Farmers, Environmental Organizations and the Feds Chorus the Benefits of Cover Crops

What doesn’t stay on farmlands can easily end up in nearby waterways and in the air we breathe.

Image result for photos cover crops and water

 

Cover crops like annual ryegrass have become friends of the environment. Imagine living in an era when farmers and environmental advocates are standing side to side to champion cover crops.

  • Green Lands, Blue Waters is an effort to save the Great Lakes, major U.S. rivers and the Gulf of Mexico from pollutants that are killing our fresh water.
  • The Sierra Club has goals about how agriculture must be carried out in an environmentally sound manner. Among them, number 7 from the top is this: Agriculture must promote the use of cover crops and perennial crops to protect soils from erosion and protect water resources from nutrient runoff and leaching.
  • The federal Environmental Protection Agency says this: Growing cover crops is a beneficial practice to reduce nutrient and sediment losses from agricultural fields and improve water quality. Cover crops also increase soil health through enhancing soil organic matter content. 

Finally, until recently, crop insurance was in jeopardy when farmers decided to protect their land with annual ryegrass or another cover crop. But, because of the results of improved soil biology and crop productivity, because of pressure from the agricultural and environmental communities, the laws have now been changed to allow crop insurance on cover crops.

Show up with results…and you can move mountains…well, in this case, fix unhealthy soils and weak profits, while saving the purity of our fresh water and  air.

 

Posted in General Information, Soil Quality | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Feed the World? Feed the Soil First

The American Dust Bowl was a reminder about taking care of the soil. Yet here we are only 75 years beyond that deadly scourge and we find that the soil is still taken for granted.

Cover crops are an inexpensive way to replenish the soil. Here are some benefits to consider:

  • Keeping something green on the fields year ’round will keep the soil in place. Reduce or eliminate erosion. Reduce or eliminate topsoil being removed by wind. Annual ryegrass along the nation’s waterways would greatly reduce the dire problems in the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico and many other places, because of agricultural runoff.
  • The roots of annual ryegrass penetrate deep into the soil, breaking up compaction, creating millions of channels that allow other crops to follow.
  1. Corn roots can’t penetrate compaction. So, in dry years, corn suffers because the roots hit the compaction and then go laterally instead of deeper. Annual ryegrass roots extend to depths of 5 feet or more over the winter, passing right through compacted layers.
  2. When ryegrass is killed off in the spring, the mass of roots becomes organic matter, food for all kinds of critters that live mostly below ground.
  3. Once those channels open up, rainfall and snow melt can more easily be absorbed into the soil. Corn and other cash crops can find moisture and nutrients in deeper soil.
  • Cover crops, both the live plants and the decaying residue, are fodder for many life forms, including microorganisms, that are beneficial for soil health.

For more information about all these things, visit our website, or download a comprehensive guide to growing annual ryegrass.

Posted in General Information, Soil Quality | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aerial Seeding Annual Ryegrass

Planting annual ryegrass or other cover crops in the fall is tricky. Weather determines when the harvest arrives. If the ground is wet, the harvest can be delayed. If winter arrives early, there may not be enough time to plant a cover crop. That leaves the field subject to erosion, unless you’ve protected it with no-till and prior cover crops.

Farmers find aerial seeding of cover crops a better fit with their schedule. While there are issues involved with aerial seeding – how to avoid wind-drift onto neighboring farms; the cost of hiring a plane or finding a high-clearance rig with a seeder – the advantages seem to outweigh the hurdles.

By seeding annual ryegrass into standing corn or beans, you have a better chance of getting the cover crop established before winter. There are risks, of course. Seeding when rain is expected will give the annual ryegrass something to germinate into…although annual ryegrass seed can lay on top of the soil for weeks without rain without any harm. The risk is that the crop germinates and then you experience a dry spell.

Once the harvest is taken from the field, the annual ryegrass can then flourish in full sunlight. This often gives you extra weeks for the crop to establish before cooler weather sets in and stunts the top growth.

For more information about broadcast seeding and the equipment – whether a plane or a high-clearance spreader – click here.

Loading annual ryegrass seed - Cameron Mills' custom seed loader; Townsend Aviation plane and pilot. Van Tilberg 2011 Hi-Boy Seeder2

Posted in General Information, Soil Quality | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Interseeding Webinar – Seeding Annual Ryegrass and other Cover Crops in the Spring

This spring, the University of Pennsylvania conduced a webinar on the subject of interseeding.

As you may have read here in past blog posts, interseeding is done in the late spring, when corn and beans are sufficiently established (v 6 in corn) to plant annual ryegrass or another cover crop between the corn or bean rows. This planting is done with customized equipment – often a sprayer retrofitted with an air seeder. Some are combining this seeding effort with a side dress of nitrogen, to give the cover crop and the corn some boost.

 

2015 Interseeding MN

Interseeding has the benefits of being planted when there’s more time…trying to plant in the fall, around harvest, is often complicated with the harvest itself and sometimes weather. Interseeding has the added benefit of establishing a cover crop in the spring – which then goes semi dormant in the shade of summer foliage – and then its being able to get a good growth spurt in the fall after harvest. The early establishment of the cover crop thus increases the chances for the crop to survive the winter. It also acts as an effective weed suppressor.

Click here to access the webinar on interseeding.

Posted in General Information | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Cover Crops Benefit Soil Microbiology, including Fungus

Soil is alive…literally…and it hosts hundreds of thousands of different living organisms: insects,worms, microorganisms, bacteria, etc. Tilling in the old fashioned way strips life from the soil. Cover crops restore soil health and these different life forms are part of that important balance. Farmers realize that when the soil is happy, crops grown in the soil tend to thrive. Your soil, kind of like a dependent child, needs constant nurturing and healthy practices to grow strong and productive.

Part of that rich mix of life in the soil include Mycorrhizal Fungus. The fungi send out rootlike extensions (hyphae) which take up water and soil nutrients.  Plants produce sugars (polysaccharides) in their leaves and send them to the roots. Together, this symbiotic relationship produces a protein (glomalin) which captures and groups particles of organic matter, plant cells, bacteria and other fungi together. The soil takes on a crumbly texture, which creates the lightness and porosity that allows better drainage. Glomalin is a key part of important substances in promoting and stabilizing soil aggregates. It also aids in plant uptake of water and nutrients.

Glomalin - plant roots and mycorrhizal fungus

 

 

Posted in General Information, Soil Quality | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Planting Annual Ryegrass as a SPRING Cover Crop

It may have begun in Canada, the practice of planting annual ryegrass as a cover crop into knee-high corn. Based on the pioneering work of cover crop innovators like Daniel Briere, an agronomist with Plant Production Quebec, hundreds of northern Corn Belt U. S. farmers are now doing likewise – planting annual ryegrass as a cover crop in the spring.

One of the biggest impediments to cover crop adoption has been planting them in in the fall after harvesting the main cash crop. Especially in the northern Midwest, where harvests can come off the field just before cold weather sets in, planting a fall cover crop has been difficult. Planting in the spring is therefore a great option.

Here’s a video of the equipment that’s being used to broadcast annual ryegrass when your corn is at five or six leaves. After it germinates and gets established, the annual ryegrass goes dormant for most of the summer because it is shaded by the corn. Then, in the fall, it takes off again, after harvest, and stays alive throughout the winter, provided there’s enough snow cover. Then, in the spring, the idea is to kill the annual ryegrass in the weeks before planting the next corn crop.

Interseeding equipment screen shot - JPEG

Although the idea of planting a second crop into the cash crop seems counter intuitive, it looks like the synergy of annual ryegrass and corn builds soil and adds bushels of extra corn at the end of the season.

Another benefit of interseeding is that, during corn harvest, the combine is rolling over the ryegrass, which further protects the soil from compaction and giving the combine added traction.

 

Posted in Dan's Digs | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Finding Good Annual Ryegrass Seed for Cover Crops

In a mild winter, even the old standby varieties of annual ryegrass will make it through to spring in the Midwest.

But in a harsh winter, those same varieties of annual ryegrass will die in the severe weather, freezing and thawing, stiff winds and little to no snow.

But over the past 20 years, seed  growers in Oregon have developed varieties that are hardier in the winter. Not to say that annual ryegrass is bullet proof, but there are a half dozen varieties that significantly outperform the older varieties that are still popular in the south for sports arenas, golf courses and lawns.

Check out this seed source publication Loading annual ryegrass seed - Cameron Mills' custom seed loader; Townsend Aviation plane and pilot.before you commit to your seed purchase this year. Oregon growers are knowledgeable and friendly. Many have spent tons of time and money developing these varieties of annual ryegrass, and they’re pleased to talk about it.

Posted in General Information | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Kill it Good…Annual Ryegrass is Your Friend until it Isn’t

Farmers have been successfully controlling annual ryegrass, as a cover crop in the Midwest, for more than 20 years. If somebody tells you “it’s a weed,” tell them politely, “Yes, I know, and it’s possible to control it if you know what you’re doing!”

Click here for our website page on successfully taking care of annual ryegrass in the spring.

Click here for our publication on  Annual Ryegrass management Recommendations (2016 version)

burndown

Here are a few tips from those online sources:

  • Don’t let annual ryegrass stay around too long in the spring: kill it before the “joint” stage when the grass is between 4 and 8 inches tall. By now, the grass is active, so watch it carefully to optimize herbicide effectiveness
  • Wait for the right weather: daytime temps above 55 consistently; no rain, preferably spray earlier in the day to allow for maximum uptake by the plant before sundown and cooler temps
  • Use the right sprayer: don’t use a sprayer with coarse droplets
  • USE THE RATE LISTED ON THE LABEL. Don’t scrimp here. You don’t want the herbicide to fail, then have to battle annual ryegrass that comes back with more tolerance.
  • Spray again if you see any lingering color after a week. Use another herbicide with a different mode of action
  • Getting the pH of the water right is important: add ammonium sulfate with a surfactant to the water BEFORE adding the glyphosate to the tank.
Posted in General Information | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Managing Annual Ryegrass as a Cover Crop

This past winter, annual ryegrass hardly went into dormancy….it was that mild. Of course, the value to the soil is multiplied in years like this, when ryegrass roots extend to depths of four or five feet.

Soon, it will be time to spay out the ryegrass, and it pays to do it right. Here are some tips for managing it properly. For more detail, click here.

  • Spray when the ryegrass has broken dormancy, and before it reaches 8 inches. Like lawn grass, if the cover crop looks long enough to mow, then it’s time to spray it with glyphosate.
  • Use a full rate of glyphosate in order to kill the grass on the first application. Keep an eye out to make sure it’s good and dead and spray again if there’s any regrowth
  • Wait for the right temperature and daylight to spray. Consistent daytime temps of above 55F is best. Gray, cloudy or rain…delay the spray.

Look at the website above for more details. And you can also download a free annual ryegrass management guide by clicking here.

ARG burndown

 

Posted in Dan's Digs, General Information | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Commodity Prices Tied to Cover Crop Usage?

Corn prices having fallen from $8/bu to about $3.50 has impacted farmers use of cover crops, at least some of them, according to Nick Bowers, a grass seed grower in Oregon (http://kbseedsolutions.com/)

Those new to cover crops are the ones taking a second look, he said. Considering all the inputs one must prioritize, cover crop seed might not make the list after fuel, fertilizer and pesticides.

Talking to hundreds of farmers at Midwest farm shows and field days, Bower finds that those who have been planting acreage with cover crops the past five years are not deterred by the drop in corn prices. “They’ve seen the value in cover cropping: improved soil structure and deeper moisture levels, the reduction of nitrogen inputs and the yield bumps they get with corn and beans,” Bowers said.

It takes three to five years planting annual ryegrass or other cover crops to begin to see a consistent benefit that translates into higher yield and profits.

Here’s a recent report from the Conservation Tillage Information Center (CTIC) about the value of cover crops, based on interviews with more than 3000 Midwest farmers. (The specific yield differences are discussed in pages 23 – 27).

Posted in General Information, Soil Quality | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment