Highland News Leader

Madison County farmers experimenting with special crops to save, rejuvenate their soil

Brent Hunsche, Travis Eilers, Cliff Schuette and Ted Krauskopf plant a variety of cover crops into the Field Day demo plot at the Hunsche Farm in Highland.
Brent Hunsche, Travis Eilers, Cliff Schuette and Ted Krauskopf plant a variety of cover crops into the Field Day demo plot at the Hunsche Farm in Highland. Provided

More and more farmers in Madison County are including cover crops in their rotations.

Wheat, rye and clover are just a few popular examples of cover crops growing on farm ground across the county as a way to address soil erosion and weeds.

“I believe the bushel-per-acre of cereal rye I drilled following soybeans greatly reduced erosion on my rolling crop land. It also helped eliminate some resistant marestail that was becoming a problem in those fields,” said Ted Krauskopf, who also serves as treasurer of the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District. “I was able to terminate the rye in the spring at about 4 inches to 6 inches tall, and planted corn with no problems.”

There are many cover crop species that can be introduced into grazing systems as well. Krauskopf keeps a variety of cover crops to provide a good diet to his herd while keeping a healthy root system underground.

“I use a multi-species blend of cover crop seed in my annual pasture that provides good grazing in the fall, and again the following spring since some of the varieties overwinter,” he said.

Farmer Glen Edwards uses no-till planting practices on his wheat field, which keeps the soil in the field rather than washing or blowing away.

A lot lies under the surface

Cover crops have a much greater impact on soil than just surface effects. They work as hard below the ground as they do on the surface. A dense matrix of roots awaken the productivity of soil.

One tablespoon of soil is a universe of living activity, capable of holding at least one billion organisms. The heavy lifters are beneficial bacteria, which perform a process called nitrogen fixation, which makes nutrients available to plants. Related to bacteria are actinomycetes, or chains of cells that work to break down tough debris into smaller, more root-friendly particles. Their work creates the “fresh earth” smell you encounter when you dig in the dirt. Healthy soil also contains tiny threads of beneficial fungi called mycorrhizae, which attach to roots to help a plant reach more deeply into the soil to take up water and nutrients.

This spoonful of soil also has animals, which might be microscopic, such as protozoa, or nematodes, or in comparison, something gargantuan, like an earthworm or millipede. The more soil beneficial “bugs” in your spoonful of soil, the better the environment for growing crops, and the more likely soil will stay put, rather than float away in a heavy downpour.

“We have to keep the soil on the field,” said Gerry Rottman, agronomist for Dorsey Farms in Moro. “We’re more concerned with keeping a crop growing beyond the typical season. Wheat is an obvious choice that you’ll see growing in so many fields now. Wheat is a cash cover crop.”

Local farmers helping to gather data

In Madison County, seven farmers are participating in a study that will analyze the soil health benefits of cover crops. Soil sampling to measure carbon-related activity of cover crops are underway in these fields, and more Madison County farms may be eligible to join in the incentive.

“There are a lot of incentives out there for planting cover crops,” sadi Steve Brendel, Madison County storm water coordinator and member of Madison County’s Cover Crop Field Day’s planning committee. “It’s worth it for farmers to look for a program or incentive for planting cover crops."

Keeping the water clean

Municipalities in Madison County also benefit from cover crops, especially considering water quality, said Brendel, who also serves as the mayor of Grantfork.

"The city of Highland is a good example of a municipality directly benefited by conservation farming practices. All of the conservation happening in the Highland Silver Lake watershed has potential to improve the quality of our drinking water, and recreational value of the lake,” Brendel said.

Highland Silver Lake is the drinking water source for Highland, St. Jacob, Grantfork, and Pierron. The city of Highland has been actively encouraging agricultural conservation, and took part in the planning and support of the Cover Crop Field Day.

“With this current initiative, teaming up with the Hunsches, who live and farm the Silver Lake watershed, we’ve found a great first-step toward a potential win-win situation for the landowners, city of Highland, and most importantly, our water customers,” said Mark Rosen, director of Parks & Recreation for city of Highland. “Any time we can work with our neighbors to improve water quality and in turn help with their farming practices, it’s a good thing.”

Madison County Cover Crop Field Day

When: Thursday, March 22

To Start: The day will begin with registration at 8:30 a.m. at the Hamel Community Center, 10 Park Ave. in Hamel. Randy McElroy, Southern Illinois’ technology development representative for Monsanto, will give a representation.

Field Trip: Following registration, event attendees will ride buses to visit the 40-plus acres of cover crop-planted fields at the Hunsche Farm near Highland. Jerry Berning of Berning Soil Evaluations will present a cover crop root system demonstration, followed by a rainfall simulator demonstration by John Pike, cover crop specialist with the Illinois Corn Growers Association. Attendees will return to Hamel by bus for a complimentary lunch served by Weezy’s.

RSVP: The Madison County SWCD Cover Crop Field Day is free and open to the public. Registration for the event will be taken until March 20. Contact the Madison County SWCD at 618-656-7300, ext. 3.