Recent studies show how cover crops benefit soil health, water quality and farmer profits, helping to fuel a renewed interest in using cover crops, according to Mike Plumer, coordinator, Illinois Council on Best Management Practices.
Despite their diverse economical and environmental benefits, Plumer says cover crop adoption in Illinois isn’t increasing as rapidly as in other states. He estimates cover crops make up only 0.5 – 1 percent of Illinois acres.
“Most of Illinois has very flat, darker soils, so growers may not have seen the need for cover crops, thinking the only benefits of cover crops are erosion control,” says Plumer. “It’s an ongoing process to help growers understand cover crops bring many benefits, including yield increases, to nearly all of the 650 Illinois soil types.”
In fact, the Illinois Department of Agriculture cites a number of benefits from cover crop use, including improvements to:
- Nutrient cycling
- Water infiltration and holding
- Soil structure
- Organic matter
- Carbon sequestration
- Wildlife habitat
- Water quality
Tips for Cover Crop Success
With a little homework, adding cover crops to your rotation plan can offer both economic and environmental benefits. Below is list of things to consider for growers interested in working with cover crops.
- Research the benefits. Cover crops offer a host of economic and environmental benefits. Yield increases, improvements in soil health, weed control, erosion control and nitrogen management are all reasons to add cover crops to your operation.
- Set clear goals. Start by understanding the benefits of cover crops and then decide which ones are most important for your farm. Are you interested in increasing soil organic matter? Improving microbial activity? Reducing erosion? Different cover crop species can help you meet these goals.
- Start small. Cover crops can change the way you farm, so adding them to your rotation requires research and experimentation. Generally, it’s better to be successful on a small plot than to get discouraged if you have problems with a larger acreage.
- Select the correct crop or mix for your field. Soil types, soil health, weed populations, erosion issues and herbicide all play into which variety or mix will be most successful. If possible, avoid using VNS (variety not specified) seed, as different varieties will provide different results.
- Order seed early. The small-seed business is different than that of corn and soybeans. It’s a cash business, so supplies can be tight; order early to get the varieties that are best for your farm.
- Change your planning cycle. To be successful with cover crops, you’ll need to switch from thinking about managing for the year to managing for the multiyear rotation.
- Consider a consultant to help manage herbicides. Selecting the correct herbicide program is extremely important, so consider what products were used the year prior and what products will be used following the cover crop. When product labels don’t include effects on cover crops, it’s especially important to check in with a consultant.
- Spring soil moisture may be affected. A cover crop can have a big impact on early-season moisture, so keep in mind the potential moisture uptake of a growing cover crop at planting. Allow time to kill the cover crop and plant while soil moisture is optimum, and in wet conditions, it may even make sense to plant into a growing cover crop.
- Consider eliminating fall tillage. In addition to the potential to spread resistant weed seed, fall tillage can reduce the organic matter-building benefits of cover crops by introducing oxygen into the soil. Check with a local consultant regarding alternatives to fall tillage.
- Rethink your equipment plan. Successfully managing cover crops requires a different approach to equipment. Reducing tillage, seeding cover crops or spraying for spring kill all require expertise, timing and the right equipment. Check with local ag retailers in advance to ensure they’re staffed and equipped for timely cover crop field operations.
Visit the following links for more information on getting started with cover crops:
Midwest Cover Crops Council
Illinois Cover Crop Network
Illinois Cover Crop Demonstration Project