Ryegrass, Good for a Climate Goin’ Through Some Changes

Science tends to win out over guesswork. Few would disavow centuries of medical experience in favor of hocus-pocus and suspicions. Similarly, those with decades of working the soil tend to heed the sciences pertinent to agriculture, rather than winging it based on something you heard from your brother-in-law.

So, whether the science of climate change is spot on, there’s little question that weather continues to be a major factor in growing healthy crops. Storms may be getting stronger, so it’s crucial to protect your most valued asset: the soil.

Corn Plant on Field

Annual ryegrass protects the soil from erosion throughout the year, because the soil is never fully exposed to the wind and heavy rain. Infiltration of water into the soil is improved, thus increasing the reservoir of moisture for later months. And when flooding does occur, cover crops like annual ryegrass will slow it down, and keep the event from washing out field tiles. Cover crops keep the moisture in the watershed, instead of it washing downstream, carrying  precious nutrients.

No-till and cover crops also provide soil integrity, allowing the roots and other organic matter to create an environment of stable health. As a living entity, the soil environment stays in place better when bad weather occurs if you’ve got it covered with a cover  crop..

When it turns dry, cover crops tend to reduce oxidation of the soil, and to provide a longer period before the soil dries out. Annual ryegrass roots being far deeper than other cover crops, it’s a safe bet that corn will flourish if annual ryegrass has been in the field for even five years as a cover crop.

Genetic engineering has played a significant role in crop durability and production. Coupled with no-till and cover cropping, agriculture in the Midwest is better equipped to withstand the changes brought on by climate variations, whether for the short term or permanently.

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What if ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ also Refers to Your Soil?

As human beings, we tend to think narrowly about what, in the book of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” He went on to say that, besides the first commandment (to love God), loving thy neighbor is the second most important commandment.

As you look out your window, past the windrow and the bare trees , over the landscape now almost barren of vegetation, perhaps you can catch a glimpse of your neighbor’s barn and house. Of course, you’ve driven by it hundreds of times every year. Maybe you’ve visited. Maybe you’ve helped out in their need, as they’ve helped out in yours. This is surely what Jesus meant about loving thy neighbor.

Image result for image love thy neighbor as thyself

But what about a less conventional idea of neighbor? What if the soil is your neighbor? When you think of what makes up soil, how is it really different than you and me? We are both living, organic systems of life, hosting incalculable other forms of life that we don’t really see as us. We couldn’t exist without bacteria helping to digest food and eliminate waste, for example.

To take this argument a step further, consider this fact: Cells in our body couldn’t reproduce without the existence of mitochondria. These tiny factories inside our cells turn sugars, fats and proteins into energy. They also guard against cells staying around too long and mutating. Without mitochondria, we would not exist.

If you look closely at the hair roots of living plants, mitochondria are there too, just behind the tip of each root hair, helping transform water and soil nutrients into energy that is then transported throughout the plant for growth.

We know from our own health record, how ignoring a balanced life can cause early onset of disease and death. We know, and sometimes forget, that good nutrition, proper rest and plenty of physical work are ways to keep our bodies and minds healthy.

And so it is with the soil. For generations, we thought that deeper plowing and more inputs of fertilizer and pesticides had no consequence. We now know that, like the human body, the soil must have its own form of good nutrition, rest and exercise. Without it, the mitochondria are gone, organic matter is lost and the soil becomes lifeless.

Jesus surely knew the importance of healthy soil, just as much as he preached about a healthy soul. While he was able to make plenty from next to nothing – like the loaves and the fishes, and turning water into wine – we are not Jesus. We cannot wave a magic wand to make our soils healthy once again. But we can do it the old fashioned way, by loving your soil as yourself.

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Giving Thanks

Pete Seeger, in the 1950s, adapted a verse from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-8) and the song reached #1 on the Billboard chart of American hits in mid 1960s.

Image result for images a time for every season\

It starts: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: 

A time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

During this time of reflection, pause to consider whether our country has had enough killing, enough breaking down, enough weeping and enough mourning?

Perhaps we need to devote more time to healing, building up, laughing and dancing?

Side by side with the gifts we receive in life, we must also consider the responsibilities we have been given, How can we widen our normal sphere of influence: family, friends, church, co-workers and acquaintances?

How can we celebrate our diverse heritages and faiths while also lending a hand up to those whose lives are led on the fringes of our society: the old and dying, the poor and uneducated, the traumatized and under-treated, those imprisoned, those we often lose sight of or discard as worthless?

Churches are famous for their rituals, and rituals are important. How can we extend what they offer in our personal lives, away from church? How can we build a daily practice of seeing one another as children of God?. How can we build up community goodwill through seasonal celebrations of our commonalities, the things that unite us rather than what separates us?

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Grass Roots are Important – Whether in Politics or in Cover Crops

This recent election proved again why “grass roots” are important. More than colorful flyers and 30-second ads can ever do, grass roots is where democracy started, and continues to start each election cycle. The more money being thrown at negative advertising has never been higher, and our political divide between “right and left” drives some to think that violence may be the only way forward. We must fight that urge, for practical reasons and for spiritual ones.

Having taken part in “door to door” get-out-the-vote efforts this year, I can say that grass roots democracy brings people together, organizes us around central (hopefully honest) ideals and unifies us towards laudable goals. In one conversation, a guy working on tree pruning asked me about what campaign I was working on. At first, he bristled when he realized I was on “the other side.” Then we talked about values underneath our different opinions: the value of human life, the value of personal choice and the value of freedom. We parted ways, not necessarily any closer politically, but we both found space in out difference to laugh, to shake hands and to find reason to respect the other.

Image result for image grassroots of politics

Perhaps It’s instructive that we use grassroots to describe ways humans organize. Divisive politics is like using a ripper…it goes deep but doesn’t add any nutrients in the process. And, if you look at the soil just under the plow blade, you’ll see compaction. To get crops to grow, you have to add more and more inputs to create a healthy crop Divisive politics is the same way. You keep adding money from outside, but it does little to create unity; instead it creates compacted opinions and compacted hearts.Unhealthy and unsustainable.

Using annual ryegrass as a cover crop, you can see a whole different story. Its deep roots bust through old compacted layers and find a treasure of nutrients and moisture below. And the fine web of roots spreading out from the main stem connect in a network with all kinds of life around it. It unifies rather than divides. It includes rather than separates. It shares and creates opportunities for all kinds of healthy life around it. Fewer outside inputs, it becomes sustainable because it works with nature, not against it.

Let us know what stories, or ideas, you have about creating more grassroots efforts where you live. We’ll use the stories in a subsequent blog post.

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Cover Crops Bolster the Health of Mycorrhizal Networks – and Why That’s a Good Thing!

The mycelium of a fungus spreading through soil (Credit: Nigel Cattlin / Alamy)

The term mycorrhizae refers to fungi present in the soil and the positive influence it has on the root system of host plants nearby, aiding both to the health of soil biology and soil chemistry. These fungi enhance the uptake of water and nutrients, including carbon and nitrogen. They also contribute to suppression of weeds and pests.

The formation of these beneficial networks can be influenced by factors such as soil fertility, resource availability, types of host plants, tillage and climactic conditions. They form a symbiotic relationship with host plant; the fungi get nutrition from the host plant roots and the host plant gets a healthier soil in which to thrive.

Cover crops are conducive to the development and health of mycorrhizal networks. Once in place, mycorrhizae digest plant material, and produce by-products including polysaccharides. These complex sugars create a kind of aggregation in the soil, small clusters that farmers refer to as crumbs. A well-aggregated or “crumby” soil —not ”crummy” soil (depleted) – has more texture, better aeration, better infiltration, better water retention and is less prone to compaction.

Annual ryegrass is among the many cover crops that promote good aggregation. Grasses have a fibrous root system that spreads out from the base of the plant. These roots, in tandem with mycorrhizae, release the polysaccharides that then create the aggregation of soil between the roots. Aggregation is a sign that your soil is in the process of creating more organic matter, though a demonstrable increase (say, from 3 percent to 4 percent organic matter) will take more time. But a thriving mycorrhizal network is an indication that you’re moving in the right direction.

What is probably obvious to you at this point: tilling the soil discourages the development of mycorrhizae and the aggregation of soil, while also adding to the compaction of soil. No-till and cover crops are certainly important aspects of moving towards healthy soil, host to earthworms, microorganisms and mycorrhizae.

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Recalling a Man Who Put Annual Ryegrass on the Cover Crop Map

mike-plumer

 

Mike Plumer was a guy who made sure he knew what he was talking about before he’d open his mouth. He didn’t tout his academic degrees or his professional experience as much as giving you the benefit of his PERSONAL experience.

When it came to cover crops, Mike was out in front of practically the whole country. With his friend Ralph “Junior” Upton, Mike began to experiment with no-til and cover crops. Junior’s land, hilly with some bottom land and featuring a lot of fragipan layering, was as good a place to start as any.

What Mike and Junior noticed almost right away, back in the early 1990s, was that annual ryegrass was easy to germinate. It tolerates being wet, so the bottom land blossomed. And, though he approached this next step carefully, he saw that annual ryegrass killed easily in the spring, provided you do your homework on killing it properly.

One of the biggest surprises, however, was how deep annual ryegrass roots grow over the winter. Because the seed is raised in Oregon, on wet soils, the roots don’t need to grow deep to flourish. But in the Midwest, the moisture and nutrients are way deep sometimes, and annual ryegrass goes after it.

Thirty years hence, the Midwest continues to adopt cover cropping slowly, but surely. Farmers understand economics, and cover crops make money, in several ways. They improve soil quality, so the harvest is fuller. Annual ryegrass sequesters nitrogen, so you save on fertilizer input. And cover crops store carbon and build organic matter, which makes the land you own that much more valuable when it comes time to sell.

Mike Plumer, may he rest in peace. Who knows, perhaps there’s an Extension Service in heaven, and Mike’s been put to work building healthy futures there, too.

Click here to view a helpful powerpoint presentation Mike put together in his last years.

 

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Nitrogen and Carbon – Two More Benefits of Annual Ryegrass

In the last blog post, we addressed the myth of annual ryegrass being hard to manage. Follow good control procedures and it is not an issue whatsoever.

Two other assets of annual ryegrass: it creates a savings in expenditures for nitrogen during the season, and it adds considerably to the organic matter in your soil, thus boosts your carbon uptake in the soil as well.

soil pit2

First thing: nitrogen is a key to production. In years past, when cultivation was more popular, nitrogen was increasingly important and expensive. Now, with annual ryegrass as a cover crop, you can actually plan on reducing your nitrogen input. Why? Because annual ryegrass sequesters available nitrogen in the soil during it’s growth. Then, when it’s terminated in the spring, the residue gives up the stored nitrogen, often just in time for the new crop of corn. In many cases, having annual ryegrass decaying in the field means reducing or eliminating the nitrogen boost in June.

Secondly, as the annual ryegrass roots decay (after the cover crop is terminated in early spring), the result is more organic matter, which means more carbon sequestered in the soil, plus more food for a health soil biology.

Finally, when the roots decay, it leaves the earth more pliable, easier for rain to infiltrate, and easier for corn roots to follow. Because annual ryegrass roots grow to depths of five feet and more, it allows corn roots to access that same depth, beyond compaction and into more nutrients like P and K.

It’s amazing that cover cropping, despite it’s proven benefits, is still practiced so infrequently. While it’s great to learn that in some states, 10 percent or more of farmers are using cover crops, it’s discouraging that upwards of 90 percent are still relying on older ways: deep ripping of depleted soils and adding more fertilizer than would be needed if cover crops were utilized.

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The Myth of Annual Ryegrass as a Cover Crop

They say, “It’s hard to control annual ryegrass”. As myths go, it’s tame. They used to say that “stepping on a crack would break your grandma’s back.” They used to think that spiders were bad luck.

For 20 years now, farmers in the Midwest have been planting annual ryegrass every year and there hasn’t been one example of it “getting away.” There have even been cases where the management guidelines have been ignored, but a second application of herbicide took care of that mistake.

ARG burndown

Why do myths persist long after their cautionary value has been used up? Maybe two reasons. First, it takes a long time to turn customs around. Humans have a suspicious streak that dates back to when Saber Toothed Tigers were stalking us for food.

As far as annual ryegrass is concerned, you can believe your neighbor or the old fashioned academic…or you can try it yourself and find out that with modern science, you can dispel this old myth. Annual ryegrass is not hard to control. Click here for more info.  2016 ARG as a Cover Crop – 4 page.

Despite all the success of cover crops, despite endless good media and countless field days, the penetration of cover crops is still less than 10 percent of Midwest farm acreage. Why? Because, as hard as a myth is to dispel, it’s even harder to change  habits. And when it comes to tilling the soil, it’s a habit born of generational work in the field and the efforts of corporate chemical companies to continue selling fertilizer.

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National Effort to Expand Use of Cover Crops

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The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research launched a national effort to expand use of cover crops. Called the Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms initiative, the group includes the USDA as well. It is a collaborative, multi-partner research effort to improve soil health in the United States. It continues the effort to encourage adoption of cover crops as well as develop new cover crop varieties with enhanced soil health-promoting traits.

The research expands into states not commonly practicing cover cropping methods, like

  • Maryland,
  • North Carolina,
  • Oklahoma,
  • Nebraska and M
  • issouri. Ideally, the research will begin with

cover crops with the greatest potential to improve soil health in a broad geographic context.  Annual ryegrass, small grains, annual legumes and brassicas will be used to start.

As has been demonstrated throughout the Midwest, northeastern US and southern provinces in Canada, cover crops are valuable for these reasons:

  • Improve soil health.
  • Mitigate erosion.
  • Increase crop yields.
  • Enhance water use efficiency.

For more on the study, here’s a link.

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Whipsaw Weather Calls for Prayers…and Cover Crops

The coldest April on record to the hottest May on record…the Midwest can’t catch a break! Now mid-summer, people wonder whether more radical weather or trade and tariff issues will derail the current crops in the field.

Perhaps this is slim solace for those worried about what’s in store from Mother Nature and the Government, but cover crops are one thing that can continue to bring balance and health to farm acreage.

Annual ryegrass, for example, is among the easiest cover crops to establish. Grown in Oregon, in soil known for its wet feet, annual ryegrass is suited to poor soil and poor growing conditions. Likewise, when the weather turns dry, corn roots can access deeper moisture because annual ryegrass has established channels through even hardpan soil.

Thus, to build your soil’s health is the best strategy, so that whatever comes, the productivity and yield on your acreage will be maximized by having a consistent practice of cover cropping.

 

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