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Governor launches cover crop demonstration project

Initiative aims to improve water quality, control erosion and increase yields

Published: Friday, Sept. 20, 2013 8:39 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Sept. 20, 2013 8:40 p.m. CDT

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SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn announced the start of a three-year demonstration project by the Illinois Department of Agriculture to encourage the planting of environmentally-beneficial cover crops. The initiative's goal is to improve water quality in Illinois lakes and streams by reducing soil erosion and nutrient run-off from farm fields. Today's action is part of Quinn's agenda to protect the state's natural resources and ensure a clean and healthy environment for future generations, while boosting Illinois agriculture.

"Illinois is a leading agricultural state because of its ability to adopt sustainable farming practices that protect our valuable soil and water resources without sacrificing productivity," Quinn said. "This project is a good example of the industry's commitment to our environment."

"The time is right for this initiative," Steve Chard, the Department of Agriculture's bureau chief of Land and Water Resources, added. "New plant varieties and new production techniques have been discovered that eliminate many of the problems that farmers who planted cover crops in the 1980s and '90s experienced."

Cover crops are plants seeded into agricultural fields, either within or outside of the regular growing season, with the primary purpose of improving or maintaining ecosystem quality. Cover crops, typically certain grasses or legumes, can enhance biodiversity; lead to less flooding, leaching, and runoff; create wildlife habitat; attract honey bees and other beneficial insects; improve soil quality; combat weeds; and break disease cycles. Cover crops appear to have a significant competitive advantage compared to the more traditional management practices that have been used to control soil erosion and nutrient run-off.

"Recent studies have shown that growing cover crops during the dormant season between annual row crops can provide the same environmental benefits on more acres for significantly less cost than practices like grassed waterways and terraces can," Chard said.

Cover crops also may offer production benefits. A survey of Midwestern farmers last winter by USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program revealed higher corn and bean yields in fields where cover crops had been planted. The differences were significant, too, 10 percent for corn and 12 percent for beans.

Farmers are planting more cover crop acres, according to the survey. The total has increased each of the past five years, from an average of 116 acres in 2008 to 421 in 2013.

The department's demonstration project will attempt to capitalize on this renewed interest in cover crops and increase their adoption. Beginning this fall, 14 plots throughout the state will be planted in such crops either by aerially seeding into a standing crop of corn or soybeans or by drilling a cover crop seed mix into the soil after harvest. All of the plots are located adjacent to an interstate or state highway and were specifically chosen because of their high visibility.

Signs at each of the plots will direct passers-by to http://www.covercrops.illinois.gov/, a website established as a "one-stop shop" for information about cover crops. The site will include a link to the Midwest Cover Crops Decision Tool, an interactive resource that provides specific information on which varieties of cover crops are best suited to meet a grower's objectives as well as the best dates for planting and management advice.

"The department encourages farmers to use the latest, best management practices in their operations," the Department of Agriculture's Laura Sova, division manager of Natural Resources for the department, said. "Best management practices are farming methods that assure optimum plant growth and minimize adverse environmental effects. Improving overall nutrient utilization is a key element in improving yields and profitability for farmers."

Partners in the project include local Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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