MOUNT VERNON, Ill. — Adam Dahmer believes that though cover crop production can more than pay for itself, some benefits transcend short-term profits.

Many farmers are understandably proud of their new equipment, he said, but should put more emphasis on the basics of their farm.

“How many of us get excited about our healthy soil?” Dahmer asked at a conference here. “We are so focused on the appearance of our operations, we’re forgetting the one thing our operation depends on — the soil health.”

Dahmer and his family, who farm near Marion in Williamson County, have no-tilled since 1983 and used cover crops for the past 15 years. He believes the value to the soil is clearly cost-effective.

“We all like a blanket when it gets cold, and when it gets hot, we want a shade tree,” he said. “Our soil is no different. We have living organisms in there. That cereal rye blanket on the soil helps slow down water when it was pounding on the surface. It serves as a buffer between our farm equipment and our soil. It doesn’t seem like much, but every little bit helps.”

Rye On Corn

An early trial when the Dahmers aerially applied rye on standing corn that was followed the next season with soybeans was encouraging, to say the least.

“We had phenomenal results,” Dahmer said. “As the soybean plant pushes through that cereal rye, weed suppression is phenomenal, water retention is excellent and we’re able to keep that soil temperature down throughout growing season.”

Dahmer now uses high-clearance equipment to plant his cover crops, mainly cereal rye.

It has paid dividends, though he doesn’t believe it’s necessarily the answer for everyone.

“On slopes, we’re able to hold water, where on conventional till it would have washed down,” Dahmer said. “We’ve increased our organic matter. Cereal rye is what we built our foundation on, and it’s important to find out what is going to work for you. I challenge all of you to take a little bit and dabble in it. You can succeed.”

The Dahmers have decided to implement cover crops on 100 percent of their acres, including hills and bottom ground. They believe the commitment is crucial, especially in most areas of southern Illinois, where soils don’t produce yields like the richer ground upstate.

“The biggest limitation on cover crops is our mindset,” Dahmer said. “We all have those types of soils. We can come up with all kinds of excuses, but it’s time to practice a little bit. Any major company spends so many dollars on research and development. We as farmers are the same thing. It’s our job to research things to better improve our operations.

“I encourage all of you to experiment with this. Try it on your worst acres. That’s the soil that needs the most help. Take your shovel, dig down and break those roots apart. Then go to conventionally tilled soils and see the difference.”

Efforts Appreciated

An unforeseen benefit has been positive feedback from landowners and neighbors. The perception is much different from that expressed years ago, when owners wanted to see plowed acres between growing seasons.

“Landlords are getting excited about it. We’re now picking up land because landlords want to see their ground green year-round,” Dahmer said. “We see the community around us transitioning their support. They want to see better stewardship of the land.”

He acknowledges that cover crop production has been a learning experience. But Dahmer said his mistakes have served a good purpose.

“I’ve never had a failure on cover crops. To have a failure means I would have screwed up and not learned anything from it,” he said. “I’ve not had any failures because I’ve always learned something.”

Dahmer is a firm believer in the long-term value of cover crop production.

“Generations ago before the use of commercial fertilizers and supplements, we got away from it because of the ease,” he said. “We’ve been putting Band-Aids on the source for so long it’s time to address the issue, and the issue is soil health. The harder we push it, the more we want to learn.”