Long-term Benefits of Cover Crops and Crop Rotation

Final Report for FNC97-196

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1997: $4,818.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2000
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information



At the present time my operation consists of 1,800 acres corn, soybeans, and alfalfa hay. In most years I will have 800 acres of corn, 800 acres of soybeans, 200 acres of wheat and 5 acres of alfalfa hay that is used for feeding personal livestock. In the past I have raised my own rye and hairy vetch for seed. I like to plant no till beans or a cover crop behind the wheat after it is harvested. My present operation is strictly family operated, and I have one full time employee. Before receiving this grant I have been no tilling, ridge tilling and using cover crops since 1986. I have also been using the practice of planting rye behind the corn crop to ready the field for the next season of soybeans as well as planting hairy vetch behind the wheat for the next season of corn. In the 1980’s I constructed terraces on two farms and anther terrace was built in the 90’s. I have also constructed several basins on different farms along with dry dams, water ways and have used other simple conservation practices to aid in reducing soil erosion on my land.


My long term goal for this grant project is to prove that cover crops will improve profits, cut expenses, stop soil erosion and by increasing the organic matter in the soil build better soil health and quality. I hope that in due time it will also prove to be a way of economically replacing some of the agricultural chemicals and commercial fertilizers I now use. In my particular area buck wheat and hairy vetch have been the best cover crops to be used in controlling weeds in corn, I also used rye and rye grass with soybeans. I have also seen that hairy vetch and buck wheat do improve the soil plus it has the added benefits of helping control weeds.

To begin my project I selected three different fields. I then laid them of in plots, with eight plots to a field. Each plot is 60 feet wide and 400 feet long. I designed the plots so that they would fit the width of the equipment I use. By placing the plots in this manner I then could make every other one a check plot. This has proven to make tracking and determining the results of the rotation on the plots easier. Plot #1 had red clover as a cover crop, plot #3 was buck wheat and hairy vetch, plot #5 was hairy vetch, buck wheat and sun hemp. Plot #7 was only sun hemp. The seeding rate that I have used per acre is 70 pounds of rye, 20 pounds of rye grass, 25 pounds of sun hemp, 10 pounds of red clover, 60 pounds of buck wheat and 20 pounds of hairy vetch. In the fall of 1999, I took a ripper to two plots and then planted them in the cover crop rye. I also ripped part of one check plot to make a comparison to see if ripping the ground would increase the growth rate of the root system to compare with a plot with undisturbed soil.

I have been very fortunate in having the help of several people with this project this year. Steve Edelhar from the University of Illinois Dixon Springs Agricultural Center helped in designing the plots and composting their layouts, he also helped to obtain cover crop seeds that were planted and assisted in field days that were held here on the farm. Mike Plumer with the University of Illinois Extension office assisted with the observation of the plots during and after the growing season. He also helped with the field days and locating cover crop seeds. Chris Mitchell and Mike Gwaltney from the Natural Resource Conservation serves along with Walt Townsend, with the sustainable agriculture helped with field days and Walt also worked on the budget with me for this project. All were always willing to help at anytime I needed them. Dan Anderson of the University of Illinois took the result of the pentrometer reading and composed a chart showing the soil compaction in the test plots. These people have proven to be one of my biggest assets in working on this project.

The results of the corn crop that was planted in the cover crop test plots showed a 6 bushel increase over the check plots. I used a weigh wagon to check yields and compare the plots. Total harvest for the cover crop plots were 368.02 compared to 335.02 on the check plots. The soybeans showed a 2.89 bushel increase per acre planted on the cover crop plots compared to the soybeans on the check plots. The yield monitor on the combine did the measuring of this yield. Total bushels for cover crop plots were 26.59 compared to check plot yields of 20.8.

I truly believe that the research project will take several years of monitoring to prove the real gain in these practices, but it appears to be showing that already the cover crops are beneficial. The soybeans consisted of eight plots also. I took plots numbered 19 & 21 and planted 70 pounds of rye per acre, then on plots 17 & 23 I used 20 pounds for rye grass to the acre. The third field consists of the wheat crop. After the wheat was harvested corn was planted in the plots, with the intentions of having the cover crop make higher nitrogen content in the ground to help improve the root system of the corn.

After taking several pentrometer readings in a set pattern, I sent the results to Dan Anderson. Dan then composed a chart showing these results. The comparison of cover crops to non cover crop plots showed a slight advantage to the cover crops plots. The graph shows the pentrometer readings I took and then compares them. The advantage of the cover crop is a slight one and I feel that will improve over time. I then went into a neighbor’s field and used the pentrometer to measure compaction in his field and compared it to mine. The pentrometer went into the ground 3” in his field and my test plots beside it went to a depth of 10”. It was clear I had less compaction to the ground; I plan to do this again next year also.

I was very happy with the results of these plots, given the fact that the crops had no rain July 4th to October. If we had received rain during this time period I think the yields would have been considerably higher. In the year 2000 I plan to plant one of corn and one of beans in plots that I deep ripped in the fall of 1999. I am hoping that this will increase root growth and depth while speeding up soil quality by also helping penetrate the hard pan quicker. I have learned how to set up test plots and how to make the plots fit the size of my equipment so it is easier to collect test plot information.

The effect of this project on my operation can not really be seen at this time. Because of the nature of the research the benefits will be more apparent with time. In the future I hope that I can prove cover crops will improve my organic matter, break the hard pan down, increase the yield, decrease the impute on both fertilizer and chemicals and cut carbon loss to the air. Disadvantages to this project seem to be the amount of time that it will require to produce the over all results. I think the benefits of this project will be very good in the long run, but at this time I feel that more time is required to make a firm statement on the out come of results. Over all in the long run it is my belief that this will be a very worth while study.


Three field days were held at the farm to show members of the surrounding farming community the test plots and discuss the rotation and cover crops that were being used. The county S&WCD office sponsored these field days. The local newspaper did a write up on the county tours that the SCS held at the several farms that participated in their field days. Two different study circles were held in the fall of 1997 and this spring of 1998. An article was published addressing the usage of sun hemp. There was in the Conservation 2000 Sustainable Agriculture Grant Program book, page 18. At the present time I am talking with the local high school “Future Farmers of America” classes about getting involved with test results on the plots. I am also planning to have more field days and study circles in the future.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.