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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The Right Chemistry for Annual Ryegrass Termination

As mentioned in the last blog post, terminating annual ryegrass is a crucial step in the management of this cover crop. Here are some tips for making sure it’s done properly the first time:

1. Wait until the ryegrass has fully broken dormancy from the winter.

2. Apply in the daytime, when the temps are consistently above 55 degrees during the day. Best results occur when the soil temps are above 45 degrees. Apply during the day so as to give the plant a minimum of 4 hours of daylight – preferably in sunny weather…NOT with rain predicted – to absorb the herbicide (glyphosate).

3. Don’t scrimp on chemistry – apply glyphosate at 1.25-1.50 lb a.e./a with ammonium sulfate and surfactant before the end of April. Coming back again is both costly and risky…annual ryegrass can build a tolerance to glyphosate and you don’t want to tempt fate. Get it done right the first time.

Follow label directions carefully with respect to pH and mixing order. It is important when adding ammonium sulfate, buffering agents or water conditioners that they be added to the full spray tank of water and agitated for 3-5 minutes before adding the glyphosate. This is to ensure that the calcium, magnesium, iron and other dissolved minerals in the water do not interfere with the glyphosate activity.

5. Early termination of the cover crop makes control easier and reduces the amount of residue into which you’ll plant corn or soybeans. Early control also facilitates soil dry-down, allows for significant decomposition of annual ryegrass residue and release of nutrients for uptake by the corn or soybean crop.

6. Some growers have found it easier to plant into the annual ryegrass first and then apply a burndown. Warmer weather conditions improve glyphosate activity and planting into green vegetation has been successful, and is often easier than planting into a “half-dead” cover crop.

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Annual Ryegrass Burndown this Spring

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Benjamin Franklin’s quip is just as sound today as it was when uttered 250 years ago.

RoundUp logoThe reason annual ryegrass has NOT become a problem in the Midwest, despite heavy use in the past 20 years as a cover crop, is because those using it have been careful in its use…or have been able to recover from their mistakes without too much extra trouble or expense.

So, what can go wrong?

  • You let it grow too long in the spring before killing it with an effective “burndown” with glyphosate or other herbicide. Ideally, spray the crop before it gets to the “joint” stag (6 inches or so in top growth)
  • You try to spray the crop before all the grass is in active growth mode.  It’s important to wait until it has fully broken dormancy, perhaps a week after you notice the first growth, and after the daytime temperatures reach 55 – 60 degrees, and nighttime temperatures are consistently above 40 degrees.
  • You’ve used a cover crop mix and thus the dates to spray become variable because each plant (annual ryegrass, cereal rye, vetch, clover) recover from dormancy at different times.
  • You spray once but don’t kill it all off with one application. At that point, it pays to be vigilant. Letting a cover crop recover from one application of herbicide can give it tolerance to a second application. Thus, it’s very important to pay attention to the second application, in terms of products to use, timing of the application and assuring that the second burndown is effective.

For more details, contact neighbors or a trusted agronomist. And by all means, check out this free information about controlling annual ryegarss, from our website.2016 ARG as a Cover Crop – 4 page

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More Buzz about the Value of Cover Crops

“The good news is, soil will improve every year you grow a cover crop,” said Dan Towery, a crop consultant, and owner of Ag Conservation Solutions, living in West Lafayette, Ind.. “How soon you see measurable yield improvement depends on field history and what limiting factors, such as weather, are present in a year. For example, soils that are low in organic matter will benefit faster from cover crops.”

His comments are part of a longer article in the Farm Journal online. Click here to view the whole article.

Carbon sequestration graphicKen Ferrie is also interviewed for the article. Ferrie, Farm Journal’s Field Agronomist said “It might take many years to make big changes in soil health, but in some situations, you might see improvement (earlier than that.). For example, he cited a study in which annual ryegrass as a cover crop improved carbon content, bulk density and water infiltration IN THE FIRST YEAR!.

“As with any new practice, you’ll be eager to determine whether cover crops are having an impact,” Ferrie says. “Your soil physical provides a benchmark so you can follow up later and see if soil health is improving.”

Another farmer and rancher, Gabe Brown, talked about the benefits of cover crops in North Dakota. “You should use covers to address your resource concerns,” advises Brown. For the past two decades, he’s used cover crops to increase diversity, build organic matter, and improve water infiltration and the water-holding capacity of his soils.

“We look at each field separately and determine what the resource concern of each field is,” he says.

But make sure you choose a cover crop with a lot of forethought and advice from others with experience. Otherwise, you may be inviting failure or added problems. “Cover crops take more management, not less,” said Mike Plumer, who died last Christmas after dedicating 50 years to soil health and farmer education. “Farmers have to learn how cover crops react on their own fields.”

Plumer advised producers to start small with cover crops – perhaps a 20 acre plot or so, before “before incorporating on the entire farm.”

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Annual Ryegrass Eliminates Fragipan Scourge

Fragipan, that compacted soil preventing crop root penetration, covers an estimated 50 million acres of farmland in the eastern US.

Tillage, even deep ripping, didn’t begin to contend with the deeper compaction and layers of fragipan.

Then in the late 1990s, as the idea of no-till agriculture began to gain more attention, an Illinois farmer began to experiment with annual ryegrass to begin to contend with erosion on his hilly acreage.

Junior Upton, Jr. began with a test plot of annual ryegrass. Working with soil agronomist Mike Plumer (U. of Ill. Extension), they believed that annual ryegrass would grow well in low pH soil (like fragipan) and build organic matter because of the vast mat of roots thrown out by annual ryegrass.

He planted the grass seed after harvesting corn and then eliminated the crop a few weeks before planing corn again in the spring.  In a Farm Journal  story a few months ago, by Chris Bennett, he quoted Mike Plumer about that experience with Upton. “In just the first year of use, we saw (annual ryegrass) roots 24″ to 28″,” said Plumer. “The second year was 30″. After four years rooting, (the annual ryegrass root measurement) was at 60″ to 70″,” Plumer added. In normal fragipan, soybean roots often only reach 12″, but after five years of annual ryegrass, Plumer recorded soybean roots at 36″.

The article (click here to read the whole thing) goes on to say that after killing the annual ryegrass, the roots decay and leave a network of channels for corn or soybeans to occupy. With continuous no-till, the channels created by annual ryegrass allow corn and soybean roots to push deeper each year.

Another discovery: As root depth increases, yields also expand, as Plumer explained . “On Junior’s farm, we’ve got some fields 16 years in the making. His corn yields, before we started, were at a five-year average of 85 bu. per acre, but after six (additional) years (with annual ryegrass cover cropping), he was over 150 bu. per acre. After 10 years, he was over 200 bu. per acre, and it is all documented,” Plumer says.

And the miracle of annual ryegrass continued. As the depth of corn and soybean roots grew, Upton and Plumer measured a remarkable increase in soil nutrients being pulled from deeper soil up to service the crop. “The ryegrass went so deep and picked up phosphorus and potassium. We were doubling and tripling the phosphorus and potassium tests without making applications,” Plumer added.

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Annual Ryegrass Plugging Through another Winter

While the temperatures plunge and the snow whirls, annual ryegrass top growth has been dormant for months. But under the freeze, the annual ryegrass roots continue to flourish, adding depth, girth and mass to a system that builds healthy soil in numerous ways.

Corn roots in ARG 6-06 Starkey

The depth of rooting alone is a benefit, because it opens channels in the soil profile. Those channels, next spring and summer, will allow corn roots to seek deeper veins of nutrition and moisture. Even in a dry year, corn that goes deep will continue to thrive. And, with any normal precipitation, those root channels will help the soil absorb the rainfall rather than allowing it to run off.

Annual ryegrass has an appetite for nitrogen, too, so it becomes a storehouse of nitrogen when it grows. Then, in the spring, after it is killed with herbicide (before planting corn or beans), the nitrogen stored in the residue becomes a fertilizer for the hungry corn plants. And the massive root structure of annual ryegrass, when it is killed, that mass degrades and decomposes, increasing the carbon content and organic matter in the soil, giving worms and microbiological organisms a food source.

Because of annual ryegrass’ nature to sequester nitrogen, it’s place in the crop rotation allows you to lighten up considerably on nitrogen inputs.

For more information about annual ryegrass, why it’s beneficial and how to manage it successfully as a cover crop, you can check out this free four-page management guide. Or you can click here to view a series of YouTube videos on the subject.

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CTIC 2017 Report – Another Banner Year for Cover Crops – And a Double Win for You

The Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) published a 2017 report of another annual survey of people using cover crops. Here are the first paragraphs from the report:

CTIC logo

 

Following the use of cover crops, farmers reported increased yields of corn, soybeans and wheat, and improvement in the control of herbicide-resistant weeds, according to a nationwide survey. In addition, the survey of 2,012 farmers showed acreage planted in cover crops has nearly doubled over the past five years.

Survey participants—88 percent of whom use cover crops—reported that after cover crops:

  • Corn yields increased an average of 2.3 bushels per acre, or 1.3 percent;
  • Soybean yields increased 2.1 bushels per acre, or 3.8 percent;
  • Wheat yields increased 1.9 bushels per acre, or 2.8 percent.

This is more confirmation about how cover crops are profitable. The bigger bottom line, however, is that the acreage on which we draw our income is becoming more healthy as a result of planting cover crops.

Here’s the website where you can view and download the entire study.

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Cover Crops – Production Boost is Only the Start

CTIC logoThe Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) has been a champion of cover crops for many years, and the Oregon Ryegrass Growers Commission takes a  wee bit of credit for that being the case.

Since the early 1990s, Oregon’s annual ryegrass growers have worked with Midwest farmers to prove the value of ryegrass for cover crops. Gradually, universities and nonprofits began to take notice. Cover crops were, until then, seen as a threat to crop production.

Now it appears – given proper management of cover crops – that there’s practically no end to the benefits to planting cover crops. And yet, less than 10% of farms use the practice. Sure, it took a century of tillage to prove the damage of that system; it will take a few more decades before cover crops are uniformly adopted.

Take a look at this article, that quantifies the monetary value of cover crops. You’ll be amazed, and perhaps inspired to try cover crops yourself.

And, if you want to learn more, check out this brochure from the folks that started the cover crop phenomenon – the Oregon annual ryegrass folks.

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