February 1, 2021

IDNR to Use Regional Conservation Partnership Program Grant to Build Soil Health

Photos courtesy of the author.

Building soil health on state-owned agricultural lands is a priority within the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). By building soil health, IDNR plans to demonstrate regenerative agriculture while assessing cover crops benefits to overwintering wildlife. The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy calls for a reduction in nutrient loss across Illinois to help mitigate the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxic Zone and this IDNR effort will aid in fulfilling that strategy goal.

Under a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) award, IDNR will be able to move 20 to 25 percent of the agency’s property currently in conventional crop production to towards a cover crop/reduced tillage (Strip/Vertical: 6,500-9,000 acres) rotation, ultimately building soil health. Also known as regenerative agriculture, the use of different cover crop species mixes not only improves soil health but creates suitable overwintering habitat for a variety of wildlife species. Our major concern is with timing of termination of cover crops and finding the path that avoids becoming a nest sink (i.e. birds attempt to nest but all nests are destroyed in the middle of nesting season for crop production). While considerable research has evaluated the use of cover crops on soil health, research is required to assess the wildlife benefits of this practice. This work is part of a broader statewide partnership under the RCPP program, with 13 partners collaboratively advancing habitat and water quality goals through the Working Lands, Water and Wildlife Partnership.

A farmer drives a green tractor pulling a tillage implement in an agricultural field. In the background are trees and a blue sky.

Historically, IDNR agricultural leases have not allowed for the use of cover crops but that changed with contracts negotiated since the fall of 2019. Historic agreements with tenant farmers did not require a cover crop/reduced tillage rotation as tenants do not have the financial incentive to use cover crops on state lands. Planting and terminating cover crops costs time and money that many tenants may not have or that they are willing to invest on property they do not own. Most of the literature on cover crops shows it takes three to five years of continuous cover cropping to start to reap the rewards of going into such a rotation, such as reduced fertilizer and pesticide costs.

IDNR’s plan is to use IDNR and RCPP funds to work with our tenants to plant and terminate the cover crops on selected properties throughout the state. Tenants will have RCPP Land Management funds (similar to Environmental Quality Incentives Program or EQIP) or leasing agreements with NRCS if they agree to implement such a practice. After the RCPP cost share agreement is completed, it would be written into future IDNR agricultural lease contracts that the tenant is responsible to continue to use cover crops in their rotation, with the costs offset by the reduced inputs needed to make the soil productive.

Sometime in the autumn there is an agricultural field yielding young green plants. In the background is a woodland.

The thought process behind this is that IDNR would work in a cover crop system that would have minimal impact on the current tenant’s operation. By planting and terminating the cover crops through RCPP until the contracts are renewed, it would allow cost share to jumpstart the program. It allows IDNR to start to build soil health and invest in our own lands while setting up demonstration sites and giving producers a chance to learn how to use such a rotation on their own farms. Many of our tenants farm ground adjacent or near our parks which could extend the benefits beyond the parks borders.

This effort will begin with 8 to 10 sites, with at least one site in each of the five IDNR regions. The focus will be on sites that have ag leases and are a priority for grassland birds as identified in the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan. On larger sites where multiple ag leases exist, half of the leases may be taken into this rotation and the remainder used for comparative studies.

IDNR staff members are taking soil samples on IDNR lands so the agency can monitor progress and success in using such a rotation. With future research possible, other outcomes will be monitored. This would be a potential opportunity for a research institution to conduct a research project while the RCPP funding is used for practice implementation. IDNR has been coordinating with the University of Illinois to possibly conduct some research on soil health benefits and avian use of cover crop fields.

A farmer drives a red tractor that is pulling a green implement in an agricultural field. In the background is a woodland against a bright blue partly cloudy sky.

Other outcomes would be to establish demonstration sites across the state for state, agencies, non-governmental organizations and other partners to show how this style of agriculture can be implemented on the landscape. It will also familiarize our tenant farmers on use of cover crops in their rotation and the associated benefits. When neighbors can see and talk to their neighbor about the use of cover crops, they are way more likely to try the practices themselves. IDNR wants to be the location where people go to see regenerative agriculture that is friendly to wildlife and the environment as well as sustainable into the future.

According to Richard E. Warner, Senior Scientist at the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center, “The widespread use of regenerative agricultural practices will be very important for reducing the size of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico. While considerable effort is being directed to the agronomic and farm enterprise aspects of these systems in the Midwest, little attention has been directed to fine-tuning these practices to optimize their benefits for wildlife. The IDNR effort will be a significant contribution to the adoption of regenerative agricultural practices that build soil health and reduce nutrient loss in Illinois while optimizing benefits to wildlife.”

Tenants on IDNR agricultural leases will be contacted soon to see if they are willing to participate. IDNR will continue to update everyone as this project is rolled out in the coming months.

The logo for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources includes a blue sky with a flying bird, a yellow setting sun behind some green trees, and blue waves indicating a wetland. In the foreground is a trail through a green area and a green tree on the left.

Bob Caveny is the Farm Programs Manager in the Office of Land Management at IDNR. His duties include agricultural leasing, working with the three Wildlife Propagation Centers (Des Plaines, Lincoln and Mt. Vernon), the controlled pheasant hunting program and field trials. He can be contacted at Bob.Caveny@Illinois.gov.

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