Preserving Illinois Soil

Cover crops help to preserve one of the greatest natural resources of all.

by Patrick Kirchhofer, Peoria County Farm Bureau

Magazines, newspapers and other media have talked a lot about cover crops in recent years. While they are not yet widely utilized in the Peoria area, there is definitely interest in the practice. Some local farmers have tested cover crops on a portion of their acreage to broaden their knowledge on cover crop management. But just what are they?

Benefits of Cover Crops

In general, cover crops are the seeds planted after soybeans and corn are harvested in the fall. These seeds can be grasses such as cereal rye (the most popular), annual rye grass, barley or oats, which typically have many fine roots penetrating the soil profile. They can be legumes, such as crimson clover, hairy vetch or winter peas, which can “fix” nitrogen—extracting it from the air to enrich the soil—perfect for a nitrogen-loving grass such as corn. Cover crops can also be brassicas, like oilseed radish and turnips, which are notable for breaking up compact soil with their large roots or tubers. There are many benefits to adopting cover crops, including:

  • Preventing soil erosion during heavy rains
  • Reducing the loss of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium
  • Breaking up soil compaction
  • Turning excessive nitrogen in the soil into usable nutrients
  • Breaking the cycle of plant diseases and insects
  • Improving weed control
  • Reducing tillage and equipment expense
  • Enhancing microorganisms in the soil, such as bacteria, fungi and protozoa.

There are challenges to growing cover crops as well. One of the biggest challenges is establishing them early enough in the fall so they have time to grow before a hard freeze sets in. Some farmers have their cover crop seed flown in by airplane or helicopter in late August or September while the existing corn and soybean crops are still maturing. Air seeders can also be driven between rows in the late summer to scatter the seeds beneath the corn and soybean plant canopy. You must have some rain for these methods to be effective, however, as the seeds are placed on top of the soil surface. If the cover crops are seeded after harvest, traditional planting equipment can be used to place the seed in the soil.

Incentives for Preservation

Farmer interest in cover crops has been getting the attention of state legislators. For the past two years, the State of Illinois has authorized $300,000 for its “Fall Covers for Spring Savings” program, creating a financial incentive to plant cover crops. On June 1, state legislators passed a budget for the 2022 fiscal year which allocated $660,000 to this program, more than doubling the previous year’s budget. In addition, local soil and water conservation districts—including our own in Peoria County—received a much-needed boost in revenue for the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy program.

Farmers want to grow crops efficiently and profitably, while at the same time preserving and caring for our natural resources. Although the funds allocated to these programs are not great, they are a start in helping to preserve one of the greatest natural resources of all—our soil. PM

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