National Geographic | Hollis Bennett
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Lake Wilson, MN – Bryan Biegler and his kids having a little fun while tending to their crops.
National Geographic | Hollis Bennett

Today’s Technology Grows a Better Future for Farm Families

Sustainable corn farming means growing better.

Just after Bryan Biegler planted his corn and soybeans four years ago, his farm was inundated by a three-inch rainfall in less than an hour. Biegler farms about 2,500 acres in southwestern Minnesota, the core of the farm having been in his family since 1886. After that bad rain, one field was so rutted up he had to replant almost the entire thing. “I decided that I needed to make a change,” he said. It was time to grow better.

At that point, he was planting no cover crops – a sustainable practice in which farmers, rather than leaving land bare between seasons, plant other crops to help reduce soil erosion. Since then he has been tinkering with various methods, and he now has a system he thinks is sustainable for the long haul.

Biegler walks fast, but talks in the deliberate, flat way of Minnesotans. He is a living illustration of the fact that sometimes the best farming methods are those that have been practiced for generations. Crop rotation and the use of cover crops have been around for a long time, and many of today’s farmers are incorporating these techniques as part of other modern agricultural practices. The result: A harvest of benefits for both farmers and the environment.

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Lake Wilson, MN — Bryan Biegler in front of his strip-till, a machine that helps ensure the long-term health of his soil.

One major innovation for Biegler is strip-tilling, planting only in an eight-inch-wide strip. Leaving the soil untouched between rows helps reduce soil erosion, improves water infiltration, uses less fuel, and improves soil quality by allowing the soil to retain nutrients.

After the main corn crop is planted and starts coming up, Biegler goes back in with a seeder he helped design and puts in cover crops such as oats, turnips, rapeseed, or cereal rye. “It puts another living root into the corn,” he says. These roots help prevent the kind of erosion he experienced during that big gully-washer four years ago. In other words, marrying generations-old techniques with modern innovation has turned out to be a big plus for the sustainability of his farm.

By the fall harvest, the cover crop is anywhere from 8 to 12 inches tall. “So I’ve got a nice green cover,” says Biegler, “and that field stays green until the temperatures get down consistently into the 20s.” It goes dormant during the winter; then in the spring it begins growing again and the cycle starts over.

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Lake Wilson, MN – Bryan Biegler looks over one of his cover crops, cereal rye, which helps protect and enrich his soil.

Deploying sustainable agriculture techniques and focusing on soil health has allowed farmers like Biegler to minimize pesticide and fertilizer use while improving the environment. A long-time practitioner of crop rotation, he plants half his fields in corn, the other half in soybeans, and switches fields every season. By rotating his crops, he reduces the pressures of insects and crop disease – and reduces his needs for chemicals like herbicides. “If you plant corn season after season you can get certain diseases and bugs, and you can’t control that easily.” Put another way, “switching to soybeans eliminates the bugs that were in the previous corn crop - rotation breaks the pest cycle naturally.”

Biegler’s also looking to the future to help him adapt to changing conditions and protect natural resources with the latest technology. With the help of biotechnology he’s reduced his tillage and herbicide usage. The precision of today’s auto-steer tractors--which means fewer wasted miles--has also cut back his use of fertilizers. All these tweaks have increased Biegler’s efficiency and decreased his environmental impact. “My input costs are down from when I was doing all the tillage. My yield is holding, and it’s maybe coming up a little bit now.”

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Lake Wilson, MN — Bryan Biegler examines a few healthy ears of corn after a successful crop rotation.

What does Biegler envision for the future? “I think I’m on a better path of where I’m going with things. Hopefully I’ll have everything here yet for when the children are ready to take over if they want to.” With three young children and deep roots in this farm country, Biegler will keep adapting, blending the best of old and new techniques to grow better and protect his land for the next generation.

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