BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Funding and technical assistance are available for farmers wanting to include cover crops in their soil and water management systems.

“You probably have to plan a year ahead and be talking to us now for anything you’re interesting in doing next year because the funding is getting tighter all the time,” said Kent Bohnhoff, McLean County Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist.

Bohnhoff was among the presenters when the McLean County Soil and Water Conservation District recently hosted a cover crop tour through a partnership with the American Farmland Trust, Nature Conservancy, NRCS, state Department of Agriculture and the Lumpkin Family Foundation.

Cover crops help improve soil health by reducing erosion, increasing soil organic matter content, improving air and water movement through soil, reducing soil compaction, capturing and recycling nutrients in the soil profile and managing soil moisture to promote biological nitrogen fixation, according to NRCS.

“We have a lot of interest in cover crops. We’ve had several that have been doing them in the past, and we’ve been working with them,” Bohnhoff said.

For cover crops, NRCS provides recommendations on site-specific plant selection, land preparation, seeding rates, timing and water requirements, as well as advice on how and when to terminate the crop to best capture the targeted benefits.

“There are some federal programs that are available to assist with cost sharing. Probably the primary one would be the Environmental Quality Incentives Program,” Bohnhoff said. “With EQIP, we develop a conservation plan to address the resource concerns, whether it be rebuilding a waterway or doing no-till or putting in cover crops.

“Applicants compete with other producers for funding, and then there’s a flat payment rate depending on what you’re doing, whether it’s a winter kill species or a cereal grain or cover crop. It varies from about $25 to $35 an acre. We’ve had some success, but not everyone who applies gets it.”

If approved, EQIP provides three annual payments allowing for cover crops to be tried up to three years, but could be for one or two years if the producer prefers. The plan must also meet NRCS cover crop standard seeding requirements.

“We can also help with cover crops through the Conservation Stewardship Program,” Bohnhoff said.

CSP is aimed at producers already incorporating resource management and want to take it another step. A producer who has erosion and nutrient-management concerns under control, but wants to improve soil quality, would qualify for the enhancements that include cover crops.

“With EQIP you sign a contract and get a $25 to $35 per acre payment rate. With CSP you get rewarded for what you actually have been doing and then you agree to do one, two or more activities and you get rewarded for doing that,” Bohnhoff explained.

“It’s not a payment rate per acre. You get it on your whole operation, so the more points you do — and cover crops give you more points — you get more dollars.”

“It may increase it from $19 per acre to $21 per acre on your whole farm. You get paid for it, but it’s not a direct payment like EQIP is,” he said.

NRCS, through partnership with the Illinois Department of Agriculture and others, has established 14 cover crop plots along interstates throughout the state for greater exposure of this conservation practice.

“We’re trying to promote it, have people see it,” Bohnhoff said. “People think green is a good thing to be growing in the winter. It doesn’t have to be brown and only used for corn and soybeans.”

“You get something green out there, and it’s good all the way around for soil health, water quality improvement and productivity overall,” he said.