Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership (ISAP) is hosting a risk management webinar series this summer. Recaps of the presentations and a link to the full presentations will be provided here after each webinar.
The June 25 webinar focused on incorporating no-till cover crops into your soil health management system. LaSalle County farmer Carl Zimmerman shared his experience in getting started on no-till cover crops and how these practices have expanded over the years. Zimmerman was then joined by a panel of experts to provide additional perspective on the agronomic and financial benefits of these sustainable practices.

Following are the main takeaways from Zimmerman’s experience with incorporating no-till cover crops:

Machinery, fuel, and fertility costs decreased. When first considering cover crops, Zimmerman was not sure it was possible without adding machinery. However, when comparing his no-till cover crop operation to a same-sized (1,600 acres) conventional neighbor, Zimmerman is using only two tractors to his neighbor’s four. Additionally, his fuel savings are very significant compared to conventional because he is making fewer passes over the field. Another area of savings is in Zimmerman’s fertility program. Soil testing every two years has allowed him to cut his program in half since the nutrients are staying put and building fertility in the soil. He is applying less nitrogen, yet his yields have stayed at or above county average.

Reduced chemical use. Planting cereal rye before soybeans has resulted in very clean fields with a limited amount of waterhemp. He does not use dicamba on these fields and can get by with just one spray trip over them. Establishing a cover crop like cereal rye can help combat chemical-resistant weeds.

Savings are significant, but the benefits go beyond budget. Total savings for Zimmerman are almost $32/acre when you consider the cost of his cover crops and the savings mentioned previously. He has been able to grow his farm without borrowing more money from the bank. But the agronomic benefits are also significant. He has seen an increase in soil aggregate stability and load-carrying capability. His fields are less rutted and can carry machinery better. There is also increased biological activity, which has increased residue degradation. Over the last seven years, Zimmerman has experienced less variability in yields because the cover crops are unlocking fertility in the ground. Less weed pressure and more earthworm activity have also been benefits of the program. Once cereal rye is established in wet areas it will keep the weeds at bay.

Start small and commit to the long term. You do not need to get started with cover crops on your whole farm. Zimmerman started with 40 acres and is at 1,600 acres after seven years. Find a problem area and commit to improving the nutrient profile of the soil on that piece of land. You will have some “failures” and those experiences should be seen as learning opportunities for the following years. Each year will look a little different, but adjusting and seeing the results will help you gain confidence to add more acres. As with most things, it is important to use the resources at your disposal and plan ahead. Talk with local farmers who have had success with cover crops. Ensure success by planning ahead with herbicides. And, ultimately, understand and embrace that incorporating cover crops will be a long-term process and commit to your soil management system and the growth of your operation.

Click here to view the full webinar.

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