David Brandt is one of the big names in no-till and cover cropping. He is a friend of Blake’s, who said I had to go and visit, and I have also seen him on a few youtube videos. He farms 1250 acres, spread out over a 12 mile radius.He is a real long term no-tiller, having started in 1971. The first four years went well, and then yields started to drop off. David attributes this to growing too many high carbon ratio crops, and so he thought perhaps cover cropping could be the solution. They planted the first covers in 1977 and have been doing it ever since. Now he is one of the go-to guys in his field, and runs a cover crop seed business on the side. At the moment the US government is incentivising farmers to try out cover crops, and paying them $35-60/acre for up to 3 years. This is free money as the cost of planting them is only $15-20/acre, but according to David most of them stop when the time is up.
The rotation here is maize -> soybean -> wheat. Straight cereal rye cover crops are grown after maize, with more elaborate mixes after wheat. The soil is a very sticky yellow clay. In 1971 the organic matter levels were 0.5%; they are now 5%. This may sound fanciful, but last year David bought 80 acres immediately adjacent to his home farm. This land had been in a full cultivation system, so it provides an excellent comparison. We went and dug up some soil on each side of the boundary, and this was the result:
For anyone who says it is not possible to change soil in a human timeframe, this photo should blow your mind. Colour, texture, density, everything is totally different from one field to the next. David claims to be able to make this change in about 5 years, I’d love to come back in 2020 and see if he has done it.
The yield difference between these two fields is expected to be around 20%. He also claims that the maize grain grown in the long term no-till/CC fields will have almost double the protein content, which attracts a 20% price premium when sold directly to hog [pig] farmers.
To quickly improve the soil condition of a field, David uses large cover crop mixes with peas, vetch, clover, hemp, rye, barley, millet, radish, cabbage, flax, phacelia & sunflower. Once he is happy with the soil condition, he will switch to using a simpler mix of peas and radish. This has two benefits, firstly it fixes over 200kg/ha of nitrogen (July – April), and also it will die off in the winter, meaning no herbicides needed, and also the soil will dry quicker in the spring. In his words, “a cover crop will always keep your soil wetter in the spring”, which is a drawback on heavy soils when you need them to dry out to be able to drill spring crops in the right conditions.
Cover crops planted after wheat are drilled, but this machine is used to blow cereal rye seed into the standing maize crop so that it can get established before harvest in October. It’s a home converted machine, and they obviously like playing with toys:
This contraption is a home made triple-disc pumpkin direct drill. One man drives the tractor, the other sits on the seat you can see, under the umbrella. Every 7 feet (or 3.5 for smaller varieties) the man on the back drops a couple of seeds down the shoot, followed quickly by a handful of NPK fertiliser. It’s certainly simple!
To finish with I’ll relate part of a conversation I had at Monroe’s Original Hotdog stand not too long ago.
Nice Man: You should try a root beer, we make it ourselves.
Me: OK, sounds good.
Me: So how do you make a root beer?
Nice Man: Sugar. Lots of Sugar.
Nice Man: And the syrup. We mix it up. I think it’s made of root.
That’s what I call home cooking.
PS You will be happy to hear I got my suitcase back.