MORRIS – Harvest season is ending with local farmers pulling in the last of their crops as they prepare for the winter ahead.
For some, that means plowing the fields to prepare them for spring. For others, that means getting to work at the farm finishing up work that needs to be done before snow and cold weather set in. For others, that means planting.
Matt Boucher, a Dwight farmer, said the idea of planting in fall may seem foreign to some, but the data shows that it is beneficial.
“The broad goal is to keep something living in the soil at all times,” Boucher said. “It decreases erosion and brings the nutrients up to the root zone, where you want them when you plant your crop in spring.”
According to the University of Illinois department of agriculture’s farmdoc.com article “Costs and Benefits of Cover Crops: An Example with Cereal Rye,” “Cover crops are considered one of the most effective in-field practice farmers can use to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus losses, keeping those nutrients out of streams and lakes.”
Boucher said that by keeping the nutrients in the field, farmers can spend less adding them back in each year, which is just one of the benefits.
He said each farmer’s decision to use them needs to be based on goals they set, which could be weed control, keeping or adding nutrients to the soil naturally or using fewer chemicals on their field.
As an example of weed control, Boucher said, this year, Grundy County farmers have faced water hemp and mare’s tail. Both are hard to control.
“You are basically planting a weed you can control to get rid of a weed you can’t control,” Boucher said. “Cereal rye we can control easily, and it can choke out other weeds.”
He said the choices in cover crops are made based on the goals for the field. Some loosen soils, some absorb nutrients and when they are killed, the nutrients return to the soil around them.
He said there is no one cover crop to recommend for everything, and often he helps local farmers choose between specialized blends that can include rye, oats, tillage radishes and purple top turnips.
As the field is getting ready to harvest, the cover crop seeds are flown in, or after a crop is harvested, the seeds are drilled in, depending on the crop and its purpose.
The difference between a cover crop and the corn or soybeans is the cover crop is not harvested for profit or feed.
Instead, as spring approaches, the field is sprayed and the cover crop is killed.
The farmer doesn’t plow the field; instead he plants right into the dead cover crop.
“If you are planting a Roundup Ready crop, everyone is concerned with how much chemical is being used by the farmer. Cover crops require less chemicals,” Boucher said.
He said a traditional Roundup Ready crop in Grundy County may have three applications, once in the spring before they plant, once in the middle of summer and then some farmers spray in the fall to kill weeds that come annually at that time.
The cover crop is killed by a glyphosate-based weed killer. Glyphosate is the generic name for Roundup. Then, because the cover crop is blocking sunlight to weeds or taking up root space, basically choking out the weeds, the farmer does not need to spray again.
“In a bean field, you would spray the cover crop the day before you plant, plant into the crop while it’s still green, the beans will grow through it, you won’t spray again,” Boucher said. “You’ve gone from spraying two to three times to just once in the spring, and you don’t spray the crop itself.”
Boucher said that the use of cover crops has continued to grow locally and he has seen cover crop sales double every year since his company, Potential Ag, started selling them.
He said the practice is a long-term thing, which will take two to four years to start seeing a difference in yield.
“In one year, you won’t see a change yield-wise,” he said.
He said that side by side comparisons in test fields at his farm show that there is other noticeable difference besides yield, including the health and size of the beans.
He said the other place there is a noticeable difference is in the soil tests. The health of the soil continues to improve with less product needing to be added.
Boucher said there is a new motto among many farmers, “Don’t Farm Naked.” Even if a farmer chooses not to try cover crops yet, the days of tilling are going away and they are encouraged to not plow the field at the end of harvest time.