Brian Berns and his brother Keith co-own Green Cover Seed and Providence Farms in Bladen, Nebraska where their family has been farming for over 100 years. They farm 2,500 acres including corn, soybeans, rye, triticale, peas, buckwheat, and sunflowers using continuous no-till and a variety of cover crop strategies to maximize the health of their soil.
In 2007, the Berns brothers founded Green Cover Seed to fill the demand they saw for cover crop and forage seed mixes. Since then their business has grown exponentially, becoming one of the major cover crop seed providers and educators in the United States. They have helped pioneer the use of customized cover crop cocktails with their innovative SMARTmix CalculatorTM. This online decision-making tool uses geographic and climatic data combined with user-provided planting dates and goals to help farmers decide which blend of cover crop seeds is best suited for their purposes. Green Cover Seed has experimented with almost 100 different cover crop types and hundreds of seed mixes planted into various situations. Their deep commitment to improving soil health can be witnessed in their education and outreach at conferences across the country, as well as in their research on the growth, nitrogen fixation, moisture usage, and grazing utilization of cover crops.
In this video, Brian Berns describes his no till practice and discusses the techniques he uses to limit soil disturbance and maintain continuous cover on his farm. Brian is planting a cover of mixed cereals after a corn harvest. During the harvest he leaves the residue on top of the soil. He likes to run an air seeder directly behind the combine so he can immediately begin growing his cover crops. An air seeder is a seed drill that has a single disc opener that doesn't disturb the soil.
Brian demonstrates how little soil disturbance there is by standing on the line between where he has and hasn't planted; one can hardly tell the difference. In this way he can always have something growing while still keeping the soil protected. If there is good rain, those cereals will start coming up in a week or two.
You can tell you have a really healthy soil by looking at its biological content. To the naked eye, insects and worms are a decent indicator of soil health. But there is a whole world of life that we can't see without a microscope. Soil is filled with microorganisms that play critical roles in decomposition, nutrient cycling, and many more functions.
A good way to help maintain a healthy environment for these microorganisms is to practice no till and to grow a variety of cover crops. When properly implemented and managed, these two practices together can greatly increase organic matter, water infiltration, nitrogen fixation, all while preventing erosion and suppressing weeds. In addition, many farmers find that these practices have in many cases proven to reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticide inputs needed when compared to conventional methods.
While no till and cover cropping are not new practices, recent developments in research and technology are making these practices easier to adapt. The implementation of cover crops and no till into your farm management may incur some up front costs in seed, equipment, and education. But once you factor in the savings from reduced inputs, the headache of weed suppression, and the long-term increase in soil health, the benefits of these practices become clear. As responsible citizens and farmers, we have the duty to give back to the soil what we take from it. A less impactful and more sustainable agriculture is within reach. To ensure the health of our soils for future generations, we must be stewards of our land today.