By NICHOLAS BERGIN
Lincoln Journal Star
RED CLOUD, Neb. (AP) - A decade ago, Keith and Brian Berns had heard about cover crops.
Discussion of growing rye or radishes to cover and condition soil tended to pop up at the type of winter meetings held in makeshift classrooms where university extension specialists talked to farmers about the merits of planting without a plow.
Cover crops were popular in organic circles but a rarity among mainstream row-crop producers, Keith Berns said during a recent interview from his family’s 2,000-acre farm in Webster County.
“We talked for several years about trying cover crops but never got around to it,” he said. “Seed wasn’t easy to get. It’s one of those things we just put off.”
The brothers finally gave it a try in 2008, and Keith got a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study how much moisture cover crops used on dry land.
“We found some seed but in the process of doing it we found seed really is hard to find,” he said. “We took readings and watched these things grow and saw how it was changing the soil and noticing how much beneficial insect life it was attracting and saw how the cattle were doing so well grazing on it.”
They liked what they saw. The next year they ordered more and picked up a few bags for friends and neighbors, enough seed for about 1,000 acres.
Six years later, the brothers are selling cover crop seed mixtures to farmers across the nation. They’ve named their company Green Cover Seed, and it supports 14 employees, about half of them family members.
They still grow some soybeans and corn, but income from the seed business has eclipsed the farm. The brothers sell the seeds in mixes to mimic the biodiversity found in nature. They grow some of their own seeds and contract with farmers in numerous states to grow more.
“This year we’ll do enough seed for about 500,000 acres,” Keith Berns said.
Their success is a sign of the growing interest in cover seeds across the United States. Farmers generally don’t plant cover crops to harvest. Instead, they’re planted for a laundry list of benefits including stopping soil erosion from wind and water, improving soil health, cutting fertilizer costs, holding in soil moisture and reducing runoff that can pollute water.
The idea behind cover crops is that growing something in the soil as long as possible builds up an ecosystem underground for microbes and insects. No-till farming keeps those ecosystems undisturbed. When the plants die, they add organic matter and nutrients back into the soil.
The Lincoln Journal Star (http://bit.ly/1OGXaZu ) reports that some of the plants can also be used as forage for cattle and other livestock, but then they’re technically not considered cover crops.
With growing concerns over climate change, farmers have a new reason to plant cover crops: They capture carbon.
The Natural Resources Defense Council released a report this month documenting how cover crops can suck carbon pollution from the air and help save water by preventing it from evaporating.
The council estimates 3 to 7 percent of farms in the United States use cover crops; about 1 percent of all U.S. cropland gets planted with them.
If cover crops were planted on half of corn and soybean acres in the nation’s top 10 agriculture states, they would sequester 19 million metric tons of carbon annually, equivalent to the emissions from 4 million cars.
Another study by the Environmental Defense Fund suggests widespread use could help keep nitrogen pollution out of waterways and shrink the Gulf Coast dead zone, an area of oxygen starved water.
The report says cover crops also could make farms more resilient to the extreme weather events expected to come with climate change.
While cover crops are growing in popularity, they’re nothing new. They were used for weed control and nitrogen fixing before the advent of modern chemical farming, Keith Berns said.
“We lost the knowledge and art of doing a lot of that with cheap commercial fertilizer and herbicides,” he said.
“We’ve been able to produce a lot (with chemicals), but I think it has been wearing out the soil. Our soil has been eroded and has been worn down.”
Farmers and scientists are still learning about the benefits of cover crops, like how some trials in Illinois have shown planting rye in a field before soybeans can cut down on a parasitic roundworm known as a cyst nematode, said Gary Lesoing, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension educator involved with the Midwest Cover Crops Council.
Also, cover crops add to the expense of farming, and no-till practices might not practical for all producers. The practicality of cover crops can vary greatly depending on geography, soil conditions and the type of cash crop grown.
Cover crops can be more difficult to grow in northern climates with shorter growing seasons and depending on the type of cash crop they’re supplementing, UNL extension specialist Tyler Williams said.
“Basically, it’s how long you have left in your growing season that determines when you plant them,” Williams said.
For corn, that means spreading seed in August, often by plane, before harvest. For wheat, farmers have plenty of time to get cover crop seeds down after harvest, which happens in July.