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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Mike Plumers Legacy Connected to Annual Ryegrass

mike-plumerWhen Oregon growers of annual ryegrass began wondering where this inexpensive plant might be of added value in agriculture, they looked at the Midwest, where many millions of acres are calling out for remedies to heal depleted soil.

Mike Plumer, in the early 1990s, was an ag resource educator working for the University of Illinois. It was the connection the Oregon growers would mark as the starting point for launching a new effort in soil conservation. It was a turning point in the corn and soybean industry, as well as in the Oregon grass seed industry.

It became obvious quickly that annual ryegrass was a radically root active plant and that, during mild winters, would sink roots deep into the Midwest soil. In optimum conditions, the new cover crop would stabilize soil from erosion. We learned, through Mike’s efforts to secure test farms on which to try out annual ryegrass, that it was good for increasing organic matter, mining nutrients, suppressing weeds, suppressing cyst nematodes in beans, reducing the amount of nitrogen added to corn, increasing soil friability with increased infiltration of precipitation, and so on and so on…it’s a very long list.

But what Mike was instrumental in helping Oregon growers figure out was this:

  • The “old” varieties of annual ryegrass (Gulf especially) was ill suited to withstand Midwest winters. At his urging, Oregon growers invested heavily in time and research cost to develop new varieties that are winter hardy.
  • The other early issue was ryegrass management. If let go, the plant could become a weed, and one that developed resistance to herbicides necessary to kill it in the spring. Mike helped farmers and crop advisors understand the science that drove a change in farm management. Because of his keen observations, his stern warnings and his ever-present assistance, the potential problem has been avoided…farmers took the warnings seriously and adopted necessary management techniques to control the cover crop while extracting the maximum benefits.
  • In more recent  years, Mike had been vocal about the trend towards more cover crop “mixes,” using annual ryegrass with other varieties. It proved ill advised to mix certain ones together, simply because each breaks dormancy at different times in the spring. Thus, achieving an effective kill of all cover crop vegetation was problematic, because the plants need to be out of dormancy and in active growth to absorb the herbicide.

Aside from his tireless inquiry into best practices in the field, Mike was also a tireless advisor for those seeking to improve crop production while aiding the soil’s improved health.

And among many of Mike’s assets was patience, perhaps learned in his many years as an educator…or fisherman. He was patient with those too stubborn to change, just as he was patient with those wanting to race ahead without science as their guide.

He will be missed for all that he represented in one fine package. The silver lining, if there has to be one, is that he leaves in his wake a lot of room for those who learned at his feet to grow into his shoes.


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“Give it to Mikey. Mikey Will Know What to Do!”

No-Till Farmer magazine founder Frank Lessiter said this about Mike Plumer, after hearing about his death late in December, while he was awaiting word on a possible lung transplant.

“Mike was a great friend of No-Till Farmer and a staunch advocate for helping farmers succeed with cover crops.He was a tireless teacher. He would stand in the hallways at our meeting for hours on end taking questions from farmers and helping them find answers to their cover crop challenges.”

No-Till Farmer has also published online a link to the many articles Mike authored or co-authored, as part of his effort to educate farmers about cover crops and the intricacies of managing them.

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Mike Plumer, Cover Crop Hero, is Gone, but Not Forgotten

“When we lost Mike, we lost a champion, a champion in innovative agriculture in the U.S., North America and other points of the world, primarily Africa.”

On Christmas Day, Mike Plumer died. The quote above is from a tribute written about him by Bryan Ostlund, administrator of the Oregon Seed Growers Commission.

Here’s a link to the whole article, which will be published this spring in the Oregon Seed magazine. 



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Towery and Kok to Present at NNTC on Cover Crop Variety

The upcoming 2018 National No-Till Conference in Louisville, KY (Jan. 9 – 12) will feature some familiar faces, but with them comes new information about how to make cover crops work for you. Here are two of the classroom presentations you may wish to schedule.

Towery and Kok NNTC 2018


Dan Towery and Hans Kok have been educating people on cover crop choices for close to 20 years. Towery helped to introduce  “interseeding” of cover crops into standing corn and beans about six years ago. This year, Iowa farmer Loran Steinlage will discuss his experience with interseeding, and the increases in crop production as a result.

Photo - interseeder from Iowa 2017


Here’s a link to the whole 2018 NNTC program

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Ray Weil on Cover Crop Benefits

Ray Weil was a guest speaker at the 2017 National No-Tillage Conference in St. Louis. His presentation focused on how cover crops benefit soil nutrient levels not only in topsoils, but in lower depths as well.

Ray is a Univ. of Maryland professor and co-author of Nature and Properties of Soil.

Ray Weil

Here’s a link to the podcast he delivered this year.

Ray’s research has covered how cover crops influence soil nutrient profiles at various depths and optimal planting dates for cover crops, their effects on moisture retention and how compaction influences deep root penetration.

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Annual Ryegrass…Let it Grow, Let it Grow, Let it Grow

Songwriter Sammy Cahn, who wrote “Let it Snow, Let it Snow…” will probably rise up out of his grave to object the the following, which we’ve amended to be a promotion for cover crops!

Oh the weather outside is frightful, but in the soil it’s more delightful. With a cover crop now installed, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

The roots show no signs of stopping, and the earthworms continue their dropping. So with the ryegrass over wintering, watch it grow, watch it grow, watch it grow.

When we planted that seed last fall, oh we wished it would grow til spring. And if we manage it all just right, next year’s profits will ching-a-ching ching.

So as the climate gets warm and drying, the soil’s health you be eyeing. Add cover crops to the mix, and see productivity go, go go!

Merry Christmas from the Oregon Ryegrass Commission! And have a healthy and prosperous New Year.

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More Coverage – CTIC/SARE Report on Cover Crops

Since the first annual report issued by CTIC and SARE about usage of cover crops, in 2012, the average acreage planted in cover crops by survey respondents has more than doubled…from just over 200 acres to more than 450 this year. Click here to view the entire report.

The report said the continued rise in use of cover crops was surprising, given the low commodity prices. It suggested that motives beyond profit are in play. In fact, the report says that 86% of respondents said that soil health was the primary reason they invest in cover crops.

About 25% of the more than 2000 respondents said that cover crops are planted on most of their acreage (81 – 100%) with another 11% saying than between 60 and 80% is planted in cover crops.

More than half said that they saw soil benefits from the first year of cover crop use.

Almost 60% said they have “herbicide-resistant weeds” on their farm, and that planting cover crops helps to reduce those weeds significantly.

When asked which cover crops were most effective in controlling herbicide-resistant weeds, most said “mixes” of cover crops, which all contain annual ryegrass. The second most popular response was annual ryegrass itself.

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