Manifolds, Manolos, and Manure
One hot summer night when my farmer and I had recently started dating he persuaded me to help him spray our Crain Road fields. On the surface it was date night. Farm style. Complete with a tractor. Self-stable food. And a pull behind sprayer. In reality, he wanted someone to climb in and out of the tractor after each pass to count rows and point a flashlight at the row where he needed to turn. As a twitterpated teenager, I was happy to help. Even happier to stay out past curfew.
I’m not sure I even kept count of the number of times I climbed in and out of the tractor cab that night and into the early morning. What I remember clearest is when we had to mix the next load of crop protectants.
The first and largest ingredient was water. Lots and lots of water. Then like a couple of mad scientists out of a cartoon strip we donned our personal protective equipment: gloves, masks, and goggles. We added Dicamba. Exceed. LA 700. And more water. To this day I still giggle at the names of crop protectants. We have Strut, Mustang, Calisto, Pounce.
That was over 25 years ago. Remember when inflation was 2.34%. A gallon of gas costed $1.22. A new car ran you just under $17,000. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (the book not the movie) debuted in the United Kingdom and then the United States. Princess Diana died suddenly in a car crash. A civil jury panel found OJ Simpson guilty. And most related to the topic at hand, Dolly the sheep was cloned by scientists at the Roslin Institute in Edinburg, Scotland.
Agriculture has changed tremendously in the past 20 plus years. Like the industry, our personal farming practices have change. We adopted genetic modification. Deep tillage. New crop protectants. And several years ago, we began transitioning certain fields to organic.
My farmer will tell you that each growing method has its own set of tools. A tool available to both conventional and organic producers is cover crops. Simply put, cover crops are crops grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil. More boldly stated, cover crops can help reduce nutrient loss and soil erosion, suppress weeds, increase water infiltration rates, contribute organic matter, and even provide grazing for livestock. Some of these benefits like weed suppression occur quickly while other benefits like increased organic matter or reduced compaction occur over time.
A combine (right) harvests the wheat while a baler (left) bales the stalks for straw. The soybeans, which were interseeded into the standing wheat remain.
Cover crops are one strategy to help Illinois agriculture meet the goals of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS), which calls for a 45% reduction of both nitrogen and phosphorus losses moving from the soil into Illinois’ waterways.
For us we’ve planted clover ahead of soybeans. Then used the leftover seed in both our cattle and horse pastures. We’ve also used oats and radish ahead of corn.
We’ve used rye ahead of corn with little luck. The rye attracted army worms that made a meal of 100 acres of corn seed. On the note of rye, in 2021 we interseeded soybeans into it in hopes of using the crimped rye as a mulch to block out weeds. We also were hoping to use the remaining rye for rylage for the cattle. Rye is a very thirsty crop and sucked what little water 2021 bestowed on us to the detriment of the soybean crop. It goes without saying that particular rye crop was terminated, and the soybeans were replanted.
My favorite cover crop tool has been interseeding soybeans into wheat. Right as the soybeans begin to emerge, we use a crimper to “crimp” each stem in several places. The flattened wheat creates a mulch on top of the soil blocking out the weeds. Later in the growing season we come through with the combine and harvest the wheat. Candidly, the first time we tried interseeding soybeans we opted to go with a field in the far back, away from the road in case we failed miserably.
Farmers are amazing at amassing tools. Cover crops are another tool worth considering. We still opt to spray some fields and despite advancements in technology and science I still feel like a mad scientist when we mix the tank. But a safer mad scientist than 25 years ago.