Cover Crops: Good For The Farmer, Good For The Earth

Jan 28, 2014

Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

In some Illinois farm fields this winter, hidden beneath the ice and snow, there are crops farmers have planted that won’t ever go to market, but could ultimately affect the farmers’ bottom line.  Cover crops could have an impact far beyond that.

On a chilly November morning, on a farm in the rolling hills near the far northwestern Illinois town of Lena, a group a farmers stands in a field while a seed company representative talks about the small green plants scattered about them.  The peas, grasses, and radishes at this and other fields the farmers will look at over during the day are cover crops.  They’re planted after the cash crops have been harvested and will be plowed under before the next harvest is planted.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service -- or NRCS -- and the University of Illinois Extension Service organized the tour as a way to promote the use of cover crops.  Abby Merriman is a Soil Conservationist for the Freeport field office of NRCS.

“There’s been a big push in the last couple of years for cover crops, due to soil health, soil erosion”  

A group of farmers listens to a presentation on cover crops at the Baumgartner farm
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

Cover crops are actually a very old idea. For thousands of years, farmers set aside fields to rest when yields went down, turning them into pasture, or rotating another crop on them, to restore the soil. With the advent of commercial fertilizer, industrialized farming and a competitive global market, they were seen as simply an impediment to an efficient operation. But industrial-scale farming has its costs, both financial and environmental, and the value of cover crops is getting a second look.

Bruce Baumgartner was willing to give the promise of cover crops a try. He owns one of the farms on display for the tour.  Baumgartner says the farm has been in his family for more than 100 years.

“My son is farming with me, and I’d like to keep the soil on the farm and in good condition for future generations.”

Baumgartner like the idea that cover crops not only will keep the soil from eroding away but will actually improve it.

“Cover crops keep the microbes active, and we will increase our organic matter, which then also increases [the] water-holding capacity of the soil, which will help my crop in the summer.”

Farmer Bruce Baumgartner points out the cover crops in one of his fields
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

Farmers typically put down nitrogen fertilizer after the harvest to prepare the soil for the following spring. But significant amounts of that nitrogen can leach into the watershed, which has an impact on the environment, locally and far downstream.  Agricultural runoff has been blamed for to the so-called dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River. And for the farmer, the lost fertilizer is money down the drain.

That’s one reason Paul Phillips, one of the farmers on the tour, said he was excited by cover crops:  their role as so called “nitrogen fixers.”

“We’ve got the benefit of the nitrogen capture and holding the nutrients that are left over and basically just storing them for holding them for next year’s crop.”

In other words, Baumgartner says, less fertilizer goes off into the watershed, which should mean less needs to be added later.

“Their goal is to reduce my fertilizer costs, which will help me in the bottom line.”

As well as keep the local watershed clean, and perhaps alleviate environmental problems hundreds of miles or more away. 

Philips was excited to learn about another benefit from cover crops, at least from plants with long roots. A hundred years of compaction by heavy machinery has left what’s called a plow pan or plow layer -- a seam of rock-hard dirt a foot or so below the surface of that acts as a barrier preventing the roots of corn and soybeans from reaching further into the soil. 

“The radishes in particular claim to burrow down and get through that and break that down and get on down deep as where we want to get to hold moisture and everything else.”

Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

Doug Hanson is an industry representatives acting as a presenter on the tour.  Hanson says his company, Pro Harvest Seeds, like most, deals primarily in corn, soybean and wheat, but has some experience with the plants used as cover crops because it also deals in forage crops for livestock. He says more seed companies are getting involved in cover crops as they see the potential benefits for themselves as well as farmers.

“We have seen increased yields through the use of cover crops. We have seen reduced risks through the use of cover crops. And we do think that’s going to be a long term opportunity.”

Cover crops are a new thing for many farmers today.  Hanson says, as with new types of seed, fertilizer or pesticides, companies like his are working with farmers to find the best way to integrate cover crops into their practice.

“You’ve got to have a good seed bed. You’ve got to have healthy soils, and you’ve got to have a proper fertility program and a proper weed control program. And cover crops, implemented properly, will affect all of those.”

Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

There’s at least one more benefit for farmers who also raise livestock: it can be used as forage by the animals right through until spring.  And there’s a bonus, according to University of Illinois Extension educator Jay Solomon.

“The livestock manure is natural fertilizer being put back on the ground and by and by grazing they’re spreading it out around on a natural basis, instead of you having to spread it.”

Whatever their benefits, cover crops are extra work, and another thing to complicate a farmer’s life.  So it’s perhaps no surprise that not everyone on the tour may be ready to take up the practice just yet. Still, others have no doubts.

Dan Diaz owns one of the farms where cover crops were on display. Diaz says they fit into his desire to be an effective steward of his land.   

“I just enjoy being a producer, but then also, you know, being a part of conservation.”

For the proponents of cover crops, those are words to live by.

Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ