by Erin Bush, Resource Conservationist, CCSWCD
A recap of the Conservation Series, hosted by the Champaign County Soil & Water Conservation District, Farm Bureau, and supported by The Land Connection, February 24, March 3, and March 10, 2020, Champaign, Illinois.
Earlier this year at a watershed meeting, the Champaign County Soil & Water Conservation District (CCSWCD) Resource Conservationist, Erin Bush, heard several row crop farmers raise interest in more education about soil health – including cover crops, nutrient management, and more. And so, in partnership with the Champaign Co. Farm Bureau, came the Conservation Series.
To kick off a series of three meetings, Riggs Beer Company hosted a Conservation Mixer on February 18th sponsored by the CCSWCD, The Land Connection, and Champaign Co. Farm Bureau. Farm operators, landowners, farm managers, and technical experts participated in round table discussions about conservation, specifically sharing successful experiences or barriers they’ve come across with implementing cover crops. Luke Rund, a Tolono farmer, provided great entertainment for the night as folks networked with each other for the evening.
On February 24th, Conservation Series Session 1 took place at Champaign Co. Farm Bureau. Abigail Peterson, Field Manager with the Soil Health Partnership, dove into detail explaining the importance of diversity in crop rotations, cover crops, and no-tillage. Discussions went deep into explaining the Carbon to Nitrogen (C:N) ration of corn, soybeans, and commonly used cover crops in East Central Illinois and how the C:N ratio of plants drives microbial activity in the soil.
After a quick break, Dave Fulton, a Specialist with Precision Conservation Management, shared results from three years of analysis of their program that investigates farmers’ whole operation to determine the costs of employing conservation management practices. Fulton included the impact on profit of tillage practices, nutrient management (specifically nitrogen), and cover crops.
With most of the details explaining benefits of soil health behind us, Session 2 on March 3rd featured Jonathan Coppess, Department of Agriculture and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois. Jonathan took guests through a history of how climate change, consumer demands, and conservation pressures work together to drive management and market decisions. Coppess also highlighted the importance of having written leases between landowners and tenants, and how conservation could be incorporated into the language to ensure the land is well taken care of. This brings the opportunity for farm operators to educate landowners, especially if absentee, of the importance of cover crops, nutrient management, and other conservation practices that might look like an extra cost to some.
Abigail Peterson returned for this session and guided discussion about common conservation practices used in East Central Illinois, mostly focusing on cover crops. Several producers joined in on the conversation and asked questions, gave recommendations from their experiences, and shared many laughs. There are still plenty to learn about cover crops – how to plant, when to plant, what to plant, how to terminate, when to terminate, which cash crop should the cover crop in question precede? Answers to these questions are not straightforward, have not been heavily researched, and vary between different regions of Illinois. But as we have learned in Session 1, as well as Peterson’s discussion in Session 2, conservation boosts ecosystems and can improve the land’s resilience, which in turn improves the operator’s and the landowner’s bottom line.
Conservation Series Session 3, “Supper & Soil,” took place March 10th at Parkland College. This casual event was organized to encourage each member from the family to get their hands dirty, as well as to enjoy conversation with peers and dig into some Hickory River BBQ! Parkland College’s Agriculture Program Coordinator, Jenni Fridgen, took folks out to Parkland’s cover crop plots where she has planted cereal rye, oats & radish, and an 8-way mix of several species. Corn will be planted in each plot this year to look at yield effects by the preceding cover crops.
The kids at the event also enjoyed soil painting, performed slake test comparisons among different tillage operations from the Parkland College Land Laboratory, and interacted with the Enviroscape demonstration with CCSWCD employees that demonstrated water and nutrient movement across landscapes. Soil painting, in particular, was a huge hit with the kids, as they learned about different soil colors and textures as they put their creative minds to the test!
Also at each session, Bruce Henrikson, CCSWCD’s S.T.A.R. Program Coordinator, highlighted the Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources (S.T.A.R.) initiative. S.T.A.R. is designed to respond to concerns about agriculture’s contribution to the nutrient and soil losses that negatively impact water quality. Farm operators and landowners can fill out a simple, one-page form that evaluates cropping practices used on their fields and calculates a S.T.A.R. Rating from 1-5 Stars. To learn more about this initiative, visit www.starfreetool.com.
The best way that we can answer most of the questions that farmers have is by providing a space where experts, scientists, and producers can come together in one room and help each other work through their operation’s goals and objectives, and then together find solutions. It is the CCSWCD’s goal to be able to provide this space, provide technical assistance where needed, and continue to educate about protecting and improving our natural resources.
Keep an eye out this year for more events hosted by the CCSWCD, including a “women in agriculture” event this summer. If you’re interested in being involved with planning events, have any ideas, or are interested in simply staying in the loop with what CCSWCD is up to, visit our website at www.ccswcd.com, our Facebook at www.facebook.com/ChampaignCSWCD, or contact our office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-352-3536 ext. 3.
Picture 1: Conservation Mixer Feb. 18. Frank Rademacher talking.
Picture 2: Conservation Series Session 1 February 24th. Abigail Peterson, Soil Health Partnership, talking to producers about cover crops.
Picture 3: Conservation Series Session 2 March 3rd. Jonathan Coppess, University of Illinois, speaking about conservation leases and climate and policies pressures on management decisions.
Picture 4: Supper & Soil, March 10th at Parkland College.
Picture 5: Supper & Soil March 10th at Parkland College. Kids interacting with the Enviroscape.
Picture 6: Supper & Soil, March 10th at Parkland College. Families painting with soil.