-conservation-award-winners
The Whatleys have adopted other sustainable soil and water conservation measures too – many administered by the San Patricio Soil and Water Conservation District and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Techniques include crop rotation, terraces, grassed waterways, surface roughening, and controlled traffic farming, which minimizes soil compaction. “Together our conservation practices put organic matter and nutrients back into the soil,” Jon says.
“We implement conservation programs as directed by government guidelines,” Jon says. “Then over time, we modify them to make them work for our operation and our goals.”
The benefits, such as better nutrient and water retention, don’t happen right away. It’s often three or four years before they see results.
Making Good Business Sense
Looking ahead, the Whatleys believe farming with conservation in mind makes both good business and long-term sense.
“Yes, we want healthy soil and clean water and air right now, and also for the next generation,” Kelly said. “But there’s a financial component, too. We’re saving money and fuel when we spend less time tilling on a tractor, which means less wear-and-tear on our equipment.”
Kelly also appreciates another bonus of conservation farming. “When we first built our house on the farm, no wildlife existed,” she says. “Since we’ve shifted to our conservation practices, we see squirrels, skunks, rabbits, coyotes, and all kinds of birds! I love it!”