03/26/2013 10:10

            Waiting for the snow to melt and the ground to thaw gives landowners – farmers and gardeners -- more time to plan for improving soil health. NRCS reminds us that soil health matters because healthy soils: mean high-performing, productive soils; reduce production costs; protect natural resources; reduce nutrient loading and sediment runoff; and sustain wildlife. Quoting Franklin Delano Roosevelt 75 years ago: “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

            The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in their online publication “Unlock Your Farm’s Potential” lists four basic soil health principles: 1) Use plant diversity to increase diversity in the soil; 2) Manage soils more by disturbing them less; 3) Keep plants growing throughout the year to feed the soil; 4) Keep the soil covered as much as possible.

            Planting cover crops – recognized by farmers many years ago as a good farming practice – fits the basic principles of soil health. Farmers and gardeners alike can improve soil health with cover crops. The benefits are:

  • Restoring Soil Health – increasing organic matter, improving water infiltration, serving as natural fertilizers (legumes).
  • Natural Resource Protection – protecting  against erosion from heavy rains and strong wind, trapping excess nitrogen keeping it out of runoff, and releasing the nitrogen later to feed growing crops.
  • Livestock Feed – providing additional grazing or haying opportunities.
  • Wildlife Habitat – providing winter food and cover for birds and other wildlife, and providing food for pollinators during the growing season.

            Cover crops are typically planted in late summer or fall around harvest and before spring planting of the following year’s crops. Many plants, alone or in a mixture, can provide cover and each has its own impact on soil health. The local SWCD/NRCS field office professionals can help landowners fit cover crops to specific soil health management plans.

            Three Stephenson County farmers who have taken advantage of cover crops are making themselves available to discuss their experiences. On Thursday, April 4, 2013 the Stephenson SWCD, NRCS, and UI Extension are planning a Cover Crop Tour. The Tour will showcase these farms in the Winslow, Lena, and Pearl City areas where cover crops were installed with assistance from NRCS or SWCD. Each of the farms used different see mixes, application methods, and crop rotations. Agency representatives and seed representatives will be available on each of the farms to answer questions.

            Everyone is invited. Tour plans will provide an opportunity to talk to each of the landowners. Visits will be scheduled in sequence beginning at 9AM. The Stephenson SWCD newsletter will provide more information or call the NRCS/SWCD office at 815-235-2161 ext 3 for the schedule and more information.

            We all benefit when landowner/producers practice soil health management. Cornell University states: “Even small gardeners can benefit from cover crops and ‘green manure.’” Search “cover crops for gardeners” on the Internet.


Della Moen, Earth Team Volunteer, NRCS/Stephenson Soil and Water Conservation District, an equal opportunity provider and employer, 03/06/13 (for publication on 030913 in the Journal-Standard, Freeport, Illinois). Della can be reached at