David Brown and his son Chase want to see the evidence for themselves: Are cover crops really going to deliver on the promise of increased yields and improved soils health? By joining the Soil Health Partnership, they believe the answer is yes—and have put their own fields to the test.
Farmers are a notoriously skeptical lot. The hard-won experience of bringing a crop to harvest can sometimes mean that newer, untried methods are met with a wary eye. Cover crops are not completely “new” to farming. But having scientific data that proves their worth? That’s something new that has one father-son farming operation excited about the Soil Health Partnership.
“You can’t open any farming publication today without seeing the ‘cover crop’ buzzword,“ says Chase Brown, a Decatur, Ill. farmer. “We keep hearing all of these claims: Yield bumps! Sequester nitrogen! More organic matter! As part of the Soil Health Partnership, we’re ready and excited to prove it for ourselves.”
David Brown and son Chase farm more than 4,000 acres in central Illinois. They grow corn, soybeans and wheat, plus forages and hay for their cattle. David was raised on a farm and came back to it in the mid 1970s. Farming is all Chase has ever known or wanted to do. He came back to the family farm after graduating from Illinois State University in 2010.
Cover crops may be the buzzword now, but the Browns made use of them years ago, although not in the way that they are testing plots with the Soil Health Partnership today. Their interest in cover crops was “back door,” as David tells it. In 2012, they had a simple yet urgent need: to feed their cattle.
“Demand for herd feed was high and hard to come by. We started looking at cover crops like rye, clover and radish,” he said. “With those cover crops, we were able to feed our 60 head of Hereford purebred cattle all the way through January with very little need for hay.”
One challenge for the Browns with cover crops early on has been how to get them established in the field for a long enough growing season in Illinois. Ideally, they need to be planted in the fall while the cash crop is also still in the field. This gives the cover crops plenty of warm weather to establish before a killing frost.
“We had tried flying on cover crops in years past to help prevent erosion, but we had very poor success,” said David. “We need to be able to get seeds in the ground while corn is still in the field to get a good start on the growing season. The technology of planting cover crops is finally catching up.”
Their year of success with cover crops sparked their interest in seeing what else was possible, and the pair became active in the Soil Health Partnership in 2014.
“The big driving force for me with the Soil Health Partnership is that it isn’t a one year flash-in-the-pan,” said Chase. “We will have to do it multiple years to see how this is going to go.”
On the Brown farm, the SHP test plot is laid out in strips 120 feet wide alongside crops grown in a conventional manner without cover crops or no-till. This will allow the SHP and the Browns to compare side-by-side results over a five-year period of the same crops growing in the same field under the same conditions—but using different methods.
“At the end of the five years, hopefully we can say we do have just the right amount of nitrogen in the soil, a good yield bump and improved organic matter in the soil,” said Chase. “I want to see if these claims are true and I want to see it for myself on our land.”
David agrees: “We want to put it to the test. But farming is never a one-year story. We know it won’t be right away. Its going to be a generational thing.”
David says farming is “very aggressive” in Illinois.
“Land is expensive and we pay high cash rents. We believe this research and our investment in it will be worth it to learn how to improve our soil and make it better for the future.”