Combining Conservation and Agriculture
From constructed wetlands to cover crops, Conservancy staff at the Franklin Demonstration Farm are finding innovative ways to clean our water.
"Farmers in the Midwest are showing a renewed interest in cover crops."
-Jeff Walk, Director of Science for the Conservancy in Illinois
After a lifetime of tinkering with machinery, McLean County farmer Don Birky has created something quite revolutionary.
It may look like something out of the movie Transformers, but Birky’s invention is a real-life machine that can help prevent erosion and reduce the amount of nitrate and phosphorus entering nearby water sources.
Looking for a way to plant winter cover crops during the summer, Birky added hydraulics to his RoGator, raising it nearly 11 feet above the corn. Having this amount of clearance allows farmers to plant cover crops when corn is fully mature and before they are busy with fall harvest. Planting cover crops in late-summer gives the plants a head start on growing and better chance of surviving the winter months.
Cover crops are grown between regular grain crop production periods and are meant to protect the soil from erosion and improve crop yields. Plants used as cover crops are normally types of grasses, small grains and legumes. Cover crops also hold nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus in their roots, reducing chemical runoff into nearby water sources.
Birky used his new machine to plant cover crops of rye and turnips at The Nature Conservancy’s Franklin Demonstration Farm, where the Conservancy is researching conservation-oriented agricultural practices. For the past 12 years, Conservancy scientists have focused research efforts on the benefits of placing constructed wetlands in farm fields.
Research has proven wetlands significantly reduce the amount of nutrient runoff into waterways, and now Conservancy staff wants to see how much more runoff can be reduced with the implementation of cover crops.
“We know cover crops scavenge nitrogen and phosphorus, but we don’t know by what percent they reduce overall nutrient run-off,” said Maria Lemke, aquatic ecologist for the Conservancy in Illinois and lead researcher on this project. “With our partners from the University of Illinois, we will be comparing the water draining from a cover crop field with an adjacent field that was not planted to cover crops. That will give us useful information on the effectiveness of cover crops as a conservation practice.”
Using cover crops for erosion control and nutrient absorption is not new to farmers. It’s a practice that’s been around for many years. However, until Birky’s invention, farmers have had to either spend the money on aerial seeding or wait until they finished the harvest season. Both of these options are expensive and arduous and have deterred some farmers from using cover crops.
“Farmers like the soil enhancement and reduced fertilizer needs from using cover crops, and we will soon know how much they improve water quality. But, seeding cover crops early enough that they establish properly but do not interfere with harvest has been a challenge for farmers,” said Jeff Walk, director of science for the Conservancy in Illinois. “Mr. Birky’s invention looks to be a cost-effective option. We are optimistic that more widespread use of cover crops will be good for both agriculture and conservation.”