Cover Crops Kept This Farm Profitable

Cover Crop ( Sonja Begemann )

Forehead glued to the window, Donny Lassiter grew up envying his dad and grandfather as they drove tractors and combines. Even when the pedals were still just outside of reach, Lassiter knew this was what he wanted to do—to carry on the legacy his family had started more than 70 years earlier.

“I was infatuated with the equipment and the tractors,” Lassiter says. “When I got older my dad talked to me about production practices and my opinion on things. I had a great situation to return to on the farm.”

Since the end of the second world war, the Lassiter family has stewarded their farm ground in North Carolina and Virginia. The family has been no-till for 20 years and used cover crops for 18 years. Donny returned in 2001 after getting his master’s degree in ag business.

The Lassiters grow cotton, peanuts, wheat, rye, non-GMO soybeans and corn. They utilize a complex rotation to improve their soil and keep it productive for generations to come.

“We started with no-till soybeans behind double crop wheat and after that we moved to no tilling cotton,” 41-year-old Lassiter says. “We didn’t jump straight from conventional to no till though, we went conventional to strip till and then moved to no till. Cotton was probably the biggest challenge for no till because you plant so shallow. It’s tough to get good seed to soil contact.”

It took a lot of experimenting with no-till in cotton before pulling the trigger on every acre, he says. They finally made the switch 12 years ago on cotton acres, too. Cover crops were a natural addition to the family’s stewardship program but it’s one that’s still evolving.

“It’s taken some time and trial and error,” Lassiter says. “Say with rye, I like rye cover crop but I don’t plant it on every acre. Wheat is easier to manage than rye but I’m still working toward more rye. I have it on about ¼ of the acres and I’m getting more comfortable with timing rye’s decimation.”

The next step for their journey into cover crops is to try species mixes, while still including rye to help with weed suppression. They’re also passionate about cover crops because it helps with moisture retention and they’re 100% rainfall dependent.

“We added cover crops to keep the farm profitable,” he says. “Sustainability and economics really go hand-in-hand.”

For the Lassiters, the numbers pointed to no-till and cover crops.

  • Drastically reduced diesel fuel costs, about $25 per acre
  • Reduced equipment repair costs, about $8 per acres
  • Adding variable rate fertilizer maximized yields while optimizing costs
  • Cover crops hold in moisture to help during dry years
  • They’ve seen weed control benefits from cover crops and are exploring new mixes to increase weed control

One admitted drawback to cover crops, Lassiter says, is the moisture holding capacity. While it’s great in dry years, wet years can mean they’re not able to get into fields as quickly.

“Our system isn’t perfect, but once you get committed to it you can make it work,” he adds.

For any farmer considering trying no-till, strip till or adding cover crops, Lassiter offers advice.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions—you can’t learn if you don’t ask and there are no stupid questions,” he says. “I have a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old and I want the farm to be viable for them. I learned a lot from my dad and grandad and from other neighbors.”

Read more here about how the Lassiter family partnered with Wrangler.