DECATUR, Ill. — Farmers are paying attention to conservation practices this year while keeping an eye on costs with low commodity prices.
Based on comments made to the recent House Ag Committee farm bill listening session and discussions at the Farm Progress Show here at the end of August, farmers are eager to talk about good soil practices and their effect on water quality.
Among those focused on the subject is Mike Wilson, Wabash Valley Services’ agronomy marketing manager, who conducted a study of nutrient loss in nine southeastern Illinois counties with Illinois Farm Bureau funding, the cooperation of farmers, landowners and various agribusinesses. He studied nutrient loss by evaluating water from tile lines on 37 fields, using soil tests and tissue tests to collect data.
The study found that using cover crops, long-term no-till and careful nutrient management all had an impact on waters leaving the tiles.
The research showed farmers are losing sulfur through their drainage as well as nitrogen. It also drew attention to the fact that phosphorus runoff is greater in fields that have terraces to prevent erosion.
The project was successful, Wilson said, because it is another example of groups working together with farmers.
“We learned a lot with a lot of help,” he said.
These groups working together are making a difference, especially at a time when there are budget cuts in Extension services, he said.
Cover crops seem to be one of the practices that interests a lot of farmers.
“We’ve been trying cover crops for several years now and find that works well with our livestock,” said Chad Schutz, of White Hall, Ill., in Greene County.
Schutz, a fifth-generation farmer, said his family debates the best ways to profitably protect the soil and manage nutrients. They started using cover crops on 20 acres and now have them on hundreds of acres near the Illinois River.
Cereal rye is easy to establish and there are no termination problems, he said. Schutz grazes cattle on it during the winter, which cuts feed costs. They haven’t seen any yield losses when corn follows it, which some growers have reported. Another advantage is better weed control in soybeans, he said.
Schutz, who has a cow-calf operation and finishes cattle and hogs, was among those at the 2017 Farm Progress Show in Decatur Aug. 30 when the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy’s first biennial report was unveiled. The report examines how actions taken by farmers during the last two years are working to reduce nutrient losses.
“We were on pins and needles,” said Rich Guebert, a Randolph County farmer and president of the Illinois Farmer Bureau.
He was pleased with the results so far and that so many people are getting involved. In the last two years 1,200 NLRS-related events were held with about 40,000 people attending.
“Significant progress has been made in the last two years in many areas despite no new public monies,” said Deputy Agriculture Director Warren Goetsch in unveiling the report.
The ultimate goal of the NLRS is to achieve 45 percent loss reductions in nitrate-nitrogen and total phosphorus, with interim loss reduction goals of 15 percent in nitrate-nitrogen and 25 percent total phosphorus by 2025.
The first report showed that between 2011 and 2015, use of cover crops increased by 123 percent. It showed more farmers are splitting nitrogen applications now and more are doing spring-only application. During the same 2011-15 period, the nitrate load into Illinois rivers decreased by 10 percent. The report also shows a 17 percent increase in phosphorous in the same period which will be studied further.
“After I read the whole report, I was impressed how hard they worked to get information from everyone,” said Illinois Director of Agriculture Raymond Poe.
On Poe’s family farm is Sangamon County, they grow about 150 acres of cover crops and have used split application of nitrogen for three of four years.
Since these environmental practices efforts are voluntary, he said he hopes there is enough success and documentation that there is no need for regulations.
However, as a farmer aware of current commodity prices, he said, “It’s easier to do these things when there is money in the pocket and not so easy when there isn’t.”