July 25, 2021

Cover crop trials offer insights

MAGNOLIA, Ill. — A multi-year cover crop project by the Marshall-Putnam Farm Bureau and partners was featured in a field day July 6.

The event was part of Illinois Farm Bureau’s Nutrient Stewardship Field Days held this summer across the state.

Shay Foulk, Monier Seed and Service farm and ag business consultant, and Austin Omer, IFB associate director of natural resource policy, led a walking tour of the three acres of demonstration plots with multiple cover crops.

“We’ve done different cover crop trials over the last three years since my integration into the operation, looking at specifically what can we learn and then how can we provide that back to the farmers we’re working with,” Foulk said.

Foulk, who also farms with his father-in-law, Mark Monier, and family at Monier Family Farms, Sparland, and is a consultant with Ag View Solutions, noted the family’s farming operation had about 200 acres of cover crops last year, have seen the benefits and will plant somewhere between 800 and 1,000 acres this year.

He shared his insights based on firsthand experiences and research.

What recommendations do you have for someone just starting to use cover crops?

“I think you’ve got to be careful when you jump into cover crops. You don’t want to go whole hog, but at the same time there’s a lot of opportunity there and we’ve seen a lot of benefits out of it. Starting small is very important. Start with something that you can manage. That can look different from operation to operation.

“If you’re planning to do the application think about what resources you have. Are you going to attach it to a vertical tillage tool with a spreader, or are you going to look at a drill or aerial application? And if you don’t have the time and resources to do it personally, who can you hire someone to do that, who can you collaborate with in your community?

“There might be someone out there that’s already trying it; reach out to that person and say, ‘I really like what you’re doing and I’d like to try it. Can we talk about what this might look like on 20, 40, 80 acres of my operation to get started?’”

What would you say to those who have tried cover crops for a short period of time and then given up?

“It’s a long-term investment in the soil. It’s a long-term investment in your crop rotation strategies and I think if you don’t figure it out now, at some point if might be such that we are heavily incentivized or, hopefully not, but may be required to integrate these practices. And I don’t think you want to be on the trailing edge of that trying to figure out when it becomes necessary. See what you like and what you don’t like and see what fits in your operation.”

Does it take multiple years to see the soil’s organic matter, soil tilth and other characteristics improve?

“Yes and no, when it comes to tilth, soil aggregation, water infiltration, some of that stuff can actually be realized really quickly. When it comes to the long-term organic matter build-up, deeper root structure, handling compaction issues and just timeliness in management there, yes, that’s some of the longer-term things.”

Over the last three years of having these cover crop demonstration plots were there any surprising findings?

“The No. 1 thing is weed suppression. I was amazed at how much ability these cover crops had to work with us as part of an integrated pest management system from a weed management standpoint, and for seed production that’s very important to us in our business.

“Also, just the reaction that you get in the community of seeing a green cover crop growing either in the fall or in the spring, it’s huge because it’s more than just what we have going on in the agricultural world. I think sometimes were guilty of shouting at each other about what we’re doing and complimenting each other, but there’s a lot more to it than that. That’s the second benefit.

“I think the third thing is as we’ve looked at some of these multi-species mixes, some of the ancillary benefits of maybe you’re getting better soil aggregation, maybe you have better timing planting, there’s a lot more from the intangible side that until you get into cover crops and try it personally you might not see otherwise.”

Tom Doran

Field Editor