A Day with Dave Brandt
Mike Hubbs, Tennessee Association Conservation Districts (TACD),
Soil Health Specialist, August 19, 2015
Tuesday August 18, 2015, three vehicles with 12 individuals, farmers, NRCS employees, and a TACD employee embarked to Central Ohio to visit Dave Brandt. Dave is one of the most preeminent farmers and leaders in the country in soil health. You can “Google” Dave Brandt and receive several sites and articles on his work in farming, and especially with no-till, crop rotations, and cover crops. This trip took place due to Dave coming to Jackson, Tennessee this past February and leaving the TACD convention attendees in awe with his down-home transparent personality sharing his successes as well his failures. Dave not only was the TACD Conference’s key note speaker, but also visited farms and met with local farmers in West Tennessee. He left an impression.
Kevin Brown, Tennessee State Conservationist with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), spent almost a year in 2012-2013 on detail in National Headquarters developing a foundation of a new Division of Soil Health for NRCS. He came back to Tennessee with a vision for soil health. One, was to develop Tennessee’s own Soil Health Heroes. Two, develop local working groups that would feed off one another’s successes, and learn from others’ failures or attempts of trying new things. Third, partner with TACD to hire a person to assist Districts and NRCS to publicize and train on soil health. These are just a few of his soil health visions. His past association with Dave Brandt was instrumental in bringing Dave to Tennessee for the TACD convention.
Brad Denton and Matthew Denton, District Conservationists, NRCS in the Jackson Area have led a small local working group that regularly meets to discuss soil health practices and others’ experiences. Through this local working group, Brad began working with Dave Brandt, Craig Ellis, Area Conservationist, NRCS and Kevin Brown to plan this trip. All of the above led to a trip to Dave Brandt’s.
The participants were Kevin Brown, State Conservationist, Nashville; Craig Ellis, Area Conservationist, Jackson; Brad Denton, District Conservationist, Madison and Chester Counties; and Matthew Denton, District Conservationist, Gibson County, all from NRCS, Tennessee. Joining them were farmers: Rusty and Jeff Harris, Chester County, Tim Colbert, Chester County, Charlie Roberts, Lauderdale County, Marty Hinson, Gibson County, Matt Griggs, Crockett/Madison Counties, and Adam Joyner, Gibson County. Thanks to Brad, Kevin, and Danny Sells, TACD, I (Mike Hubbs) was approved to attend.
Introduction to the Farm
We met at Dave Brandt’s farm on Tuesday, August 20, 2015 at about 8:00 am. Nice day with a high of about 82 degrees Fahrenheit, clear skies in the morning with chance of rain that thankfully held off to late afternoon. Dave began with a talk in his seed supply barn where they have a successful seed business, Walnut Creek Seeds, LLC. This company has sprung up due to the farm’s need for cover crops and also, farmers’ interest and demand for standard and custom seeding of cover crops.
The day began with Dave discussing their general and custom blends of cover crops. His seed sources are Oregon, Kansas, Africa, Australia, and others. His general seeding mixtures are 1/3 warm season grasses and legumes, 1/3 winter grasses and legumes, and 1/3 brassicas. Some farmers request just winter peas. He went on to talk about a partnership with Ohio State University using 10 X 10 plots and then trying on the farm. About 40 percent tried on 10 X 10 plots do not work in real life farming operations. Dave went on to say one major factor with working with farmers on cover crops is to know the history of herbicide applications to assure there is no carry over problems for the cover crops.
The history of the operation was shared, 1150 acres of row crops of corn, wheat, soybeans with newly acquired land beginning first year no-till to the original acres on the farm that has a history of 45 years no-till.
Dave being the hospitable host, was considerate to begin with Power Point because of wetness in the field from dew. Waiting for drier conditions, he provided a background with slides. He called the use of cover crops “Biology Primer” because of the importance of building soil carbon and food for soil biology. No-till and minimum disturbances protect the dwelling areas and food supply of the soil biota.
His first slide was 229 bushel/acre corn following 12-way (12 species) cover crop mix. He began in 1978 using red clover and other clovers but found quickly this was a haven for mice and voles as well as only 50 pounds of nitrogen (N) fixed from the clover per acre. He no longer uses red clover. He did like yellow blossom sweet clover, 18 months of growth, need the time commitment as a soil builder.
He mentioned several species beginning with crimson clover, knowing this was one of the foundation species in his mixes. Faba bean was next focusing on the need to use in a mix, because it bloomed in 30 days. Cow pea was next on the list as a mainstay, summer annual. It did not take us long to hear and see the use of sunn hemp, 125 pounds of N, summer annual, reaching 36 – 48 inches, some locations, 72 inches in southern climates, and nodules the size of nickels. The larger the nodules, the longer the nitrogen fixing lasts.
He continued with hairy vetch, should plant on hill sides, not on bottomland due to keeping the soil too wet. He brought up chickling vetch, but said he did not like it as a foundation cover due to blooming in 30 days with no more nodulation. Need to plant late in September to have practical benefits. Austrian winter pea is used due to being a winter legume and well adapted. Rates are 30 pounds per acre alone or 8 – 10 pounds per acre in a mix. He then discussed his corn having 4 – 6 pounds test weight better in legumes than in no covers. He also shared results showing 12 bushels/acre increase in corn with Austrian winter peas compared to no cover. Dave showed us a slide of a winter pea and location of nodules. He also showed that corn planted at a one inch depth was right where the nodulation occurred. When the nodulation deepens in the soil, the corn is continued fed through the season by nitrogen fixation.
In the Power Point session, as well as on the farm wagon tour, Dave stressed his desire to plant 100 percent of the land in biology primer (cover crops). Some years he falls short, but that is his goal. He then provided a list which is not inclusive of legumes and N potential:
Species (Legume) N Potential (pounds per acre)
Red Clover 60
Sweet Clover 80
Crimson Clover 75
Hairy Vetch 150
Cahaba/Chickling Vetch 30
Winter Pea 125
Cow Pea 50
Sunn Hemp 100
Dave then began a discussion on Buckwheat as a transition cover crop for soil improvement. It is great to loosen soil and prevents crusting up to two years. Seed at 20 pounds per acre alone, blooms in 30 days, great for honey bees and pollinators. Plant 2-3 pounds per acre in mixes. The roots bring up phosphorus (P) and make it available to plants. Plant in late summer or March 15 – with full bloom easily by May 1. Dave uses this as additional income. When he plants buckwheat, he calls bee keepers, and charges $30.00 per hive. It will make seed but is easy to control with herbicides.
Sunflowers are deep rooted summer annuals that pull up nutrients, especially micronutrients such as zinc and copper. Sun flowers, 3 in bundle along with 4 millets to the bundle provide additional income, especially adjacent to urban areas and farmer markets at $5.00/bundle. Plant sunflowers at 2 pounds per acre in mixes.
Brassicas are used as catch/trap crops. They are very useful in capturing and storing N. The tap roots penetrate compacted zones and pull up nutrients. The following crops’ roots follow the path made by brassicas. They work well for farmers who apply manure. Dave mentioned that he uses Daikon radishes in drill and when broadcasting. Tillage radishes do better when used in precision planting. He showed a picture that the radish looked approximately 12 inches in length in tuber size with 1.5 – 2 inches in diameter. The radish holds N-P-Potassium (K), lifts the soil, breaks through hard pans, and improves water infiltration. With manure applicators, he discussed a mix of oats, peas, and radishes, good for storing and pulling up N, P, K, Sulfur (S), Calcium (Ca), and Magnesium (Mg). The increased uptake of nutrients by the cover crop mix resulted in increased nutrients per plant and per acre.
Dave switched topics to cover crops in soybeans. Cereal rye is the main stay as the foundation. Rye before soybeans causes nodes on soybean plant to grow closer together. A three-year comparison with no cover showed 8 bushels/acre increase in soybeans following cereal rye. With no soil splash, there is no sudden death, white mold, and nearly zero mare’s tail. Dave said you must manage cover crops for water. Kill earlier if no promise of rain in few days. However, he plants in green to take advantage of cover crop uptake of 1 inch water per day, great for cool wet soils. He describes the rye’s height as tractor cab-high (6 feet plus).
Dave showed us (slide) of a poor man roller, 2 X 4 board with angle iron with pulley ropes or bungee cords. They later demonstrated for us. Great for gardens. Dave also has a 4’ roller for gardens pulled by garden tractor, and a 15’ roller for his crop fields. His rollers are from I and J, located in Gap, Pennsylvania. He recommends front end roller/crimper followed by planter or drill.
He also uses sorghum-sudangrass with mixes before wheat planting, killed two weeks before planting wheat. The wheat yielded 105 bushels/acre following summer mixture. He also uses his summer mix with sorghum-sudangrass mix after wheat to build soil carbon. Sorghum-sudangrass also pulls up P. He says using a carbon-building mix in summer in Ohio is more profitable in the long-run than double cropped soy beans. I also asked him the recommended time intervals to plant in killed covers. He confirmed that one should plant green or at least 14 days after terminating the cover crop.
Dave shared about working with organic growers in North Carolina. The tomato growers use about 20 miles of plastic on tomato rows. Dave assisted a grower on a field where they used 5 miles of plastic at $6,000/acre. Dave showed them by using their own tomato-setter in a rolled cover crop mix. They produced 30 percent more tomatoes and saved $5,000/acre. Approximately$2,000 of the $5,000 was on recovering and disposing of the plastic.
He also talked about row openers with a roller/crimper attachments. He has a planter with this set-up and it costs about $2,000/row on a six row planter. He does not necessarily like this system because erosion potential is increased in the disturbed rows and the high cost of the attachments. Soil function is improved when soil is covered.
Dave discussed his field day where 450 people attended his farm. Many states were represented. Not one person from his home county attended. This is a sad testimony, the wealth of information at Dave’s, you would think everyone would be emulating him, sad that they do not. Dave’s program provides better profit, better soils, and a better environment.
Dave discussed high carbon mixes. One is a 32,000 pounds biomass per acre. He grows it in the summer. The soil organic matter changes are 1% per year. About one third of carbon (biomass) produced will accumulate as soil organic matter. Ray Archuletta, NRCS developed a mix of 42,000 pounds. These are grown in summer months. He finalized his cover crops discussion comparing 4-way mix with legumes having more N and more moisture compared to no-till without cover crops.
Dave is experimenting with growing crops with inter seeded covers. He has corn with some covers showing better than in killed covers. He has seen radishes planted in fall before frost will improve wheat.
Dave called the next wave in soil health, improving the quality of food. Working with Ohio State, they have tested three fields, no fertilizer, half rate fertilizer, and with full rate fertilizer. Protein in corn for grain was 9.1 % in no fertilizer, 8.6% in half fertilizer, and 7.5% protein in full rate fertilizer. Grain with higher protein produced leaner hogs with better health and much less expenses on veterinary bills. He sees this as the future of improving soil health to produce better crop quality and food.
He reminded us that his original field with Cardington clay loam had a beginning yellow color with 0.5% organic matter. It is now 7% organic matter. He finished by saying we can improve our soil’s productivity by producing diverse biomass and no-tilling.
In the Field
After the Power Point, the dew lifted and we went to the field. Dave took us into a hoop house where he planted a 10-way mix. He planted it on June 6. No water was irrigated in the hoop house, and the cover crops were 6 feet including sunn hemp and 9 other species. It was incredible to see this much growth with only condensation for moisture.
Matt Griggs standing in 10-way mix in hoop house (sunn hemp), no water. Picture was taken August 19, and mix planted June 5. Picture on right, also in hoop house, showing cow pea in the mix.
Soil on left, no cover in hoop house. Soil on right, in cover in hoop house. Even without rain, soil had a granular structure.
Picture above is a 10-way mix shown three weeks after planting, following wheat. Soil samples on right showing soil changes due to cover crops and rotation. Ten-way mix: flax, millet, turnips, hairy vetch, crimson clover, Ethiopian cabbage, Austrian winter pea, sorghum, sunn hemp, and cereal rye. Volunteer wheat is also germinating. Wheat after mix yielded 105 bushels/acre. A comparison planting without cover crops and 45 units of N, yielded 80 bushels/acre. Diverse mixes produce higher yields with less inputs.
Wagon stop of tour, showing on left, field farmed by Dave for seven years, no-till and cover crops. Last three years with 8-way, 10-way, and 12-way covers. Soil organic matter began at 0.5 %, currently at 3%. Field was compacted when he took over. Dave does not sub soil or use steel to loosen the soil; he uses roots to break compaction. Dave made the point that grasses bring up Ca, legumes fix N and bring up micro nutrients, and brassicas uptake nutrients and store them.
Picture on right, three weeks cover after wheat. He kills covers with herbicides prior to planting corn. This is his original field where he began no-till in 1971. Soil organic matter is 7%, beginning at 0.5%
Dave was convinced by researchers to have a control field of tillage on his farm. He rented the tillage equipment, did two-three tillage trips (chisel, vertical tillage, etc.), applied atrazine, simazine, followed by one trip with glyphosate, 194 pounds of N, 136 pounds of complete fertilizer (6-24-24), at 2 X 2 placement. He has $536.00 per acre on 15 acres. A no-till field nearby with 12-way cover crops had $294.00 of input costs.
Pictur on left, shows samples from conventional field on upper part, and long-term no-till on lower part. Soil on lower part has much higher organic matter as indicated by darker color. Soil on lower part had obvious more earthworm activity.
Picture above, Dave has trials with GMO corn, $145.00 per acre for corn seed, non-GMO with diazinon, $70.00 per acre for corn seed, and organic at $40.00 per acre of corn seed costs.
Picture on left, corn after 12-way, 3% organic matter after beginning at 0.5%. Microbial biomass is at 65,000 before planting and 25,000 after using fungicide treated seed. Dave is beginning to try organic corn, no fungicide treatment to preserve his microbial biomass and to reduce costs. Note, it takes time for biology to balance in order to prevent diseases, insects, and weeds. Adding diversity is the key. Farmers just starting this system will have to use more inputs such as herbicides, N-fertilizer, and fungicides until soil biology reaches a balance.
Taken from a couple of fields, night crawlers (Lumbricus terrestris) are very active in fields. I counted about 5 holes per square feet (215,000 per acre). The holes shown above are about the diameter of a #2 pencil. Infiltration is about 5” per hour. These soils have about 60% clay.
The corn above on left has 100 units of N per acre with applications of glyphosate. The corn on right (greener color) has soybeans growing with corn. Soybeans are type 3.5. There are no herbicides with corn on right. Dave said he would add 50 units of N in future with about a quart of glyphosate per acre in the future. The corn on right was much greener and taller. Field was planted same time after cover crops, same varieties. Again, cover crop mixes provide better growing conditions with less inputs.
Soybean field after 240 bushels of corn and rye cover crop. This field has been farmed in this system for 9 years. Soil organic matter is 3.5%, began at 0.25%. Note most of the previous corn crop is decomposed with some rye still persisting. Many of the crop rows were clean due to high decomposition of residue and cover from microbial biomass and earthworms.
Dave says that soybeans following covers are somewhat shorter but has more pods per node as shown in picture on left.
Picture on right is from neighbor’s field. Neighbor crops corn-bean rotation with several tillage trips. Note the platy structure and light color. Organic matter is 0.5 %. I walked the fields and saw zero worm casting per square foot compared to no fewer than five per square foot in Dave’s fields.
Air seeder for cover crops. Dave charges for custom seeding $15/Acre with Dave furnishing seed, and $16/acre without seed, farmer furnishes seed. Dave currently custom plants 3,700 acres annually. He hopes to build this to 10,000 acres per year. Picture on right is his 4-foot roller/crimper. The Brandts’ work diligently in their gardens testing combinations best for growers who are organic or use herbicides or need covers to winter kill.
Dave ended our tour with his daughter-in-law providing us information on standard and custom blends for both gardens and large farming operations. Growers can contact them to develop the blends for their personal needs. With a day full of discussion and touring, our cups were truly over flowing with useful information to improve soil health.