Field Test: Organic or Conventional – farmland needs a blanket

June 09, 2017

cover crop cereal rye

My family has been growing corn and soybeans in Illinois for generations, but when it comes to organic, we’re the new kids on the block. We’re always learning and adapting our farming methods to meet the needs of our farm – most recently, that meant experimenting with converting one of our fields to organic. Throughout this learning process, we have seen some similarities between both farming methods – one of them being cover crops. Whether a field is organic or conventional, our soil needs a blanket.

What are cover crops?

You may have heard about cover crops but let’s be honest – that’s farmer talk. So what are they and why are they important to both organic and conventional farmers?

Cover crops: plants grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil. We have something growing in the soil year-round, so we are feeding the soil and its ecosystem with growing plants even when our main crops (corn and soybeans) aren’t in the fields. They also:

  • decrease soil erosion
  • increase organic matter
  • aid in nitrogen fixation
  • increase water infiltration
  • improve soil structure and micro flora 

Basically, they help keep our soil healthy. Healthy soil = healthy crops.

A variety of different plants can be used as cover crops depending on the needs of the soil and what part of the country a farm is in. For this organic field, we chose to plant cereal rye. Rye was planted last fall after wheat harvest. It grew all spring and soaked up some of the rainfall, preventing excess water from causing soil erosion.

Putting the blanket to work

Now for the fun part, at least for a farmer! We planted soybeans in this organic field while the rye was still standing. Imagine planting your garden in a patch of prairie grass; sounds weird, right? Well, it is, but no matter what type of field, organic or conventional, we want what’s best for the land.

So, we drove the planter through the field of cereal rye and planted our soybeans. We followed this with a large roller designed to knock the rye down, ultimately terminating it and leaving us with a “blanket” covering the field.

You can watch the roller in action here:


This “blanket” of rye acts like the mulch you put around your trees. It prevents weeds from growing as the soybeans break through the surface. If this works, we will have no need to spray herbicides on this field for weed control. But if it doesn’t work there are approved herbicides for organic farming. But always – regardless of the type of field, our goal is to use the least amount of chemicals possible on any of our organic or conventional crops.


Trent Sanderson

Trent farms with his family in northern Illinois He also enjoys learning and educating other farmers about the environmental benefits of cover crops. He lives near the farm with his wife Elizabeth and their son Owen.

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