North Dakota Farmer Joe Breker’s Lifetime of Conservation Discovery
Joe Breker says almost everything he’s learned in his 38 years of farming in the northern prairie was born of necessity. “It really is the mother of invention,” says the conservation fanatic from Havana, North Dakota.
His farming career breaks down into three learning periods.
1. Learning no-till.
At North Dakota State University in the late 1970s, Breker had his first “aha” conservation moment. “A soils professor told us about this new thing called no-till, and encouraged us to check it out.”
Breker did more than that: He found and picked the brains of pioneer no-till farmers, then took it home and tried it on a few fields in 1979. “The next year, we went the whole way, growing every field of corn, soybeans, and cereal grains with no-till,” he recalls. “It made our neighbors wonder what in the world we were thinking.”
They didn’t wonder for long as the 1980s turned dry, and no-till proved its worth in conserving both soil and moisture.
2. Learning cover crops.
Then the 1990s turned wet, and the problem flipped from conserving moisture to getting rid of it. Some people reverted to a chisel plow. Not Breker.
“I was especially struggling with cereal grains,” he says. “We have that long fallow period in the fall, with nothing growing to use up the water. We decided we needed more plants and started trying cover crops.”
He tried vetch, sorghum, sunflowers, and others. But the one that impressed most was field peas. “It uses up a lot of water, and we can get up to 2 tons of vegetation an acre,” he says. “It makes good cattle feed.”
3. Learning cover crop options.
It took several more years for Breker to discover another class of cover crops called the brassicas – turnips, radishes, and a few others. “They’re deep-rooted, fast-growing, water-using, and cold-tolerant,” he says. “They grow in a variety of soil conditions.” In essence, they give more options.
Now, he often seeds turnips and radishes on wheat stubble in preparation for a corn crop the next year. They leave behind a seedbed that’s mellow and porous.
In the last 10 years, Breker has adopted an advanced cover crop system first developed by Kelly Cooper, the manager at the Conservation Cropping Systems Project Farm at Forman, North Dakota. That system alternates strips of brassicas and field peas on 30-inch centers. Using GPS-guidance, corn is planted directly over the brassica strips. It’s like strip-tillage without the tillage; they call it bio strip-till.
Breker says the net result of his no-till and cover crop journey is that he’s better managing moisture while building crop nutrients and soil organic matter. “The soil compaction created by 80 years of tillage is gone. We’ve kicked the soil health up a notch,” he says.
He’s always been quick to share his hard-earned knowledge with other farmers. His best advice: Throw a cover crop onto fields wherever you can to give erosion control (both wind and water), build organic matter, and save on fertilizer expenses.
“My favorite part of farming is watching stuff grow, and cover crops give more chances for that. It’s kind of cool to have our neighbors stop in the fall and ask if they can pick a few of our Jackhammer radishes.”
Children: Phillip, Olivia, Maria, Cory
Awards: The 2017 honoree in the Good Steward Recognition Program of the National Corn Growers Association.
Breker is featured in Successful Farming magazine's "10 Successful Farmers" article running in the June issue.