by Enrico Villamaino

Cover crops can be a great way of facilitating the transition to no-till farming.

At the Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership’s (ISAP) risk management webinar “Myth – Conservation Costs Too Much: Economics of Transitioning to a Soil Health System,” guest speaker Ryan Batts outlined how cover crops have helped his own agricultural operations.

Batts works as a farm and financial management specialist with University of Illinois Extension. On his own farm in central Illinois, Batts grows a rotation of corn and soybean crops.

“To begin with,” he explained, “I was working with highly erodible ground.” Batts described how one of the biggest contributors to land degradation is the simple process of tilling the fields. The purpose of tilling is to bury crop residue, manure and weeds while aerating and warming the soil. Unfortunately, over time, the tilled soil can become ruined, infertile and prone to erosion. “I began experimenting on a particular section of the farm over a number of years. At first I was a hard sell on the system, but it worked.”

Batts began his cover crop trials by planting cereal rye after his soybean crops, and annual ryegrass after harvesting his corn. “We’ve seen a lot of long term improvements. The soil structure has improved, it holds its nutrients better and there’s been a marked decrease in what’s lost in runoff due to soil erosion. At the same time, that drop in runoff also prevents herbicides and other pollutants from getting into nearby water supplies.” He added that his soil now experiences less compaction and better water infiltration.

Over time, no-till farming can also lessen a farm’s need for labor and fuel, simply by cutting the additional step of plowing each year. This can be a significant source of savings to farmers. Batts stated that his own farm required far less man-hours of work post-harvest.

Since first planting cover crops over 20 years ago, Batts has tried a variety of options. He remains a staunch advocate for planting cereal rye after soybeans, but he now has a deeper roster of candidates for his cornfields’ off-seasons. “Now, along with the ryegrass, I’ve had good results with oats, buckwheat, flaxseed, red clover, Balansa clover and barley,” he said.

He concluded that planting cover crops was all about improving soil health, and the better the soil health, the more resilient the crops.

“How do you know you’ve got more resilient crops?” he asked. “If they handle the heat better, if they handle drought better, then you’ll know.”

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