In an effort to improve soil and water health, while preventing soil erosion, Illinois farmers are exploring the benefits of cover crops.

Cover crops are plants that are cover the soil rather than for the purpose of being harvested. The crops manage soil erosion and fertility, water quality, weeds pests, wildlife in an agroecosystem, an ecological system managed and shaped by humans.

The Illinois Farm Bureau, along with the Department of Natural Resources, is holding cover crop field days around the state. The events provide an opportunity to discuss cover crop strategies and water infiltration benefits.

“Cover crop interest is growing in Illinois and has been for some time,” said Leon McClerren, president of the Franklin County Farm Bureau, site of a cover crop pilot program. “Our farmers are interested in learning how to be better stewards of our soil and natural resources.”

In traditional corn or soybean rotations, overwintering with a cover crop is an attractive option for producers wanting to make improvements to field conditions or take advantage of forage potential for livestock.

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“We have livestock farmers across the state that look at some of these diverse mixes for a couple of different benefits including forage,” said Lauren Lurkins, director of environmental policy at the Illinois Farm Bureau.

There is a cover crop pilot program at Wayne Fitzgerald State Recreation Area, which Lurkin said will involve a different blend of cover crops.

“They are interested in not only the soil health benefits that can come whenever you have a crop between your corn and soybeans, but also the wildlife benefits because it is a state park,” Lurkins said.

Some of the cover crops being used include crimson clover, sunflowers, hemp, cowpeas, rye and buckwheat.

Twenty-one projects are currently underway to support the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. The primary goals for the program include reducing nitrate-nitrogen losses in the soil by 15%, and reducing total phosphorus losses by 25% by the year 2025.

IDNR’s cover crop pilot is part of a USDA-NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program project. USDA awarded more than $8 million to the Illinois Working Lands, Water and Wildlife Conversation Partnership to protect working farmland, improve water quality and increase and enhance wildlife habitat.

(Copyright WBGZ Radio /