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Have you heard the new rage?

Published: Friday, Jan. 31, 2014 12:06 p.m. CST

Have you been hearing more about cover crops lately? Cover crops are not new.

However, throughout the past few years, there has been an increased interest from producers to grow a “cover crop;” which is any crop that is planted between periods of regular crop production.

Radishes, oats and annual rye grass are common species planted by producers as cover crops to improve their most valuable farm asset: Their soil.

More and more Illinois farmers have heard about cover crops lately, and they want to learn more. We have many producers who successfully use cover crops, and they will tell you they like what they see.

With assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), local Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) and other partners, cover crops are sprouting up all over the state.

The goal of a cover crop can vary considerably from producer to producer. The benefits to the health of their soil can be numerous, including:

• Increased soil organic matter content.

• Reduced erosion and compaction.

• Improved air and water movement through the soil.

• Nitrogen addition to soil from legumes.

• Capture of recycled nutrients in the soil profile.

• Better soil moisture management.

• Increased yields.

You may have questions concerning cover crops. Common uncertainties deal with which cover crops to plant or the best timing and system to plant. Which cover crop does what? The list of plants suitable for cover crop usage is long and can make the decision regarding what to plant seem overwhelming.

I recommend you start first by identifying what your goals are for the cover crop — what concerns do you need that cover crop to help you address? If you have more than one goal, narrowing your goals to one or two priority areas, with secondary goals, will be helpful. This may help simplify your search for the best cover crop species or species mix.

When making cover crop decisions, keep seed costs to a minimum. Keeping costs down, especially seed costs, is one of the secrets of cover crop success. NRCS has two programs available to help cover the cost of cover crop seed by providing an incentive payment to try cover crops: Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). Application deadlines for these two programs are quickly approaching!

To learn more, contact the Bureau County USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, located at 312 E. Backbone Road, Princeton, or call 815-875-8732, ext. 3.

Erika Turner is a district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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