The importance of cover crops

Green Cover Seed owners Keith and Brian Berns in a summer planted 12 way diverse cover crop mix that will be fall grazed with cattle.

Buoyant crops benefit from flourishing soil, and cover crops can help propel these goals on the farm. Cover crop specialist Keith Berns, who co-owns Green Cover Seed in Bladen, Neb., with his brother Brian, spoke at a Natural Resource Conservation Service series of five soil health workshops across Montana.

He spoke about carbonomics, comparing the economy of a country to the underground economy of the soil, and how soil and plants depend on microbiology in the soil to accomplish vital goals. He also discussed supply and demand.

“Demand for cover crops continues to be strong but can vary regionally based on weather. Supply has been adequate on most products, but also can fluctuate regionally because of changing demand,” said Keith, who presented information in Great Falls, Three Forks, Billings, Forsyth and Sidney, Mont.

Keith and Brian, who have been farming in south-central Nebraska all their lives, converted to no-till farming in 1998 and started Green Cover Seed in 2009 after a “Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education” project showed soil health benefits from planting cover crops.

We interviewed Keith Berns as he wrapped up the Montana presentations and returned to Nebraska.

MM: Why plant cover crops?

Berns: Cover Crops provide deep living roots that pump carbon into the soil and promote air and water movement through the soil which is beneficial for Mycorrhizal fungi and other soil biology. Cover crops are also critical for nitrogen fixation, nutrient availability, disease and pathogen suppression, increased water infiltration, soil structure and organic matter, and the reduction of soil compaction.

MM: What’s new in cover crops?

Berns: The last couple years, we’ve used more okra (typically a garden plant) but we like how it tolerates heat and drought. It’s deep rooted so it breaks up compaction. We’ve always promoted at least seven different species in the mix-when possible. With 120 types of seed, people have choices. We first started planting covers in July after wheat harvest, and after 10 years, we have many more species options, and a better understanding of which species work best during time periods in different geographical areas.

Keith’s Top 3 cover crops:

No. 1: The number one cover crop we sell across the country is cereal rye because it can germinate and grow in pretty cold soils, is good in weed control and is deep rooted so it improves the soil.

No. 2: Oats, as it’s versatile, can be used in spring and fall, relatively inexpensive and excellent forage for livestock grazing.

No. 3: We “moved” a lot of Hairy Vetch this year and saw a lot of interest, because producers are interested in growing their own nitrogen for the next crop that they’ll plant. It’s planted in fall, from end of August through end of October.

MM: What soils are best for the Top 3 cover crops?

Berns: We don’t worry too much about soil types because cover crops can benefit all soils. If it’s a lot of clay or high PH, there’s something to choose from with 120 different varieties available.

MM: Is there any caution to take, as in, can cattle choke on turnips or radishes, or other?

Berns: Choking hazard with turnips is extremely rare, but it has happened occasionally with feeder calves. Nitrates, prussic acid and other toxicities can be issues with some species and conditions, so if that is a concern, we always recommend getting a forage test prior to grazing. We encourage livestock guys to exercise common sense and basic grazing cautions when grazing covers, just as they would with other forages.

MM: The top reasons to plant cover crops?

Berns: “Lots of reasons: just improving soil structure and soil biology are really important and they can also help suppress herbicide-resistant weeds. Supplemental grazing for livestock is also huge. The cool thing is producers can plant covers and improve soil health while increasing productivity and protecting the environment! What other system can do that?” emphasized Berns.

MM: When is the best time to plant?

Berns: We sell cover crops every time that you can get something growing and planting.

Amy Hadachek can be reached at