Cover crops and nutrient strategies were top of mind for farmers attending the first 2021 in-person Nutrient Stewardship Field Day hosted by Farm Bureaus in Jefferson and Franklin counties in partnership with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park, Whittington, is home to a cover crop pilot program.

Jefferson County Farm Bureau Vice President John Howard told FarmWeek he’s interested in nutrient strategies. “I preach the sermon to my neighbors that we are going to have to do our (stewardship) diligence. We need to be cognizant of our nutrients,” Howard said. “Lessening the impact is good for us and others.”

Cover crop interest growing in southern Illinois

Mike Kash

Franklin County Farm Bureau President Leon McClerren agreed: “I’m interested in learning how to be a better steward of our soil and natural resources. Here in southern Illinois our soils are fragile. We’ve got to ways to maintain the soil profile for future generations.”

Both farmers were curious about cover crop applicability in their area. “I’ve found it is a little difficult in our rotation because we grow wheat,” McClerren said. Having tried cover crops in the past, Howard noted the practice is challenging due to late seeding opportunities.

Offering his cover crop strategies, Mike Kash of Belle Rive, shared seven years of experience farming with cover crops in Franklin, Jefferson and Hamilton counties. At Wayne Fitzgerrell Park, Kash is piloting a new cover crop program on farm acres he leases from IDNR.

To handle seeding challenges, Kash relies on aerial seeding into standing crops from a helicopter. For example, he seeds cover crops on a soybean field when the leaves turn yellow although the seeds land on top of the bean leaves. “When the leaves drop, it’s like planting,” Kash added.

Kash plants his cash crops into green cover crops. “The coulters will cut through (the cover crops) like salad,” he said. He described planting into terminated cover crop like planting into “binder twine” and the situation is complicated if it rains after termination.

He advised farmers to roll a cereal rye cover crop “when it’s like a hollow stalk. Roll it down in corn, otherwise the corn comes up spindly.”

Cover crop interest growing in southern Illinois

Farmer Mike Kash, left, discusses his inaugural cereal rye cover crop on farmland leased from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) at Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park, Whittington. Bob Caveny, IDNR farm programs manager, looks on during a nutrient stewardship grant field day sponsored by the Jefferson County and Franklin County Farm Bureaus. (Photo by Kay Shipman)

Cover crops can help build organic matter in southern Illinois soils, according to Kash. After seven years of cover crops, the organic matter on his fields has increased 1%. To add nitrogen, Kash plants a 13-way mix of cow peas, sunn hemp, cahaba vetch, yellow sweet clover, crimson clover, sorghum sudan grass, millet, oats, rapeseed, turnips, sunflowers, buckwheat and phacella.

Water infiltration is another soil benefit gained from cover crops, and Kash said he can get into fields earlier. The ground “is like a sponge,” he added.

After running into problems with cereal rye, Kendall Browning, a Franklin County Farm Bureau member, told FarmWeek his family grows wheat as a cover crop, terminating it in the spring before planting. Their wheat cover crop helps suppress weeds and reduce erosion.

Funded with an Illinois Farm Bureau Nutrient Stewardship grant, the field day included presentations by Kash; Lauren Lurkins, IFB director of environmental policy; Stacy Zuber, soil health specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service; Ted Liefer, Fitzgerrell Park site superintendent; Mike Chandler, IDNR ag/wildlife and habitat lease management program manager; Bob Caveny, IDNR farm programs manager and Talon Becker, University of Illinois Extension commercial agriculture educator.

Jefferson County Farm Bureau Director Jeff Kiselewski liked the idea of cover crops as an option for local conservation: “It rains here in the winter and it would be great to have something out there to keep the soil from washing.”