HOW FARMERS ARE DOING THEIR PART TO PROTECT ILLINOIS SOIL

Soil is a vital part of the natural environment; it influences the distribution of crops and plant species, and it provides habitats for many animals. When forests are cleared for farming and timber, the chance of soil erosion increases. Erosion is when the topsoil that contains the most nutrients is destroyed or carried away by wind, water, or ice. Luckily here in Illinois, we started as a prairie; our soils were always covered by something, and the deeply rooted grasses that cover Illinois prevents soil erosion from occurring. Agriculture became very popular and necessary as populations rose; farming practices became more intense to accommodate the population needs, and tilling the land – preparing the soil for crops by disturbing the soil, often inducing erosion – became a popular practice. When Illinois farmers began to see the negative impacts of tillage on not only their land but also on the surrounding ecosystems, they found new, more sustainable ways to protect their soil and the environment.

tillageHistorically, the uses of no-till and reduced-till practices were widely unaccepted around the nation because farmers didn’t believe that these practices would make a difference in their soil. No-till is a way to grow crops without disturbing the soil – when soil is preserved, it remains healthier and better supports crop growth. The benefits of no-till include an increase in water infiltration into the soil and better nutrient retention. George Elvert McKibben, an Illinois native and agronomist at the University of Illinois, made no-till practices acceptable to farmers by experimenting with no-till systems in 1966. The main concern of farmers was to save their soil; to show farmers the advantages of no-till, McKibben and his team planted corn into grassy plots around Illinois. The results vastly changed the way farmers thought about soil management practices; the corn thrived and reduced soil erosion on the plots. Once John Deere manufactured a no-till planter, no-till and reduced-till practices became even more widely supported and implemented by farmers.

Long-term sustainability has always been a goal of agriculturists. Farmers know that the key to healthy ecosystems and agricultural lands start with healthy soils. A healthy soil is one that sustains a diverse ecosystem that supports animals, plants, and humans. Other practices are being implemented by farmers in addition to no-till and reduced till to protect soil and the environment. Collecting runoff from soil nutrients is an important way that farmers are limiting the amount of pollutants that enter nearby waterways. Planting cover crops in fields that don’t have anything planted in them is another way farmers are reducing nutrient pollution runoff into nearby waterways.

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The Soil Health Partnership, a National Corn Growers Association Initiative, is a project created to make agriculture more sustainable by focusing on soil health. The Partnership measures the benefits of best soil management practices and relays results to farmers. Farmers in Illinois and around the Midwest can join the Partnership to learn more about how to protect soil and the environment. Farmers in the Partnership either have been practicing no-till or reduced-till management on their land or have recently switched over. Farmers are stewards of the environment; from continuous education about soil and the environment to the adoption of best soil management practices, farmers are doing everything they can to sustain the environment and their land.

cleary_caeliCaeli Cleary
University of Illinois

FARMING FOR DUMMIES: COVER CROPS

Near the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico, there is an area the size of Connecticut that is completely void of any life. This area, which is known as the Gulf’s “dead zone,” is created by a number of environmental factors acting in tandem. 9-26-16imageaOne contributor is fertilizer runoff, which contains the macro-nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus, is leached out of soils and into waterways (known as erosion), like the Mississippi River. The water pollution originates in all areas (both from cities and farmland), and these macro-nutrients are carried downstream and pour into the Gulf of Mexico. Because the nutrient levels become so high, algal blooms occur rapidly, depleting much of the oxygen in the area (this condition is otherwise known as hypoxia). Discharge from wastewater management systems is another large contributor to the hypoxia problem. This expeditious depletion of oxygen kills off any animal or plant that once lived there.

Scientists discovered the “dead zone” in the Gulf in 1972. It is the largest man-made hypoxic zone in the world, and in 2002, the zone became as large as the size of Massachusetts. Farmers today are doing everything they can to help decrease the hypoxic zone. One significant way they are minimizing their impact, as well as helping to improve waterways and promote general soil health, farmers have begun to use cover crops.

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Cover crops include any crop that grows between periods of regular crop production. Cover crops benefit agricultural land because they enrich soil and protect it from erosion. Their extensive root system improves aeration in soil, allowing more air and water to infiltrate. Additionally, the root system creates pathways for a diverse array of soil animals that break down unavailable nutrients and make them available for crop uptake – an acre of healthy soil has the equivalent of 4 cows worth of microorganisms living in it! Cover crops create a more fertile and resilient agriculture field that can increase crop yield while also maintaining soil health.

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Cover crops also reduce soil erosion caused by sediments, nutrients, and agricultural chemicals. The root system of these crops and the soil’s biological community take up or hold onto excess nitrogen, preventing it from leaching into waterways. Not only does reduced leaching mean less nutrient runoff into the Gulf (and therefore decreasing the effects of hypoxia), but this also improves the quality of drinking water over time.

Planting cover crops is very beneficial to both the environment and to crop production. When planting, it is important to use a cover crop that compliments the following harvest to maximize the benefits from the cover crop. You can even create cover crop ‘cocktails’ to achieve a multitude of benefits at one time; a field that uses a mix of cover crops is able to take up excess nutrients, suppress weeds, and create soil aggregation all in one area!

If you’re thinking of planting cover crops, whether it is on a small or large-scale, remember to do your research and start small. Additionally, if you want to learn more about cover crops you can attend an Illinois Demo Day, held in multiple counties throughout the summertime. If we all start to utilize cover crops within our agricultural lands, the soil will be more sustainable, and we may see a significant change in the size of the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

cleary_caeli
Caeli Cleary
University of Illinois

THE BIG DEAL ABOUT ATRAZINE

atrazine_infographic_fightepa_urlAtrazine.  This funny-sounding word might not sound like anything that pertains to your life, but it affects you more than you know.  The EPA is currently investigating and is considering further regulating atrazine, which could be costly for farmers, and eventually, consumers like you and me.

But what even is atrazine, you ask?  It can be a little tough to explain, so I’ll break it down the best that I can.  The portions in bold should help things make sense.

Atrazine is a herbicide that is applied typically to crops with weed issues.  There are many different ways to control weeds in farming, but for farmers, it’s a cheaper to purchase and apply this herbicide than it is to buy fuel and till up the weeds (pull them up by loosening the soil). Also, the continuous tilling of the weeds can add compaction to the soil levels deep underground, as well as cause erosion on the top soil.

Farmers need a way to feed the world safely and economically.  Atrazine helps immensely with that.  While tilling weeds under is often considered the “safer, chemical-free” option, it’s often worse for the soil in the long-term. 

atrazinePreviously, atrazine has been investigated thoroughly by the EPA and other government regulatory agencies for its environmental impacts and safety risks, and it has been approved for continuous use.  Seriously, the EPA means business when it checks these things out.  From water safety studies to human and animal cancer studies, the EPA and other agencies like it have put atrazine through the wringer to make sure it’s safe and sustainable to use on our farms and on our earth.  Except this time around, the EPA is backtracking its endorsement.

It’s like if a friend had really great shoes that you wanted to borrow, and she said you could.  Every time you ask her, she says yes.  You use the shoes, take the utmost care of them, and return them in the condition you got them.  Every time, she approves and is pleased with the condition of her shoes.  However, for some reason out of the blue, when you ask her this time, she says she’s not sure.

cost-of-no-atrazineThis pullback and restriction of atrazine use can have some costly effects on farmers and consumers alike.  According to a 2012 University of Chicago study, farming without atrazine could cost farmers up to $59 an acre.  With the average family farm being roughly 231 acres, that adds up to over $13,500 in one year.

For the average family farmer, that can mean they can’t afford their child’s college tuition.  This cost will eventually get passed on to the consumer, meaning higher prices for you at the grocery store and the gas pump. Yikes.

So what can we do to show the EPA that we’re ready to approve atrazine?  Share this article and inform your friends about atrazine.  Call your congressman or send them an email letting them know you approve atrazine for farmer’s use.  

Together, we can keep an affordable, safe, and sustainable food supply for the world.

molly_novotney
Molly Novotney
University of Illinois

DO FERTILIZER, PESTICIDES, AND FARM TECHNOLOGY SCARE YOU?

Your chance to virtually visit a corn farm is finally here!

One of our farmer leaders, Justin Durdan, invited IL Corn, WGN Radio personality Patti Vasquez, and a host of video techies to his farm where we’ve already filmed TWO new videos for you to check out.

They are 360° videos – you can see a full 360° around the farm and check out all sorts of farm goings-on for yourself.

Have you wondered about how farmers apply fertilizer?  You can come along and watch Justin do it.

Been curious about how farmers apply pesticides and why?  Justin lets you literally watch the drops mist out of the sprayer.

Maybe you don’t understand how tractors plant using GPS?  Come into the cab while Justin is planting!

Seriously, this is an opportunity you don’t want to miss.  You can find the videos housed at

watchusgrow

Note: If viewing video on desktop, click and drag your mouse. If viewing video on mobile, open the video in the YouTube app to experience the full 360° view.

HERE’S A FARMER YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT: TED MOTTAZ

Mottaz_TedIllinois Corn is a strong supporter of conservation practices to ensure that farms can remain sustainable for generations to come. Ted Mottaz is a Peoria County farmer who has taken charge of the future of his farm by implementing conservation practices.

Ted even uses his position as District 8 Director for the Illinois Corn Growers Association and his position on the Illinois Nutrient Research & Education Council to promote the use of best management practices through grassroots campaigns and meetings with government leaders. Beyond that, Ted serves as a model for his community and gatekeeper of information about conservation practices.

Let’s take a closer look at the main four methods Ted uses on his farm: reduced tillage practices, drainage water management, nutrient management, and soil nutrient testing.

Reduced Tillage Practices

conservation tillageThe Mottaz family farm has used conservation tillage and no-till for a quarter of a century. Put simply, tillage is a way that farmers prepare land to grow crops (think about the classic image of the farmer with a horse-drawn plow. Instead, now, tillage machines and tractors do the work on a larger scale and more quickly). Tillage digs and stirs the soil to loosen it up and make it presumably easier to plant the crop. Yet, eliminating or decreasing the use of tillage prevents the likelihood of soil erosion, by which vital nutrients from last year’s crops are washed away. Additionally, reducing tillage helps protect water quality by reducing erosion. The remnants of the previous crop can provide nutrients and organic matter to the composition of the soil, improving its overall quality. Read up on some other benefits of conservation tillage.

Drainage Water Management

The Mottaz family uses drainage water management (DWM) to control the water on and below the surface of their farmland. Through an inexpensive structure using drainage pipes called tiles (think plumbing for farmland) and a simple control system, farmers can adjust how much water is on top of and within their farm’s soil. This system is beneficial in that it traps water to increase the yield (quantity and quality) of crops and maximizes the absorption of nutrients by the crop. As learned earlier, soil can retain many nutrients from last year’s crops as they slowly decompose. Also, the use of the nutrients by the crop decrease the risk of environmental impact by essentially “cleaning” the water of its nutrients before release. Learn more about DWM here.

Nutrient Management (The 4 R’s)

4Rs
Credit: NutrientStewardship.com

Since the 1960s, the Mottaz farm has applied nutrients such as nitrogen based on the 4R system. The “4 R’s” is a pretty well-known abbreviation for the 4R System of Nutrient Stewardship. It’s an easy way to remember the four major parts of nutrient management: Right Rate, Right Source, Right Time, Right Place. Essentially the 4Rs argue that applying nutrients (e.g. think fertilizer) must be done in a way that will allow the crop to use a sufficient amount of the provided nutrients without being wasteful or doing damage to the health of the soil or crop.

A comparable but more basic example would be watering a plant. Every plant has an ideal amount of water it needs based on factors like size and type of plant (Rate).  There’s also a certain frequency at which it needs the water to be applied – It’s not ideal to water a plant again an hour after it was just watered (Time). Contaminated water or lemonade are not as effective as treated water (Source). It also doesn’t make sense to water just the leaves when we know nutrients are absorbed by the roots within the soil (Place). However, nutrient application for farmers needs to be more rigorous so that it protects the environment while increasing the health and yield of the crops and decreasing wasteful nutrient loss. Find out more about nutrient management here.

Soil Nutrient Testing

While the 4R system may give farmers an understanding of nutrient management’s importance, soil nutrient testing gives Ted a practical and effective way to determine if the 4Rs’s are being upheld. For instance, a farmer might apply a nutrient on Monday and on Tuesday morning, he or she might be met with an unexpected storm front that lasts until the following Monday. Soil nutrient testing after the storm system passes will give the farmer an idea whether enough of the nutrient remains to be sufficient for the crops or if a significant amount has been washed away and requires reapplication. This is an extremely basic example but it highlights why farmers need to test their soil. Testing helps make sure that farmers are not only being cost-effective but also minimizing the risk of over-saturating the soil which could negatively impact the environment and crops.

Ted’s elected conservation practices are just a few of the many choices available to a farmer. The Illinois Council on Best Management Practices (CBMP), in order to bolster the goal of the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, created an interactive conservation story map where Illinois farmers can advocate for conservation practices through storytelling. You can learn more about Ted’s story there and find out more about the numerous methods that farmers use to protect their land and, by extension, their neighbors and communities.

McDonald_Taylor

Taylor McDonald
Communications Assistant
IL Corn

#TBT: COVER CROPS AN IMPORTANT PART OF NUTRIENT MANAGEMENT

[Originally posted August 27, 2013]

Farmers are being encouraged to consider growing cover crops on their fields through the winter.  Studies show that a living, growing plant in the ground year round improves the soil, productivity, and nutrient runoff.

The science behind this makes sense.  On a big picture level, Illinois is prairie and having grasses growing on our soil year round is a return to what built the rich organic soils in the first place.  But looking closer, planting rye grass or cereal rye after you harvest your corn crop makes sense.

corn, corn stalks, tillage, farm, agricultureIn central Illinois, many farmers plant corn on corn (this is the way we describe a crop rotation of corn every single year without planting another crop in between).  Because corn uses nitrogen from the soil to grow, farmers apply nitrogen every year to replenish what the corn used the previous year.  If that nitrogen isn’t applied at exactly the right time, the plant doesn’t get to use all of it, meaning that valuable nitrogen is lost to the soil and water, causing problems in the environment and costing farmers money.

Additionally, corn doesn’t grow well in the leftover stalks and leaves from the previous year.  This causes farmers using a corn on corn rotation to have to till the soil which isn’t good for soil erosion.  The current industry standard is to no till the soil, meaning, literally, no tillage.

Growing crop like cereal rye or rye grass from the time you harvest the corn until you replant in April, helps with both concerns.

As the cover crop grows in the fall, it uses the nitrogen left in the soil to grow and stores it within the plant.  In the spring when the farmer kills the cover crop, the nitrogen is released back into the soil for the corn crop to use.  This management technique significantly minimizes the nitrogen remaining to run off into the water supply.

A cover crop also reduces compaction, increases organic matter in the soil, and otherwise helps the health of the soil and increases productivity for the farmer.  In fact, some farmers doing trials in Illinois this past year have noticed up to 20 bushels per acre increase in yield!

The Council on Best Management Practices is now working one-on-one with farmers in the Springfield, IL area (they had a bigger problem than most, remember?).  Several will be growing cover crops this winter as a trial and demonstration for other local farmers.  And we hope to show farmers the environmental and economic benefit of growing cover crops on their fields as a part of the normal corn on corn rotation.

Using science as our base, farmers will definitely be on board for improving the resources in their care.

phil thorntonPhil Thornton
ICGA/ICMB Value Added Director

FRIDAY FARM PHOTO: ILLINOIS STATE FAIR

IMG_8861This past Tuesday (August 16) was Ag Day at the Illinois State Fair. If you’re familiar with the history of the fair, you’ll know the fair’s primary purpose was for agriculture. People brought their animals from across the state and to compete in showing. For instance, the competition would decide which dairy cow had the best features and characteristic of the ideal dairy cow that would best carry on the breed. These competitions still exist today and have varying criteria based on the category/animal.

Since then, the Illinois State Fair has evolved to include a non-farming audience with different games, rides, concerts and foods. While no one is discounting the glory of a funnel cake, Ag Day was created to give a spotlight to the fair’s original intention. This year, IL Corn joined other agriculture organizations, farming families, and government leaders to showcase the industry while also engaging the non-farming community to learn about issues agriculture faces today.

Among the events:

 

 

  • 8-16-16rauner

    Government officials including Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and U.S. Congressman for Illinois Cheri Bustos showed their support by meeting with industry leaders.

 

 

 

  • IMG_8851Illinois FFA members interacted with government and industry officials to talk shop as they learn more to become our nation’s next agriculture leaders.

 

 

Check out more from our Facebook, where we livestreamed an interview with Illinois FFA members and heard from IL Corn leaders.

WHY DON’T FARMERS TILL THEIR FIELDS?

Maybe it’s something you’ve never thought about.  I’m betting it isn’t.

But when I was a little girl growing up in a small central IL farming community, my dad used to get up bright and early in the cool and damp days of early spring and till his fields.

He’d turn over the dirt.  Prepare a nice seed bed for those tiny seeds he was paying quite a bit of cash for.  Hoping to get the very best plants that would produce new seeds so I could have clothes and food and schooling that year.

But when I was a bit older, I remember that he stopped tilling the soil.  He stopped turning over the dirt and preparing a beautiful seed bed for those seeds.  And he lamented how he’d never get used to the look of a field with last year’s left over stalks and leaves (residue, we call it!)  with beautiful rows of barely visible green plants popping up in between.

He stopped tilling the soil, not because he was lazy or didn’t care anymore, but because science told him it was better.

carbon in soil

This is how farmers get better and more efficient growing our food.  Because you know what reduced tillage does?

  1. Prevents soil erosion
  2. Prevents unnecessary trips over the field and uses less diesel
  3. Reduces carbon footprint
  4. Promotes healthy soils

Are you interested in learning how farmers are using science to get better at growing your food?  Do you want to know how changes in farming practices have benefited the environment over time?  It’s all right here.

LiMitchell_Lindsayndsay Mitchell
ICGA/ICMB Marketing Director

WHAT ARE IL CORN FARMERS DOING TO CONSERVE RESOURCES?

This summer as an intern for IL Corn, one thing I am tasked with doing is visiting farmers across the state and speaking with them about their conservation practices. In the end, I’m taking their stories and uploading them to the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices’ Conservation Story Map.

Hold up. What is this Council on Best Management Practices? For short, we call it the CBMP. The CBMP is a coalition of agricultural organizations from Illinois along with a few agribusinesses. These include the Illinois Corn Growers Association, and was founded in 1999. From their website, their mission reads “Working to assist and encourage adoption of best management practices (BMPs) to protect and enhance natural resources and the sustainability of agriculture in Illinois.” So basically, the CBMP works with farmers across the state to implement practices to help conserve and sustain the environment around us.

IMG_8329As for Best Management Practices, those are practices that farmers can use to help reduce soil and water erosion, and nutrient loss in agricultural fields. These include grass waterways in fields, drainage tile, and cover crops planted before or after the normal crops like corn and soybeans.

While driving around this state, I have met farmers with numerous different practices and ideas on how they are protecting their land and water. Many farmers get a bad representation that they are constantly working up the ground, putting on too much fertilizer, and eroding the land. These are not the cases. Farmers are working hard to protect the land that they have so they can hand it down to their future generations, and keep making profitable decisions in the future.

IMG_8273In Metamora in Woodford County, Bill Christ has implemented buffer strips of grass along creeks running through his farmland. These buffer strips help stop nutrients and sediment carried by surface water from the field. They can slow down the water and allow plants to take up and use water and nutrients. He also prides himself in the buffer strips because they provide a great spot for local wildlife habitats.

In Fulton County near Adair, Gary Schmalshof has created dry dams in his fields. These dams help manage water runoff from his field. They also hold soil back during large rainfalls, while making sure to help drain water properly.

Andy Bartlow farms in Schuyler, Hancock, and McDonough Counties in Western Illinois. There, he has implemented technology where he can calculate and watch his nutrient usage. Being able to watch his nutrient usage means he can put on the proper amounts of nutrients and limit runoff of nutrients like nitrogen.

While I have visited many farmers and there are many more stories than just these three, they give a great look at what farmers in Illinois are doing to help conserve resources.

For more stories, visit ConservationStoryMap.com.

Cowger_Dakota_IL CORN INTERN 2x3 16

Dakota Cowger
Communications Intern
IL Corn