The farmer. Robert “Woody” Woodruff grows corn, soybeans and wheat in rotation on his farm near Modesto in Morgan County. He is a second-generation farmer and expects his son to follow in his footsteps.

His outlook on the importance of sustainability and preserving the land was influenced first by his father and later, work as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching farmers in the Saharian Region about crop rotation during severe drought.

Environmental challenge. Woodruff’s 150 acres is a combination of prairie soils and lightly colored timber soil called rosetta, which contains more clay content. About two-thirds of his land is rolling hills and the remainder is flat. The farm is at the headwaters of the Apple Creek Watershed, a part of the Illinois River valley.

Best management practices. Woodruff, a conservation associate with the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, has adopted a number of sustainable farming practices, beginning with no-till a decade ago. He participates in the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) with added filter strips, field borders and grassed waterways, improvements he considers vital to boost soil and water quality.

This is Woodruff’s third year working with cover crops. While he says he’s “still learning” about their use, early indications show they are effective. “As an example, this year with my corn crop the cover crops gave me the ability to get in the field quicker after all the rain, and the corn established faster on the annual ryegrass cover. With all the moisture we had, that was a benefit.”

One way that Woodruff regularly monitors nutrient runoff is to observe his ponds. When the water is murky with algae or sediment, he knows that there is some runoff. After planting cover crops, the water has appeared clearer, and he knows the phosphate he applied was used by the crops.

Sustainable focus for 2015. In addition to continuous learning about cover crops, Woodruff is observing the importance of permanent vegetation. Tied to a whole- field prairie restoration project, he has maintained a field border planted to prairie grass. This perennial prairie cover made the difference between flooding and keeping soil in place during an unusually rainy 2015.

“Throughout the early season, we were getting easily seven to nine inches of rain a week,” he says. “A pond will catch that flooding, and the pond without nearby prairie cover will rise a good four feet, as opposed to just a foot with prairie cover.”

Sustainable start. Woodruff believes farmers can find most of the information they need about sustainable practices online, supplemented with real-life information from other producers offered at field days.

He knows that adopting sustainable practices can present a short-term financial risk, particularly in years with lower commodity prices and higher input costs. But he suggests growers can offset some of the risk with crop insurance. More importantly, they must look to the future. “A long-term approach is our only solution to this problem. Yield is important, and it definitely pays the bills. But soil is our only long-term resource, and water is beyond critical. We have to protect both.”

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