News Local/State

Cover Crops Can Help The Environment, But Can Farmers Afford To Plant Them?

Cover crops

Cover crops on Jaci Davis' farm help prevent soil erosion and water runoff. Mark Schultz/Illinois Public Media

Farmers in Central Illinois are experimenting with cover crops to stop soil erosion. Cover crops can also help stop an environmental threat hundreds of miles away. But, do cover crops cut into a farmer’s finances—or even solvency? 

Farms across the Midwest use fertilizer, insecticide and pesticide on their grain crops. But, water runoff from fields takes those chemicals—especially nitrogen—into rivers and streams. That runoff eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

The excess nitrogen runoff lowers oxygen levels in the Gulf, which harms fish and wildlife. Scientists call this area in the Gulf “the dead zone.” This past August, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration measured the dead zone a record 8,766 square miles…or about the size of New Jersey.

Most farmers realize they need to reduce runoff not only for environmental reasons, but for their own future.

Enter cover crops (pictured right).

Will Glazik farms in rural Paxton. He explains, "A cover crop is a plant that is used to hold the soil to prevent erosion. It’s used to sequester nutrients that would otherwise be run off through tile water, keep those nutrients in the field."

Cover crops aren’t for harvesting. The farmer plants his field with alfalfa, cereal rye, radish plants, clover and more after the fall harvest. The plants come up in late fall and die in the winter. "Then as it decays the nutrients it sequestered will be released to our next crop of corn or soybeans," Glazik said. Glazik added that cover crops serve as natural source of nitrogen that doesn’t run off like the chemical spray.

"The more nitrogen we can grow rather than purchase is going to help out all around," Glazik said.

And just as important, cover crops provide roots that prevent wind and water soil erosion. That’s an important point for Jaci Davis. She owns 160 acres that Glazik farms. She wants cover crops to keep soil in place.

"There’s only a finite amount of soil and if we let it blow away or wash away or all the nutrients in it disappear, we struggle," she said.

Many farmers like the idea of cover crops but few have tried them.

Why so few?

Cover crops can reduce corn and soybean yields, and hurt a farmer’s already razor thin profit margin. Farmers live on what money is left after they pay for seed, fertilizer, taxes and other expenses. Glazik (pictured left demonstrating a cover crop) says while a farmer does see a slight reduction in yields, he finds that no fertilizer bills and less machinery use helps offset a lower harvest.

While Glazik is sold on cover crops, others are not.

Lin Warfel farms in southern Champaign County. "It’s not clear that cover crops return well on the investment," he cautioned. But, Warfel supports doing things to protect farms. "We’re keen on doing things that will preserve and actually enhance the soil, and cover crops do that," Warfel added.

Warfel planted cover crops in the past, but this year had problems with water hemp. He had to spray for the weed or it would have choked out his crop. It takes between three to five years for farmers to see the full, positive impact of cover crops. Warfel, a past president of the Champaign County Farm Bureau, thinks farmers can’t afford debt while transitioning to cover crops.

"Some farmers can stand one year of red ink, but boy, it gets really tough after one year. And I really doubt if guys can handle three years of red ink," he said.

Both Warfel and Glazik agree that farmers must do all they can to prevent soil erosion and nitrogen run-off.

Glazik thinks the government may step in and mandate cover crops in the future to help protect the environment. Warfel supports government support for cover crops and research into new ways to prevent runoff and erosion.

Davis says she hopes farmers sacrifice in the short term and embrace cover crops to help the environment and reduce chemicals in the soil. "Which is healthier? I hope that they would see that cover crops are the way to go," she said.

Warfel echoes what Davis and many farmers feel, as they think about the future and the role their farms play in feeding the world and impacting the environment.

"We should be responsible for taking care of the planet," Warfel said. "It’s the only one we have."