The 2016 Illinois Conservation Cropping Seminars

By: Woody Woodruff

I just returned from three Illinois Conservation Cropping Seminars in Champaign, Godfrey, and Milan this year. These seminars, hosted by Illinois Stewardship Alliance, the American Farmland Trust, the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the Illinois Departure of Agriculture host these seminars in order to provide education to farmers on the benefits and importance of implementing conservation practices on their land. This year the main message was about soil health being the key to farming in the future and we brought in some national cover crop super stars to discuss the needs of farmers and best practices that are involved in improving soil health on farmland in Illinois. The two issues that farmers will be facing soon are regulations addressing water quality and climate change. Most farmers are aware of the problems facing our current monoculture cropping systems and their effect on the environment and our food security. They want to make changes to restore soils and improve soil health, but they also want to know how they can do it an economically viable manner.

Dr. Jennifer Moore-Kucera from Portland, Oregon was our presenter. She spoke about how healthy soil looks, feels, smells, and what it does in the function of supporting the plants and animals above ground. She then went into how some of our current practices of excess tillage, excess fertilizer use, and a lack of diversity have caused degradation of soil health below the ground. Jennifer is part of a national team of experts focusing on getting the word out about the need to monitor changes to farming that will improve soil health. A focus on restoring soil health will reduce our dependence on added inputs of fertilizer, fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides as well as reduce soil and water losses from erosion. Click on Dr. Moore’s presentation to expand your understanding of life under your feet.

Mike Plummer, a cover crop researcher and farmer with more than 3 decades of experience, explained what is needed to be successful in adding cover crops to any farming operation. He covered topics from seed selection to the termination of all the different types of cover crop species. At the end of his presentations in each of the seminar, he fielded questions from farmers wanting to learn more about cover crops. Without a doubt, Mike has more working experience with cover crops than anyone else in Illinois. If you want to learn more about how to add cover crops to your farming operation click on Mike’s You-Tube video.
At the last seminar in Milan, the speaker that had the most impact on me was Chad Bell. Chad talked about his experiences with cover crops in the last 3 years on his farm. 3 years is also how many years that Chad has been farming. You see, Chad is 27 or 28 years old, and after graduating from ISU he started farming with his dad in Viola, Illinois. One of the first things Chad did was to start using cover crops because it seemed right, no other reason. But after he continued using them year after year it was easy to see a benefit. He said that sometimes on paper the economics of cost verses yield on cover crops didn’t pencil out, but he knew that on his type of sloping ground keeping his top soil was worth more than just breaking even or not. It was easy for him to justify cover crops as something that was right for his operation. Our future looks a little brighter now that I’ve met Chad Bell. Beginning farmers need to have Chad’s goal of leaving the ground in better shape than when they started.   Chad Bell

The seminars are set to address issues that are somewhat specific to each regional area. From water quality issues to more sustainability in farming systems, the entire state is realizing that most of the issues that we currently face are soil health related. Though the soil is the source of how we grow our food, we need to be aware that the soil needs to be fed as well. The soil is an ecosystem of millions of life forms that also need nutrients to keep the soil balanced and productive. The farmers at the 3 seminars left with the tools they need to feed the soil. Next year the Illinois Conservation Cropping Seminars will be held in the regional areas of Rockford, Jacksonville, and Carbondale on January 24th, 25th, and 26th. Make sure to mark your calendar for next year’s regional seminars.