Knox County Nutrient Stewardship Field Day


Grain and livestock farmers in western Illinois are confirming the benefits of aerial cover crop seeding. From earlier planting and establishment to good forage stands that extend cattle grazing, young farmers participating in the Knox County Young Farmers multi-year cover crop project are finding answers and sharing their knowledge with other area farmers.

“Through a partnership created in 2018, farmers have planted 18, 20-acre cover crop plots at a subsidized cost. There is one plot in nearly each township across the county,” said Brandon Hall, West Central FS operations manager in Wataga, and a Certified Crop Adviser. “The project allows farmers to try cover crops on a small scale and help meet their individual goals.”

Hall is coordinating the project that was developed by the Knox County Young Farmers, along with others at Knox County Farm Bureau and with an Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB) Nutrient Stewardship Grant. Participating farmers and local partners shared details and preliminary results about the ongoing project during a Nutrient Stewardship Field Day, April 6.

“We think it is exciting to see agriculture as a solution for improving water quality and addressing climate change,” said Lauren Lurkins, IFB director of environmental policy. “We want state and federal policymakers to be aware of what farmers are doing to find solutions to reduce nutrient loads going forward, and one of the go-to answers is cover crops.”

GROWMARK Forage, Turf and Wheat Product Manager Ryan Snyder shared cover crop seed selection tips, including ways to incorporate certified cover crop seed mixes for various end results.

“Cover crop use is increasing in Illinois,” he said. “The Knox County program is a practical, effective way to pool resources to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Snyder encouraged farmers to aerially apply or plant cover crops in early September for best establishment.

“One thing we have found in this county is that aerial application is the way to go,” said Hall. “After planting, we know changes happen beneath the ground, so we want to collect consistent data, pull soil samples in spring and fall and show how cover crops build soil health and value.”

Garrett Lindell, Lindell Aerial Ag Services, explained to farmers how aerial seeding works, and how best to maximize the results.

“Timing is critical for making aerial applications and how seed drops depends on the varieties,” he says. “Consistent seed choices make application easier.”

Wade Springer, whose plot is in Truro Township, has been experimenting with cover crops for about four years. He said aerial seeding into an existing soybean crop just before leaf drop has been the ideal timing for him and has helped reduce weed problems.

“Our cash crop is our first priority. When we harvested soybeans, we did not have any wrapping or plugging with the cover crops. And if we clipped any of the cover crops, they were not injured because there is so much growth underground,” he said. “It takes a different mindset.”

Springer was part of a young farmer panel at the field day that discussed how they are improving water quality, stretching cattle feed and better managing erosion and soil health.

“We got involved because we wanted the year-long ground cover to build organic matter on our heavy clay soils and to minimize tillage,” said Patrick King from Copley Township, “although, it has been harder to establish cover crops in clay soils versus black soils with aerial applications.”

Jeff Grady said cover crops have improved drainage in their plot in Knox Township. He also manages a low-fertility plot in Orange Township, where they have allowed cattle to graze the cover crops and replenish nutrients with the manure being added to the soil. He has even cut back on his alfalfa acres to plant more cover crops with his corn and soybean rotation.

Aaron Link in Rio Township has found that planting cereal rye and triticale provided better protein for his cows and extended the grazing season for two to three weeks during a warm fall.

“Cover crops are hardy,” said Link. “When we put turnips and rye into our corn stand, the radishes got to be 14 to 16 inches tall. The cows loved them.”

Most of the farmers have had success terminating cover crops in the spring with an application of glyphosate prior to planting row crops. Vertical tillage and crimping resulted in less consistent destruction of cover crops that sometimes required a follow-up burndown herbicide.

“As a young farmer, it is good to see what mistakes are made and learn from others, so we hit the ground running,” said Carl O’Connor, whose plot is in Sparta Township. “We ultimately will have five solid years of data with support from the project that we can share with other farmers.”

To read more about IFB’s nutrient stewardship field days, visit

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