The initiative’s goal is to improve water quality in Illinois lakes and streams by reducing soil erosion and nutrient run-off from farm fields.
Cover crops are plants seeded into agricultural fields, either within or outside of the regular growing season, with the primary purpose of improving or maintaining ecosystem quality.
Cover crops, typically certain grasses or legumes, can enhance biodiversity; lead to less flooding, leaching, and runoff; create wildlife habitat; attract honey bees and other beneficial insects; improve soil quality; combat weeds; and break disease cycles. Cover crops appear to have a significant competitive advantage compared to the more traditional management practices that have been used to control soil erosion and nutrient run-off.
Cover crops also may offer production benefits. A survey of Midwestern farmers last winter by USDA’s sustainable agriculture research and education (SARE) program revealed higher corn and bean yields in fields where cover crops had been planted. The differences were significant, too, 10 percent for corn and 12 percent for beans.
Farmers are planting more cover crop acres, according to the survey. The total has increased each of the past five years, from an average of 116 acres in 2008 to 421 in 2013.