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Q&A: Lee Briese, Crop Consultant

Lee Briese gazes out at a soybean field on a pleasant July morning, holding his audience at rapt attention. Is he going to give advice on the merits or demerits of narrow soybean rows? Planting date recommendations? 

Nope. “There are too danged many soybeans,” says the Edgely, North Dakota, Centrol crop consultant. 

That’s the kind of outspokenness that has endeared Briese to his clients and what those attending the Dakota Innovation Research and Technology (DIRT) Workshop in Fargo, North Dakota, December 9-11, will hear – along with the shaved head, bushy beard, and sunglasses.

“I used to look like every other ag dude,” he says. “I had the baseball cap, the shortcut goatee, and the sunglass tan. My hair started falling out at 24, so I gave up on that. The beard evolved when I started doing speaking engagements on salinity, in particular. I said, ‘I have this salt spot on top of my head where I can’t grow anything, so I’ll put a cover crop on it.’ It got a good laugh. Now, it’s almost a trademark. I want people to notice me, know who I am, and ask me questions.”

SF: What’s your background?

LB: I was born and raised a farm kid near Pettibone, North Dakota. My folks got out of farming in the 1980s. I got away from agriculture and tried a few things in college, but I didn’t really care for them. I worked for a grain elevator for a couple of years, helping farmers pick herbicides and adjust fertilizers. I went back to school and got my agronomy degree and started with Centrol. 

SF: Why are there too many soybeans? 

LB:  It’s just that we’re over 50% soybeans  (in a North Dakota rotation) on a regular basis. That guarantees that some fields are soybeans two years in a row. I’m not necessarily against that, because we can use stacked rotations (the same crop grown two years in a row followed by a long break), but too much of any crop puts so much pressure on our system.

SF: What kind of pressure?  

LB: Weeds, for one. The corn-soybean system gives a hole for weeds like kochia to fit in. Some of the new herbicide-tolerant technology in soybean and corn adds some tools. We can also layer residual herbicides. But herbicides alone are not going to work. We’ve seen how resistance to glyphosate with kochia has been a dead end. 

We have to change the game. A diversified rotation with small grains or field peas out there early would give more competition. Cover crops can also add early-season competition. By the time we get out in some of these fields, the kochia is already huge. 

SF: So why aren’t more farmers diversifying their crop rotations? 

LB: They’ve worked themselves into a corn-soybean system because it’s been profitable until recently. Marketing is an issue. So is equipment. Farmers end up getting rid of equipment that they needed for small grains or a solid-seed crop because it’s expensive. 

SF: Define soil health.

LB: For me, it is a well-functioning soil that is not degraded, works biologically, and cycles minerals. But it means different things in different areas, because soils and soil organisms can differ so much. 

SF: Will there be tests to pinpoint soil health?  

LB: It’s possible. It will be a constellation of things, though, just like when a doctor takes blood pressure, checks eyes, and does blood work. None of those numbers by themselves – or even a combination – will tell you if you are healthy. They are indicators that suggest areas of focus. It’s the same thing with soil health. Soil health has to be individualized, specific to the field, the farmer, and even the soil type. 

SF: What can farmers do to navigate these tough times? 

LB: Farmers need to be cautious and skeptical about inputs. If fields have too much water, adding more nitrogen is not going to fix it. If fields do not have enough water, adding boron is not going to fix it. You have to first identify the problem. A lot of this stuff is not incredibly complex. It’s just rational, critical thinking. The other thing is to have realistic expectations. Just don’t look at the bottom line and say, “I need to have 200-bushel-per-acre yields.” 

Weather can affect those expectations.

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