WOODSTOCK, Ill. — Using cover crops to improve soil health
is a global topic.
“Our mission today is to talk about soil health,” said Carol
Schutte, program assistant for the Women, Food and Agriculture Network. “We are
talking with women because women own more than half of the land in some
Schutte, who spoke during the Women Caring for the Land
meeting, said it was important for women who own farmland to meet with
conservation professionals so they know who to talk to about available programs
or possible changes to their land.
“WFAN has been around for 16 years and we’ve found over the
last eight years during these learning circle meetings, each one of you is a
resource person,” Schutte said. “You might be just the person that a lady wants
to talk to about how you did something on your land.”
There are opportunities for conservation improvements on any
type of land management, said Schutte during the event sponsored by the American
Farmland Trust in partnership with the network, the McHenry/Lake County Soil and
Water Conservation District, McHenry County Farm Bureau, University of Illinois
Extension and The Land Conservancy of McHenry County.
“Whether you have an organic farm, a five-acre
community-supported agriculture farm, or 10,000 acres of corn and soybeans — in
each situation there’s room for improvement to try to get the soil as healthy as
it can be,” Schutte stressed.
“Soil health is a topic I’m really excited about because it
is the first place where we can bring all kinds of farming together and have a
discussion about moving toward better soil health,” said Jean Eells, with E
Eells explained there are three aspects of soil health —
chemistry, physical structure and biology.
“When we talk about what the plants need it is almost always
about the chemistry — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium,” Eells said.
“When you compare soil structure, compacted soil will be
real fine and better soil will be like grape nuts or chocolate cake,” Schutte
said. “They are both black dirt so you can’t tell just by looking or from a
Eells used a test to compare the rate that water moved
through soil with poor and good soil structure.
“The good soil holds onto plant available moisture that your
crops need,” she said. “The other soil didn’t hold onto as much water because it
doesn’t have as much organic matter.”
Soil with good structure will buffer crops at the most
critical time period, Eells said.
“A good soil will win every time from August to early
September,” she added. “You can see it from the air — crops that don’t have
enough available moisture will show in a pattern across the field.”
Plants have leaky roots, Eells said.
“The plants leak sugars out, and the soil bacteria live on
those sugars,” she explained. “The bacteria live, poop and die and the bigger
microbes live on the bacteria that make a soup that is the ideal condition for
your plants to grow.”
It is important to have all kinds of healthy soil bacteria
“Soil fungi look like threads, and they live in conjunction
with the plant roots,” Eells said. “They bring phosphorus and moisture to the
roots, and they are necessary in the system.”
Worms are another important aspect of healthy soil.
“Earthworms come up at night, grab onto residue and pull it
down into their burrows,” Eells said. “They leave channels where nutrients are
processed and ready for the plant.”
If a field has a residue problem, she said, there is a
“It means the soil biology is not able to break down the
stalks,” she said. “The better your soil biology is functioning, the better
you’ll be able to take care of the residue.”
Cover crops can improve soil biology.
“Soil bacteria and fungi love to have roots they live with,
so the more of the year you can have living roots in the soil, the happier they
will be,” Eells noted. “Cover crops also provide soil erosion protection from
wind and rain.”
She explained there are two main categories of cover crops —
those that winterkill and others that live through the winter.
“Oats will winterkill and other crops like cereal rye need
to be killed in the spring,” she said.
“Cover crops allow you to feed the soil, rebuild the soil
and re-glue the soil back together,” she added.
Many different cover crops are available for farmers to
“The grass family includes wheat, cereal rye and oats,”
Eells said. “These crops are really good at gluing the soil back
The brassica family includes turnips and radishes.
“They are really good at bringing phosphorus to the crops,”
Eells said. “The tubers of the tillage radishes are good at helping to break up
the compaction layer.”
Legumes such as hairy vetch and clovers help to fix
“Cover crop benefits are huge to the soil for erosion and
improvement of the soil structure — you can do more tillage with biology than
with a tractor,” Schutte said. “Cover crops grab onto nutrients in your soil,
hold it and as they decay in the spring, the nutrients are slowly released right
when your crop needs it.”