East Central Illinois Retailer Commits to Conservation Trials and Services

With the recent update of the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy showing that work still needs to be done in order to reach the goals outlined in the strategy, increasing adoption of conservation practices is as important as ever.  Farmers often turn to their retailer for products, services, and agronomy knowledge. Similarly, given the impact conservation practices can have on the entire production system, conservation conversations often begin with ag retail.

East Central Illinois is home to a confluence of several watersheds identified in the NLRS as crucial priorities for reducing nutrient losses. One retailer located in East Central Illinois, Illini FS, is expanding their offerings to better meet the conservation needs of their customers and has seen great results so far. In a new series over the next year, ISAP will follow how this retailer is adapting their business model and offerings to better fit the conservation interest coming from farmers, industry partners, and consumers. We’ll especially follow a new Illini FS cover crop trial made possible by the partnership of two ISAP member organizations: Illinois Soybean Association (ILSA) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

Illini FS is headquartered in Urbana, Illinois and has eight agronomy service locations serving Champaign, Edgar, Vermilion, Clark and Douglas counties. The company has a strong history of conservation support, notably in their push for better nutrient use efficiency through their Nu-tracker program, which uses a mix of shallow and deep soil tests and tissue testing to better understand available and needed nutrients. In recent years, Illini FS has also been exploring how to meet the need for cover crop services in the area.

While aerial and broadcast application options are relatively easy to find, they can come with definite challenges to establishment and consistency. Locally, drilling services are hard to come by due to the low amount of small grain acres and high start-up/labor investment, but it comes with the benefit of lower seeding rates and far higher chances of stand establishment and consistency. Given the lack of local drilling services, combined with the release of a local, county-specific cover crop cost share program, and a partnership with Great Plains equipment, Illini FS started offering drilling services in the fall of 2022.

Despite all the lessons of labor and logistics, Illini FS’s first foray in cover crop drilling services have been incredibly successful. For their first season, they drilled cover crops on approximately 2,500 acres. Their second season, the fall of 2023, saw the addition of another drill and an estimated 5,600 acres covered. The 2023 pricing of $37.50/acre covered application and 40 lbs. of seed. Illini FS admits that the drilling/seed is not a highly profitable service, but the real value has come from the unique service offering, noting that an incredible amount of contact with new customers has been driven by the custom drilling program.

A drilled stand of 40 lbs. of cereal rye meets NRCS rate recommendations and can provide great cover. Drilled stands can often surpass aerially applied cover crops despite a much longer head start.

Two ISAP member organizations, The Nature Conservancy and Illinois Soybean Association, have partnered with Illini FS to further support the success of their drilling program. A key component of TNC’s Agriculture Program is the “Farmer Advisor Strategy.” This strategy acknowledges the crucial influence that ag retailers have on farms with their consulting, service, and product support. To better support progressive ag retailers like Illini FS, ILSA awarded TNC funding to increase farmer and retailer knowledge of cover crop management and benefits.

TNC used this funding to help design an offering from Illini FS that leverages some of their unique conservation offerings, specifically their drilling services and Nu-Tracker program. In the trial design phase, Illini FS noted that in addition to their own interest, their customers also had an interest understanding the impact cover crops have on nutrients in the soil and plant, and how that impact influences their ROI. To answer these questions, we designed a practical on-farm trial that would offer cost-share for farmers who planted half of a field with cover crops and half without. The cost-share also covers the cost of the Nu-tracker testing program on each side of the trial. This Nu-tracker testing regimen will gather several rounds of deep and shallow soil tests and tissue tests throughout the season, on each side of the trial. With this data, TNC aims to increase farmers’ and retailers’ experience with cover crop management considerations while also getting a holistic view of the impact of cover crops on nutrient levels and distribution in the soil and crop, plus any management differences in yield, weed control, and diseases.

Cereal rye roots showing “rhizosheaths,” aggregations of soil surrounding roots due to high microbial activity. Will planting soybeans into a primed, living soil translate to nutrient content in the plant later in season?

The trial has been implemented on seven farms. Participants span several counties, operation sizes, and cover crop experience levels throughout East Central Illinois. Over the course of the trial, we’ll be sharing updates through ISAPs newsletter, The Aggregate. Look for future updates to cover interim findings from nutrient tracking and participant profiles as we follow this trial through the growing season. Stay tuned!

Frank Rademacher

Frank Rademacher is a Conservation Agronomist with The Nature Conservancy and Certified Crop Advisor in Illinois. Frank also farms about 600 acres with his father in Champaign County, Illinois.