Hey! Keep it Covered!

Naked fields are scattered throughout the landscape in Kankakee County. The topsoil is revealed for every passerby, neighbor and fellow farmer to see. Within a sea of residue or shades of green, indecent soil stands out. But if it’s your land that is exposed, you can view it as an opportunity for growth and improvement instead of an eyesore.

Why should we be working towards clothing our soils? We know that keeping fields covered is great for the environment, but the benefits tally even higher for the farmer. A practice that more producers are implementing is the use of cover crops, like cereal rye and radish. Cover crops have been shown to increase organic matter, aid in weed control and increase water filtration into the soil.

Planted in the “off season”, cover crops boast tremendous benefits for soil health. Healthy soils are a microscopic jungle, alive with biodiversity that boosts nutrient cycling and promotes successful yields. Cover crops are planted between cash crops, and provide a habitat to foster a community below ground. This community is comprised of beneficial burrowing critters that channelize and aerate the soil, helpful fungi that scavenge deep for extra nutrients and bacteria that convert nitrogen into a plant-friendly form. The soil is teeming with life, as long as the backbone of the community is present: the root system. Without cover crops, soil is missing out on a great opportunity to build up its health during the off season.

Cover crops can also decrease, or almost completely eliminate, wind and water erosion from fields, keeping valuable topsoil in place. If your soil isn’t shielded from wind and rain, where is it going? It may be swept up in a wind storm, decreasing the fertility of the field and increasing the danger of a public commute. Naked soil might also be compromised by a rain event and washed into nearby waterways, along with fertilizer and other pollutants.

Agricultural runoff carrying nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P) will enter our streams and rivers. The Kankakee River, which provides drinking water to nearly 80,000 people in Kankakee County, is at risk. Instead of feeding our cash crops, the nutrients feed algae, causing harmful algal blooms that deplete oxygen and create dead zones. This can be devastating to aquatic life, negatively impacting recreational activities like fishing.

Dead zones contributed to agricultural runoff are manifesting along the coasts, negatively impacting oceanic systems that are hundreds of miles away from the source. In response to this crisis, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency penned the 2008 Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan, which called for each of the 12 states in the Mississippi River Basin to produce a plan to reduce the amount of N and P carried in rivers to the Gulf of Mexico. Illinois responded by creating the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS), with a goal of reducing its phosphorous load by 25% and its nitrate-nitrogen load by 15% by 2025. Overall, the Illinois NLRS has set an eventual goal of reducing nutrient runoff into the Mississippi River by 45%. According to the National Water Quality Assessment, agricultural runoff is a leading contributor to this nutrient load. The clock is ticking for producers, but fortunately cover crops offer a solution.

Not only do cover crops reduce agricultural runoff from fields, they scavenge free nitrogen and sequester it. After termination, cover crops return nutrients to the ground and provide cash crops with valuable nitrogen. In a study by Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE), cover crops reduced the amount of nitrogen leaving a field by an average of 48%! That 48% is now out of our waterways and available to the cash crop. How can you get involved?

Last spring I had a great time walking fields with farmers in Kankakee County, pulling cover crop samples and sending them to the lab for nutrient analysis. In a combined effort between the Kankakee County Farm Bureau, Ford-Iroquois Farm Bureau and the Kankakee County Soil and Water Conservation District, over 20 cover crop samples were collected for 10 producers. The farmers that participated were able to see the results of a plant tissue test that showed them how much nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and other nutrients were sequestered by their cover crops.

It was found that cover crops stockpiled an average of 45 pounds per acre of nitrogen, 8.7 pounds per acre of phosphorous and 72.6 pounds per acre of potassium. It’s been shown that after proper termination of cover crops, nutrients are returned back to the soil within the growing season. With the cost of nitrogen around $0.35 cents per pound, pocket books reap the benefits as well. Nutrients aren’t the only things being saved by cover crops! The Kankakee County SWCD is working towards offering cover crop sampling and nutrient analysis again in the coming weeks. If you’re interested in participating, give me a call at (815) 937-8940 ext. 3 or swing by the office for a visit!

Healthy soils that stay put are the cornerstone for a successful cash crop, and cover crops are the tool that can bring these benefits. It shows pride for your land to have something growing on your fields year round, instead of exposing it to the elements. Cover crops clothe our naked soils - don’t let your fields go streaking!

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