What started as two brothers taking over the family operation in Bladen, Neb., soon turned into starting Green Cover Seed, a cover crop seed mixing and distribution company, which impacts over one million acres of agricultural land annually. Keith and Brian Berns grew up in agriculture and were eager to learn different ways to improve their own operation. This learning mindset exposed them to different experts and research trials about the impact of diverse cover crop mixes all the way from Brazil to North Dakota.

They soon took advantage of the opportunity to use a small SARE Farmer/Rancher grant to create a trial of their own. They planted strips of monoculture cover crops and strips of mixed cover crops and placed moisture sensors at one foot, two feet and three feet into the soil. Keith Berns said, “What we discovered was the mixes were much more efficient at using moisture than anything planted by itself in a monoculture. We also saw how well the cattle performed on it. By the time the cattle were done grazing, they came off incredibly well conditioned.” These findings were in line with the research and trials they had seen elsewhere. The only problem was that the ingredients to make the diverse mixes of cover crops were hard to find. So, in 2009, Green Cover Seed was founded and now serves all fifty states and Canada by creating custom seed mixes for farmers and ranchers of all sizes.

Efficient moisture utilization and additional grazing for livestock are only two of the many benefits of utilizing diverse cover crop mixes. Additional benefits include breaking up compaction, building up organic matter and improving infiltration rates. “I haven't talked to a farmer yet that that doesn't agree with the statement that our precipitation events tend to be less frequent and more intense than they used to be. So having the ability to capture that moisture and hold on to it becomes even more important,” said Berns. Many of these benefits tie back to the principles of soil health and reducing erosion. The latter being one of the more immediate and most important benefits gained from this practice. Keith said, “It doesn't matter how healthy you make your soil, if it washes or blows away, all that work that you did literally goes down the river. Keeping the ground covered and protected from wind and water is hugely important.”

Profitability is always a big question for both farmers and ranchers. Additional days spent grazing instead of feeding hay are usually an easy sell for cattlemen and women but there’s a different mindset shift that typically occurs for farmers. “One of the big mindset shifts people need to make before they decide to try it is to stop thinking about success in terms of how many bushels you yield or how high your weaning weights are compared to the neighbors. You need to start thinking about it in terms of how profitable you were.” When managed properly, cover crops can put nutrients back into the soil, reduce weed pressure and control insects. These benefits can reduce your overall inputs and for farmers it could bring in additional revenue if you allow cattle to graze on the land as well.

If you want to graze cover crops but are constrained by the land you have available, there are several options to consider. “Depending on the environment you are in, you can look at using annual cover crops interceded into your perennial forages during the right windows to introduce diversity into the system. You are rarely going to hurt your perennial crop if you understand when it goes dormant,” said Berns. This method allows ranchers to utilize the pastures they already use to create additional grazing in either the late fall or early spring. If you don’t want to seed into your perennials, you can work towards building a relationship with a neighboring farmer. Key components of creating a good relationship with your neighbor include coming forward with a clear plan that outlines why it will be beneficial for both of you, who will be doing the work, the price and when the cattle will be pulled off of the field. Berns said, “You have to be willing to pull your cattle out when it's time and that means leaving half the biomass there for the farmer’s field. It’s hard for a cowboy to leave anything behind, but you have to be willing to do that. Otherwise, that farmer is going to see all of this residue removed and it won’t be the win-win situation he agreed to.” Be willing to do most of the work if you are grazing your cattle and know what a winning situation looks like for all parties involved.

Remember that cover crops are a tool and the impact of using this tool can be great when managed properly and with the bigger picture in mind. Keith sums it up best with his final thoughts, “I really get excited about the thought of regenerative agriculture bringing people back together. Our mission statement is to help people regenerate, steward and share God's creation for future generations. That starts with the soil, but it certainly doesn't stop there. We want to see people regenerate relationships with neighbors. And then when that starts happening, we can start to regenerate our communities.”

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