November 29, 2021

Established: Cover crop farmer cultivates patience

ESMOND, Ill. — The way Paul Taylor looks at it, using cover crops is a lot like walking.

“If your doctor told you to lose 50 pounds, walking is probably not the first thing they’ll tell you. You’ll need a diet plan, you might need to see a dietitian, start going to the gym three to four times a week, you’ve got this regime. But if you just walked a mile or two, every day, five days a week, for a year, you’re probably going to lose weight, have a stronger heart, lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar. But that’s not going to happen in two weeks,” Taylor said.

And one of the big hurdles for many farmers doing cover crops is that they may want to see those results quickly, in a single crop year.

“When it comes to cover crops, many people use the mindset ‘is it worth it?’ just like you would nitrogen. That means one year, one piece of ground, what was your yield increase, what did it cost you and if it didn’t pay out, it wasn’t worth it. My answer is — it’s not that simple,” Taylor said.

He knows his fellow cover croppers share his enthusiasm and his belief in the effectiveness of the farming and conservation tool — along with the patience to wait.

“Almost to a person, the people who have done cover cropping long term say there are a number of benefits, from improved weed control, water infiltration, the biological health and tilth of the soil, the density of the soil, the nutrient-supplying power of the soil, the higher yield potential of the soil. It’s easier to farm, easier to work. But you can’t measure that in one year,” Taylor said.

For Taylor, the reasons he started using cover crops, over a decade ago, just made sense.

Over 15 years ago, he sold some of his land for a swine facility, a sow farm. As part of that agreement, Taylor can utilize the manure from the farm. The manure is applied in the spring and fall and he uses cover crops to maximize the nutrients in that manure.

“Part of what has made our situation different is that it has been accelerated with the manure and it has been accelerated with a diverse rotation with the vegetables instead of just corn or just corn and soybeans” he said.

A second reason was the vegetable crops Taylor grew for Del Monte when Del Monte’s Mendota processing plant was in operation.

“We would put it after peas if we were too late to plant soybeans, cheater beans. Then we used wheat or oats. Recently, we’ve been using rye and radish,” Taylor said.

To acknowledge the benefits of cover crops, you have to take a closer look, underground.

“We seed them late, they only get three to four inches tall in the fall. We only let them get a foot tall in the spring and we might terminate them. Did we do any good? There’s a huge root mass with that. In our case, it was pulling up some of those nutrients from the applied manure that might have been left over from the spring or applied in the fall,” Taylor said.

For Taylor and other farmers who use manure as fertilizer, those roots holding that manure and its nutrients are an important tool. Preventing manure and nitrogen and phosphorus from running off the land and into rivers is one of those benefits and one that has gained prominence in the last few years.

“The cover crop is capturing and holding onto that. It keeps it out of the water,” Taylor said.

Taylor sees his own conservation farming through the lens of practicality. The practices have to be tailored to each farm — and each farmer’s — individual situation and farm.

“I’m still not a hardcore no-tiller because we do the manure and some other things. It messes up some things, you can’t run a shank or a sweep applying manure four or five inches deep and then call it no till,” Taylor said.

One of the points he emphasizes is that the practices will look different — and respond different — on different farms.

“You do it across the road or down the road and you may not see the same response I do. I guarantee you, after five years, you are going to be happy — but you won’t see the same response I do because we are not farming the same way,” Taylor said.

In spite of the hurdles, Taylor, who is a past president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association, thinks U.S. agriculture has made progress on soil and water conservation and continues to do so.

“Yes, we are making progress,” he said.

His enthusiasm for farming and agriculture, for conservation farming and conservation tools like cover crops and no till, is tempered with reality, with understanding how his fellow farmers think and why.

“The biggest impediment is just human nature and the resistance to change. I hate to say it, but we can offer incentives all day long, but as soon as the incentives are gone, people quit,” he said.

The next question is the toughest, for U.S. agriculture and conservation and for Taylor.

“How are we going to fix it? This is something I’ve wrestled with individually, on committees and on the policy level most of my professional career. How do we make this more effective? It’s just damned tough,” he said.

Jeannine Otto

Jeannine Otto

Field Editor