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Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018 12:07 am

Campaign for soil health

From a trench in a bean field near Auburn, Donna Brandt, soil health research specialist, shows farmers evidence of the benefits of no-till and cover cropping, and, deeper down, the evidence of years of traditional tillage.
PHOTO BY JAKE VANCIL

 

Farmers and environmentalists stand around a deep trench dug in a soybean field listening to Donna Brandt from the University of Missouri Soil Health Assessment Center. She climbs into the trench, digs out a clump of dirt and holds it up. She pulls it apart; the soil breaks off in plates. Moving a short distance away, she breaks off another clump which crumbles into soft balls.

Brandt asks, “When water hits the soil that is coming off in plates, what will happen?” The answer is obvious to even the non-farmer – the water will wash away. But, if the soil is crumbly, water soaks in.

The farming technique used creates the difference. Soil that breaks off in plates occurs from using traditional plant-and-till methods, but the crumbly soil is created from cover cropping.

Why does it matter? That is what approximately 70 people – farmers, environmentalists and agency workers – learned at the Soil Health Partnership Field Day, held July 26 at the David Moose Farm near Auburn.

Water runoff from fields carries away nitrogen that dumps into the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, Illinois is the top contributor of nitrogen runoff, a distinction that should give us pause. Too much nitrogen in our rivers and streams negatively affects aquatic life and overall health of drinking water. Reducing the nitrogen that leaches into our water while increasing the nitrogen content in farmland has led to increased interest in cover cropping.

Simply explained, cover cropping means adding plants such as rapeseed, radishes, oats, cereal rye, etc. into soybeans or corn. These plants create a ground cover that reduces soil and wind erosion.

An example: A farmer harvests his corn in the fall and then plants cereal rye in the remaining cornstalks. Over the winter the rye grows slowly and by February the field appears green. The plants have developed a living root which improves the soil. Then, in the spring soybeans will be planted into the cereal rye cover.

According to Dr. Catherine O’Reilly, associate professor in the Department of Geography, Geology and the Environment at Illinois State University, reducing nitrogen loss must be a goal. Findings from a study conducted on several central Illinois farms have shown positive results from cover cropping. Soil health improved; the soil showed a higher water quality and an increase in nitrogen retention. To a farmer these results show promise. Crop yields could rise, and less money might be needed to add nitrogen back into the soil. For the environmentalist, as well as others who work to ensure our drinking water is safe, these results show that nitrogen entering the watershed can be reduced.

Several farmers presented their journey in cover cropping. Lee Curby looks at it environmentally: “We need to be responsible in how we farm and the effect on water. I want to leave something for my kids.”

David Moose explains, “I am not losing soil. I’m building soil. I’m getting by with less labor and less equipment.” Kirk Kimble of Chillicothe calls “the benefits worth the effort.”

But not all farmers are moving to this technique. Around 74 percent of cropland farming in the Lake Springfield watershed still follows the conventional till-and-plant practice.  

Cinda Ackerman Klickna of Rochester lived on the Ackerman family farm until she was five.

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