PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — Cover crops are growing in popularity in central Illinois as a way to preserve nutrients in soil and purity in water runoff.

These secondary crops, such as oats, canola and cereal rye, were once planted after the main harvest to provide feed for livestock. But the (Peoria) Journal Star reports the cover crops are gaining fresh attention for their natural ability to improve soil structure and keep nutrients in place.

“We kind of got away from these smaller grains, these other crops that built up the soil,” Illinois Central College professor Pete Fandel said. Today they’re just being used to protect and restore the farming environment, he said, and they’re not being harvested.

A crop of cereal rye is the first vegetation to emerge in the spring in remnants of cornstalks on some of the land Fandel farms near his home in Germantown Hills. It prevents erosion and sends roots underground, aerating the soil and pulling up nutrients.

The plants, which were once killed off with herbicide when main crop planting happened, will also provide a natural fertilizer.

“I’m recycling my nutrients, not letting them leave,” Fandel said. “I’m not managing a crop, I’m managing my soil and letting the soil manage my corn and soybeans.”

The practice is being pushed as part of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, which seeks to keep fertilizer and other agricultural chemicals from running off into the streams and tributaries that feed the state’s main waterways. Regular testing to measure that runoff is part of the strategy, and the Peoria County Soil and Water Conservation District provides it for free.

Josh Joseph, the district’s resource conservationist, said few have brought samples to the district office for weekly water testing since the program started last spring.

“It’s one way to monitor success or failure at whether you’re keeping nitrogen on the farm,” Joseph said. “It’s a tool to use, not something to be afraid of.”

He said voluntary practices such as cover cropping and regular testing to determine the success of nutrient conservation measures will keep farming decisions in the hands of farmers, rather than government regulators.

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