Washington County Nutrient Stewardship Field Day

BY BARB ANDERSON, Special to FarmWeekNow.com

Farmers can use any number of strategies to grow cover crops in Illinois. In Washington County, that increasingly includes planting cash crops into existing green cover, known as planting green, rather than terminating overwintering cover crops ahead of planting.

“We plant green when we are no-tilling soybeans, and the rye cover crop root masses from the previous season are still there holding the soil in place, even with the big rain events we see more often,” said Gerald Kuberski, Kuberski Farms near Ashley. “The costs and benefits balance out with better weed control in the soybeans. We use less residual herbicide.”

Kuberski, who has been experimenting with cover crops for about five years, was one of the Washington County farmers who shared his experiences during the Washington County Farm Bureau Nutrient Stewardship Field Day, April 5, held at his farm. The county has partnered with Gateway FS to share results from the multi-year project funded by an Illinois Farm Bureau Nutrient Stewardship Grant. Through collaboration, local farmers are testing various cover crop practices, taking soil tests and collecting plant tissue to detail crop and soil health.

“We are working with multiple sectors to reduce nutrient loss in watersheds, including cover crops,” said Austin Omer, IFB associate director of natural resource policy. IFB has invested $2.4 million to nutrient loss reduction initiatives, including $850,000 to the Nutrient Stewardship Grant Program since 2015, with projects in 70 counties. “Our priorities for achieving success with the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy are to reach and educate farmers, implement best practices, partner with researchers and track progress toward meeting goals.”

“If water quality is improving with our voluntary cover crops efforts, we can hopefully stay a step ahead of the need for any new regulations,” added Kuberski.

Matt Lilienkamp, farmer from Hoyleton, also is participating in the project. He said 12 different cover crop varieties and mixes are planted in Kuberski’s test plot, including oats, barley, triticale, different ryes and clovers, hairy vetch, rapeseed and variety mixes. This is the second year comparing planting green to terminating cover crops with a burndown herbicide.

“We found corn planted in green cover crops was taller and had fewer insect problems. At tassel, there was a 4- to 6-inch height difference,’ he said. “Faster growth was the biggest difference, and organic matter in the soil increased from preplant to harvest the first year. Tissue samples show no nutrient deficiencies and root digs show good root growth.”

Kuberski confirmed organic matter has increased in his cover crop fields every year. He also is pleased with the reduction in soil erosion, particularly on highly erodible land. He planted rye at about 70 pounds per acre on highly erodible land in the fall and less seed on flat ground to avoid residue holding too much moisture after spring termination. Seed cost was about $20 per acre.

“Deciding when to terminate a crop like rye is not an easy question to answer and depends on how you plan to terminate it,” added Kurt Wilke, Gateway FS Crop Specialist. “Cover crops like oats and radishes are self-terminating. With rye, you can do a chemical termination, which is the most popular, or you can terminate the crop with tillage, mowing or crimping.”

Ultimately, he said, it depends on individual farm goals. “When you terminate early, you should get better corn and soybean seed-to-soil contact. But if you terminate rye with chemicals, inconsistent spring weather may impact burndown performance,” he said. “If you plant green, it is a form of weed control. Nutrients may also reach the plants better. However, the rye can be a host for insects that may still be there once the rye has been terminated.”

Cover crop decisions can be guided by evaluating practices and managing data, said Matt Reuss, Gateway FS precision farming specialist. “First, you need a good soil test using 2.5-acre grids and fertilizing off soil samples. The information allows you to separate fields into zones for variable rate applications on good and poor areas,” he said. “Good data help you make informed decisions and measure profitability.”

Reuss encouraged farmers to soil test the same time each year to confirm plant and soil interactions, as well as gather tissue samples in season to quantify fertility success.

Lilienkamp also offered tips for farmers in attendance, including having a plan and sticking to it by deciding first if your goal is to scavenge nutrients, manage compaction, stop erosion or something else. Every season is different, he explained, so results across multiple year can help farmers maximize cover crop benefits. He also encouraged farmers to buy only clean, certified seed.

To read more about IFB’s nutrient stewardship field days, visit www.ilfb.org/fielddays.

This story was provided by FarmWeekNow.com.