Green Cover's Journey to Improving Soil Health

people standing in field learning about cover crops

Managing soil erosion. Retaining moisture. Enhancing biodiversity. Improving overall soil health. All play a key role in the future of farming. Green Cover believes in that future and is doing its part with customized, diverse cover crop mixes.

Green Cover is currently serving more than 18,000 customers from their offices in Bladen, Nebraska and Iola, Kansas. It has cumulatively helped cover more than 5.5 million acres of land with supplied seed.

Humble Beginnings

The company was founded by Keith and Brian Berns, two brothers who grew up on acreage they still farm. Brian started farming after college graduation in 1988 and began experimenting with no-till techniques. Keith taught high school for about a decade before returning to the farm. By then, the brothers were ready to switch 100% of the operation to no-till.

“Since we were already connected with no-till, we knew many of the people who would become rockstars of the movement.”
– Keith Berns, Co-Owner / Sales and Marketing Manager

In 2006, at one of the early no-till conferences they attended, a Brazilian farmer talked about experimenting with multi-species cover crop mixes. Most U.S. farmers at the time planted a single-species cover crop, or simple, two- or three-way mixes.

“Seeing 10-way and 12-way mixes got everyone pumped up,” according to Keith. “It was a watershed moment for the movement.” The brothers watched as other trailblazing farmers planted these multi-species mixes and saw initial success in places like North Dakota. “It was an incredibly dry year there,” continued Keith. “The single species cover crops burned up and did nothing, while the more diverse mixes produced significant amounts of forage, tonnage and biomass for those farmers.”

The Moisture Question

Before doing anything themselves, they wanted to closely study the moisture impact that planting cover crops might have. A small Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant allowed them to buy moisture sensors, which they placed at one-, two- and three-foot depths in 18 different monoculture cover crop strips along with two diverse mixes made from these 18 species. The remainder of the 80-acre field was planted to a diverse mix and grazed through the fall and winter. It proved to be a relatively moist summer, and they were able to precisely see the cover crop impact on moisture levels.

They planted two different mixes with 18 total cover crop species and grazed cattle on the land. It proved to be a rainy year, and they were able to precisely see the impact on moisture levels.

“We learned three things that year. First, the mixes used moisture more efficiently than anything planted by itself. And third, the seeds themselves weren’t easy to find. We had to look hard because few people were combining them in diverse mixes. Second, the cattle grazing those mixes came off the fields like they were coming out of the feedlot. And third, the seeds themselves weren’t easy to find. We had to look hard because few people were combining them in diverse mixes,” said Keith.

A Multigenerational Business Is Born

While they experimented, some of their children were getting old enough to have an interest in farming. The brothers knew that they needed to grow to make room for the next generation. They started Green Cover in 2009, marketing seed mixes to other producers. All seven children were involved in Green Cover either full or part time, but the seed business quickly outgrew the family. Green Cover began hiring outside of the family and now has more than 30 employees—a significant achievement for the area they operate in.

“We decided to go the route of starting the business rather than trying to find another 3,000 acres to farm,” joked Keith, reflecting on how he got the next generation involved in the business. “Initially, all we did was take orders, then had someone else mix the seeds together. We sold enough of these mixes for about 1,000 acres. So, pretty humble beginnings. From there, we bought our own mixer, started buying and mixing individual seeds ourselves and that’s how Green Cover began.”

“From the 1,000 acres in those early years, we’ve grown to where we’re moving enough seed out the door the past couple of years to cover more than one million acres.”
– David Nelsen, CEO

Committed To Spreading the Word

The switch from single- to multi-species cover crops comes with a learning curve. Green Cover has always understood that education was vital to helping producers succeed, and in the early days, most of the company’s marketing budget was dedicated to events and other educational activities.

With the emergence of YouTube and other social media channels, the company relies more on technology to help spread the word about the importance of soil health, with over 500,000 YouTube views just last year. “I’m currently putting a talk together about cover crop and soil health economics,” said Keith. “Specifically, how to put a monetary value on better water infiltration, less soil erosion and increased soil organic matter.”

Regenerate Then Sustain

Part of the educational process involves carefully defining terms. For example, when talking about soil health, the company stresses that regeneration needs to happen before sustainability can occur.

“The word “regenerative” is about building back rather than just holding steady with what you have,” said Keith. “Either term can work. Sustainable essentially means we’re protecting what we have for the long haul, and, in a lot of scenarios, that is the appropriate term. But when we’ve lost 50% or more of our topsoil to erosion, we need to rebuild, then sustain. That’s why regenerative has become a more popular term for us and many others.”

More Than Just Financial Support

The brothers credit their financial team at Farm Credit with helping to build Green Cover.

“In addition to financial resources, they have also helped us make connections with those who specialize in legal advice, accounting and insurance specifically for agribusinesses. When this all started, using the same services as for the farming operation might have been sufficient, but growth and scale required access to a different level of experience and perspective,” said Keith.

“Our rep with Farm Credit Services of America is always on our list for emailing a quick question. They also help make introductions to other companies that aren’t necessarily competition but are doing enough similar things,” added Nelsen. “They’re like, ‘Hey, you should go talk to these guys because you could probably learn from what they’ve done here.’ And they’re usually right.”

From its humble beginnings to a multi-generational business that helps improve the soil health of millions of acres each year, Green Cover continues to make a difference in regenerative and sustainable agriculture.


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