INFORMATION PROVIDED BY A GRANT FROM
THE HOWARD G. BUFFETT FOUNDATION
COVER CROP ENVELOPE
By Tanner Ehmke
iving on the leading edge of technology isn’t always easy business. But if you listen to Roger Brining of Great Bend talk about
innovation in farming, you’ll ﬁnd it’s about more than business.
It’s a passion for the soil and environment.
The investments in his subsurface drip irrigation system and the two
wind turbines that power the farm serve as just a couple of examples
of the lengths Brining will go to achieve new levels of conservation,
which, in turn, bring value back to the farm.
“I want my great-great-grandchildren to have a farm to come back
to if they want,” says Brining, himself a fourth-generation farmer who
farms with his wife, Erika, and their three children. “Water, energy and
soil conservation are all very important, and I want to make sure that we
are being good stewards of God’s creation.”
That passion for stewardship has Brining constantly scanning the horizon for new and better ways to improve the efﬁciency and decrease the
resource demands of his 3,500-acre farm, consisting of no-tilled wheat,
corn, milo, soybeans and alfalfa.
His latest foray into conservation has been into the realm of cover
crops. “Basically, I see in cover crops several goals,” Brining explains.
“Prevent both wind and water erosion, capture nutrients remaining
in the soil from the previous crop, ﬁx nutrients and nitrogen, and add
organic matter, which, of course, helps for water-holding capacity and
prevents leaching of nutrients.”
A HEALTHY SEEDBED
The crops also beneﬁt from better seedbeds for planting, Brining
says, which he credits to boosting his corn yield last year. On
a quarter section of ground irrigated by a center pivot, Brining
planted triticale in October 2009 for his winter annual cover crop
behind alfalfa. He then chemically terminated the triticale in the
spring and no-tilled corn into the thick stubble.
“Agronomically, that’s not necessarily what you want to put
ahead of corn, but we wanted to have some cover for the winter and
that ﬁbrous root system to create a better seedbed for planting the
corn back into,” Brining says. “It worked just fantastic. It was the
best ﬁeld we had.”
That ﬁeld produced a corn yield of 245 bushels per acre, Brining
recalls; his next best ﬁeld was just more than 200.
While Brining attributes much of that yield boost to the alfalfa
that returned nitrogen to the soil over the previous ﬁve years, he
thinks the triticale played a major role in prepping the seedbed
heading into spring planting. The uniformity of the stand and the
strong emergence, he believes, were due in part to timely planting.
“I really feel that establishing a stand at the time that we planted
— we planted that ﬁeld fairly early — would not have been possible
without the cover crop,” adds Brining. “I don’t know how much
direct yield we gained from the cover crop, except that it let us get it
in more timely, and we had almost perfect seed spacing. We just had
no skips or doubles.”
AN ALTERNATIVE NUTRIENT SOURCE
COVER CROP ADVOCATE: Roger Brining sees a range of beneﬁts by incorporating
cover crops into his operation. And they’ve been yield boosters, too.
Realizing the contribution alfalfa made to the corn’s success,
Brining is also considering bringing a shorter alfalfa rotation into
play ahead of corn to return more nitrogen back to the soil. The
yield boost that results on the corn, he ﬁgures, will pay for putting
in the alfalfa. “An alfalfa establishment is my only hesitation for
starting it,” Brining says. “But if it pays for it in the back end with
the beneﬁt to the corn, then alfalfa looks very good ﬁnancially.”
Exotic cover crop cocktails consisting of radishes, canola, rye,
hairy vetch and Austrian winter peas have also made their way into
the Brining farm. Brining’s ultimate goal for his long-season winter
cover crops is to include 12 or more species, up from the ﬁve species in the current mix.
To accommodate the introduction of cover crops into his rotation,
Brining is backing off his normal practice of double cropping cash
crops, such as planting short-season soybeans into wheat stubble.
“Cover cropping in our case is something we will move to in the
next step to developing our soils from double-cropped cash crops.
Brining has invested in
two windmills that power
his farm, allowing him
to capture an abundant
Kansas resource: wind.
UNLIKELY DUO: RADISHES AND WHEAT
We’ll put the cover crop in there with the intention of raising one bigger
cash crop instead of the two smaller ones,” he explains.
In the past, he says, double cropping was a sort of stopgap for the
farm that worked quickly and cost-effectively after switching to no-till.
But Brining is quick to note that double cropping has its limits and
that the soil can develop only so far under a double-cropping system.
With cover cropping, he thinks he can take his soil performance to the
next level where double cropping doesn’t.
THE SUBZERO temperatures that ravaged the Plains this winter left more
than a few wheat farmers wondering if they’d have anything left to make it
to harvest this summer.
But Roger Brining, a no-till farmer near Great Bend who is experimenting with cover crops, found something peculiar. After three different
days of temperatures falling to around minus 17 degrees F with 30-mph
winds and no snow cover, the ﬁelds thick with cover crops showed
amazing resiliency, instead of dying from the extreme conditions. “Having
the extra plants there helped, it appears, on the winter survivability,” he says
of his cover crop mix that included rye, radishes, peas and oats. “I haven’t
found a dead plant yet. I think they provide protection for each other.”
Brining tried a similar method of interseeding radishes with his wheat
on a small portion of a ﬁeld, and he is hoping his wheat there also survived. Next fall, he intends to plant radishes with his entire wheat crop.
But preventing winterkill isn’t the only beneﬁt Brining is hoping to see
from interseeding radishes with his wheat. The radish’s taproot can push
down 12 inches, or as much as 18 inches, through the soil, which might
help solve issues with soil compaction and water inﬁltration.
John Holman, cropping systems agronomist at the Kansas State
University Southwest Research-Extension Center in Garden City, has
studied cover crops for the past ﬁve years and is optimistic about the
beneﬁts that tubers from crops like Daikon radish may bring to cash crops.
Some farmers and ranchers interseed turnips or radishes, both of which
produce a tuber, with wheat or triticale for cattle grazing, he says. But
these tubers may also have beneﬁts for the soil.
“Radishes can produce a really large tuber that can be 3 to 4 inches
in diameter and up to 18 inches long. I think that has some potential
beneﬁts,” Holman says. “The tuber can increase water inﬁltration and decrease soil compaction.” While the research on radish cover crops is not
extensive enough to support the theory, he says, the tuber will produce a
macro-pore, or “a really big hole in the ground,” which helps water inﬁltrate
the soil and reduces runoff.
Tom Clayman, co-owner with Dustin Miller of Kaufman Seed in Haven,
says the seeding rate for planting radishes with wheat in the fall is typically
1 pound of radish seed per acre. The radish grows through the fall, but
then freezes and dies in winter, eventually turning to mush in the spring.
It’s commonly argued the tuber pulls nutrients from deep in the soil
and brings them closer to the surface where they can be made available
to a crop like wheat. Holman, though, says wheat is able to reach those
nutrients on its own, noting that wheat’s root system will pull moisture and
nutrients from 6 feet below the soil surface. If nitrate leaching is a concern
on sandy soils that are well-irrigated or in a high-rainfall area, he adds,
cover crops like turnips can minimize nitrogen loss.
After having seen the survival of his wheat-radish mix and cover crops
this year, Brining is convinced there is more to be discovered and is planning to ﬁnd more via his own on-farm research.
CASHING IN ON COVER CROPS
To help fund the switch to cover crops from double cropping, Brining
is devising plans to bring livestock back into the farm operation with
the intention of mob-grazing the cover crops with cattle. Other ﬁnancial
beneﬁts such as reduced chemical costs for weed control also make
cover crops appealing, Brining says.
Subterranean clover, a cool-season annual legume that grows close
to the ground and has a shallow root system, is one such cover crop
Brining believes has big potential in reducing chemical costs. In one
cornﬁeld where he interseeded subterranean clover, yield was the same
as another ﬁeld where he applied chemical to control weeds.
“If we interseeded a cover crop in the corn to control the weeds, that
would completely eliminate that herbicide treatment. We’re talking
$25 per acre of herbicide,” Brining says. “And if we could pick up some
nitrogen out of it to boot, I think it has the potential to become economically viable.”
The quest to ﬁnd the right blend of cover crops and cash crops,
Brining says, is going to be a very long process considering the dearth of
university research to aid farmers. To compensate for what he sees as a
waning in public funds for agricultural studies, Brining has embarked
on his own quest for science and collected ﬁve years of data on his farm
for yield, organic matter, soil electrical conductivity and elevation, and
is searching for the right software package to interpret the information.
That search for solutions is not so big in terms of dollar amount, he
says, but is huge in terms of time investment, making it imperative he
heads down the right path the ﬁrst time.
And in order to feed the world’s growing population on the same
number of acres, he adds, that’s going to take proper management of the
“We need to have 400-bushel corn on some of our top ﬁelds in this
area by 2020,” Brining says. “I don’t think we’re going to get there by putting more nitrogen out. I think it’s going to take something that improves
the soil quality. To me, cover crops seem like the valid place to try.”
Ehmke writes from Lane County.