Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation District
My name is Marcus Maier and I live on our family farm, near Forrest, IL with my wife Patty and our three children, Heidi (19), Ben (15), and Gretchen (15). This centennial farm was established in 1885 in southeastern Livingston County. Since 2007, I have been a director of the Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation District, serving as secretary.
Soil Health Practices
Our farm consists of 450 acres and is primarily a corn and soybean rotation with a small pasture for our two Norwegian Fjord light draft horses. Crop rotation, edge-of-field/stream buffers, wind breaks, and tiling systems have always been a part of our conservation practices; however, in the mid-1990’s, we started no-till planting soybeans and using variable rate technology where economically feasible. Early in this decade we started experimenting with cover crops as a way to reclaim nutrients, help reduce surface water erosion, and build soil organic matter. Soil organic matter, to me, is the key building block in the soil health initiative and the soil itself is what helps sustain life.
On the positive side, watching our soil organic percentage rise (4% plus now) over the last five years has been a great thing. During the 2012 drought year, 20-30 corn bushels on average were gained by the water holding capacity of our soils due to the rising organic matter – what little moisture was there we protected. In addition, keeping as much residue on the surface and using minimal soil disturbing tillage methods helped immensely in the heavy spring rain years of 2014 and 2015 – reducing soil erosion and runoff. On the negative side, the establishment of a cover crop in the fall after harvest has been challenging. However, since we switched from oats and radishes to cereal rye with its longer planting window and spring growth, we’ve definitely seen improvement. This method does require more time management, however, because of termination in the spring time.
One of the major challenges of implementing conservation practices in our area is that it may be difficult for farmers and landowners to see immediate results for the money, time, and labor spent. For a farmer to continue with these conservation practices they need to be economically viable, but the payback may not happen for several years. Locally here, the Natural Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS) and their programs they administer, such as Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality and Incentive Program (EQIP), have been a great help in offering incentive money to offset some of these expenses. In addition, NRCS also provides technical assistance to aid in implementing cover crops, water-ways, field buffers, bio-reactors, and many others. Educating local fertilizer/seed/chemical dealers is another way to combat this challenge because they in turn have a great influence over what conservation practices a farmer or landowner may try. As evident by the Indian Creek Watershed project, this type of entity can also help influence the use of conservation systems in an effort to improve water quality and soil health.