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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Understanding the Nitrogen Advantage of Annual Ryegrass

Let’s review the facts about nitrogen, in the context of growing corn in the Midwest, and the connection to ryegrass as a cover crop.

One, corn needs a lot of nitrogen, and if corn is planted year after year in the same field, you will need to add nitrogen to bring the corn to harvest.

You already know that no-till will help stabilize the soil and help it regain its natural health. However, unless you plant a cover crop, you will continue to have to add a lot of nitrogen to feed the corn.

Secondly, it’s known that annual ryegrass “sequesters” nitrogen. As it grows, annual ryegrass absorbs available nitrogen from the soil and then sequesters, or stores, the nutrient in the foliage. When the cover crop is terminated in the spring, all that residual, stored up nitrogen is released. Annual ryegrass, because of its leaf structure, decays quickly in the spring, thus making its nitrogen available to the new corn as it begins to mature in late spring.

Lots of study has been done in the past 10 years about how much nitrogen is absorbed by annual ryegrass, and how much it can contribute back to the corn plants when the grass decays.

At best, the nitrogen that annual ryegrass adds back to the field substantially reduces the need to supplement  nitrogen during the year. And, at a minimum, annual ryegrass reduces the costs associated with planting and managing a cover crop.

In an experiment studying annual ryegrass, Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie recorded per-acre costs for annual ryegrass and then calculated the value of the residual nitrogen left over in the spring, when corn was planted. the following graphic box indicates the costs/acre for seed, machinery, herbicide and application costs for terminating the ryegrass.

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At the bottom of the graphic box,  Ferrie estimates that the amount of nitrogen added back to the soil from annual ryegrass was $75/acre. That is an average and some will experience less, especially if you are just adding cover crops to your management repertoire. However, some farmers have experienced better than $75/acre return of nitrogen from their annual ryegrass cover crop.

So, according to Ferrie, “after subtracting the value of the nitrogen saved, the total cost of the cover crop was $5.75 per acre.” Not bad, especially when you then factor in the added benefits of cover crops: improved soil structure, increased organic matter, increased water infiltration, controlled erosion and recycling additional nutrients, like Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K). This “recycling” occurs due to annual ryegrass’s deep roots, which helps corn to develop deeper roots to access P and K from deeper soil structure.

Phosphorus is a major component in plant DNA and RNA. Phosphorus is important in root development, crop maturity and seed production. Potassium is required so than more than 80 enzymes in the plant can be activated. K is also important for a plant’s ability to withstand extremes temperatures, drought and pests. Potassium also  increases water use efficiency.

Finally, those who plant cover crops consistently experience higher corn yields, which translates into a profit to the pocket as well as to the continued health of farm acreage.

 

 

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Annual Ryegrass as a Forage Crop

The Alberta (Canada) Agriculture and Forestry department encourages livestock producers to plant annual ryegrass as a forage crop. Here’s a link to the entire article. ARG Chris B 45 days 10-15 to 12-30-2005

In essence, they say that ryegrass and other annual crops provide flexible feed sources for livestock. Ryegrass has the advantage of being a quick crop to grow to extend grazing in the fall and/or spring.  It can be used as emergency forage if alfalfa is killed during the winter. It establishes quickly and produces a lot of forage in a short amount of time.Of course, excess can also be stockpiled as feed.

When managed intensively, ryegrass can be very productive, the article says. It goes on to say: The fact that the crop has little or no dormancy makes it an ideal fall pasture as it continues to grow and maintain its quality well into the fall, making them useful in extending the grazing season.

In areas with very cold winters, annual ryegrass will often be eliminated by winter weather. But if it does winter over, it grows back quickly in the spring for continued use by livestock. But if the crop will be replaced by corn, for example, eliminating the annual ryegrass is imperative. Click here to review the proper management of annual ryegrass in the spring.

 

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Annual Ryegrass, a Question of Dormancy Answered

Annual ryegrass seed, as with most other seeds, has a protective device that maximizes its chances for successful germination. But it’s important to know about it, so that you can successfully grow the cover crop and be prepared to deal with any dormancy issues that arise.

Most ryegrass seed, used for cover cropping,is spread in the fall, after corn and soybean harvest. Sometimes, the weather or soil conditions are not ideal for seed germination. So, in some cases, the seed will lie dormant until better growing conditions exist.

But the idea of cover cropping is that you have fields covered year round, so as to prevent water and nutrient runoff. Thus, having your cover crop germinate in the fall is important.

Newer varieties of annual ryegrass have been developed for colder climates in the Midwest. And yet, getting the ryegrass to germinate and establish can be challenging, especially in late harvest years with sparse rainfall.

Those in more northern latitudes of the Corn Belt are now going to interseeding (seeding the cover crop into standing corn in the spring, when corn is not yet knee-high – v 5 or so.) That can be done with high clearance equipment or by plane. This method avoids the perils of late fall seeding, though it does continue to require good seed-to-soil contact and moisture for germinating.

Oregon State University, a trusted research institution for grass seed science, has published a short paper about dormancy. It’s available on our website near the top of the list of Research links, and if you CLICK HERE  you will find it easy to read and perhaps helpful.

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Earth Fix Boosts Production and Profit

More than a decade ago, it was becoming clear that runoff from farm acreage was choking fresh water flowing south from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. Satellite images, water testing and production declines in fisheries pointed to a pending disaster if agricultural practices were not modified. At risk, the health of millions who depend on clean water, as well as industries that depend on healthy water.

Cover crops were introduced in a dozen states that border tributaries to the Mississippi, as well as along that great stretch leading into the Gulf. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency produced a report for Congress outlining the “successes” in that gigantic project. Here’s a link to a summary.

Here’s one small result, from efforts in Indiana:

The 2014 fall transect [study] estimated 1 million acres of living plant cover such as cover crops and winter cereal grains were planted on Indiana farms. The report also shows most Indiana farmers left their tillage equipment in the shed in the fall to protect their fields with harvested crop residues. Results for residues and undisturbed soil on harvested acres during the winter months include: 77% of corn acres, 79% of small grain acres, and 82% of soybean acres.

The fall cover crop and tillage transect occurred again in 2015, and according to the data, over 1.1 million acres of cover crops were planted in 2015, which is an increase of nearly 10 percent compared to the previous year and 225 times more coverage over the past decade. The fall tillage and cover crop transect will be conducted again in late 2016.

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In addition to keeping pollution from entering watersheds, the practice of cover cropping also makes a healthier environment for soil to heal. That, in turn, makes corn and soybean production more profitable, even in years when drought or low commodity prices carves into profits.

 

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Ryegrass and other Cover Crops – Benefits the Purse and the Earth

You have undoubtedly read, or experienced, the following effects by stopping cultivation, adopting no-till agriculture practices and then planting cover crops, such as annual ryegrass.

  • Saving on fuel costs by reducing the trips over the field
  • Reducing or eliminating soil compaction and fragipan layers
  • Preventing soil erosion
  • Conserving soil moisture
  • Protecting water quality
  • Fixing atmospheric nitrogen while reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizer
  • Reducing the need for herbicides and pesticides
  • Improving organic matter, soil porosity and water infiltration
  • Increasing the population of healthy microorganisms and earthworms
  •  Increasing yields by enhancing soil health

ARG Chris B 45 days 10-15 to 12-30-2005In the last year, another benefit has come to light, based on the collaborative work of two men working on opposite sides of the Atlantic ocean. They claim that cover crops help to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Professor Jason Kaye (Penn. State) and Miguel Quemada (Technical University of Madrid) looked at the following things:

  • Cover crops lower greenhouse gases by increasing soil carbon sequestration and, thus, the use of less fertilizer
  • Cover crop vegetation also lowers the proportion of energy from sunlight that is reflected off farm fields.

This last point, according to Professor Kaye, “may mitigate 12 to 46 grams of carbon per square meter per year over a 100-year time horizon.” Click here to read a longer description of the article. Or, click here for the academic study itself.

 

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Interseeding Annual Ryegrass

InterseederWith more than half of the nation’s corn planted, it’s closing in on interseeding time. Once the corn is at v5 – v7, you should be able to seed annual ryegrass with a modified drill or another modified high-clearance piece of equipment.

The value of interseeding has now been proven out, from southern Canada on either side of the Great Lakes, to the I-70 corridor in the US. In that belt, it’s difficult to find enough growing time in the fall to plant a cover crop. So, planting into growing corn in the spring is proving to be a valuable alternative.

What is key in this phase of cover cropping is that the seed have enough moisture to germinate and establish, before the corn foliage canopy creates so much shade that the annual ryegrass goes semi-dormant.

Having the cover crop in place throughout the summer doesn’t take away much nutrition or moisture from the corn. That’s because the cover crop hasn’t the sunlight to produce much vegetative or root mass. After harvesting the corn in the fall, the cover crop having been established in the spring, now has more of a head start for a quick burst of growth in the fall before wintertime.

For more information on interseeding, check out this video, from the University of Pennsylvania.

 

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