John Burk points out a sprouting radish in one of his sugar beet fields in Bay City, Mich., in early June. He started planting oilseed radish in 1999 to fight sugar beet cyst nematodes, and he eventually expanded his cover crop program to multiple species across 2,000 acres to fight compaction. His sugar beet yields have since gone up from less than 18 tons per acre to over 30 tons per acre, but he credits some of that to the availability of new seed varieties.  Image: Noah Newman 

Cover Crops Promote Higher Yields, Healthier Soils

Grower breaks up compaction & fights pests with several species in Great Lakes region

Fourth-generation farmer John Burk grows corn, soybeans, dry beans, sugar beets and wheat across 4,300 acres in Bay City, Mich., just 10 miles south of Lake Huron. When he’s not farming, he’s busy helping his alma mater, Michigan State, with research projects and presentations

“Sometimes I mumble and stumble, but if I’m talking about something I know, then I’m a good speaker,” Burk says. “But if you ask me to talk about home economics, you might as well forget about it.”

Luckily for Burk, we only asked him to talk about his favorite topic — cover crops — as we mic’d him up during a truck ride around his farm in June 2023. Here are some highlights from our conversation.  

Are you 100% no-till? 

John Burk: We no-till our wheat, but everything else is usually done with a chisel plow or disk ripper. Being so close to Lake Huron, it’s cold and damp here for long periods of time. That’s why you don’t see a lot of no-till in this area because we can’t get our soils to warm up and dry out fast enough. We can’t no-till sugar beets, but we’ll do a stale seed bed sometimes, where we’ll work it in the fall and then just plant in the spring. We use John Deere 1795 and 1790 planters for corn and sugar beets, and a John Deere 1990 air seeder for wheat and soybeans in 20-inch rows.

We don't have your typical midwestern rotation. Sugar beets follow wheat…

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Noah Newman

Noah Newman started at Lessiter Media in March 2022 as Associate Editor for No-Till FarmerStrip-Till Farmer and Cover Crop Strategies. He previously worked in broadcast journalism as a sports anchor/reporter for television stations in central Illinois and most recently Jackson, Mississippi, where he was named the state’s sportscaster of the year by the National Sports Media Association. The Cleveland, Ohio, native looks forward to engaging with growers, learning extensively about their operations, and sharing impactful stories with the audience.

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