Cover Crops – Annual Ryegrass Sales Grow Even in Bad Weather

Cover cropping continues to grow in popularity and in acreage simply because it builds soil quality, improves yields and adds to profits.

That mother nature doesn’t always cooperate hasn’t diminished the appetite for producers seeking to get on the most popular new farming trend in a half century.

In a presentation a couple years ago, cover crop pioneer Mike Plumer, showed the reasons why cover crops are increasingly important as a farm management tool, particularly in the Midwest. Mono-culture crops have starved the soil of nutrients while sending immense quantities of soil into nearby waterways, eventually contributing to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the Earth’s largest known dead zones due to heavy pollution from farm runoff into the Mississippi river.

Beginning in 1995, the Oregon Ryegrass Commission, working with Plumer and a handfull of farmers, began to experiment with annual ryegrass in barren cornfields over winter. Since then, Oregon growers have created more winter hardy annual ryegrass grass varieties, as well as finding other cover crops, like radish and crimson clover.

Though the percentage of farm acreage in the Midwest committed to cover crops is still below 10 percent, it’s impressive that cover crops now cover millions of acres of corn and soybean acres, building soil quality, preventing erosion and improving production yields.

This past fall, seed dealers and distributors were ready. But the wet conditions and late harvest prevented some from getting the fields planted, according to Dan Towery, another cover crop consultant and colleague of Plumer.

For those times, farmers are increasingly going to new methods of planting cover crops: flown onto standing crops late in the season, for example, or broadcast with modified high-clearance sprayers equipped with seeders. Still others are trying a novel approach called interseeding, where annual ryegrass is planted in the SPRINGTIME, rather than the fall.  Click here to find out more about that program.

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Annual Ryegrass: Part of New Adaptive Management Strategy

ARG in Quebec - November photoAdaptive management. Fancy title, basically meaning “be on top of developing situations in your fields and be  ready for a Plan B”.

Many farmers already fit that definition to a TEE. When it comes to growing successful cover crops, however, many have had to up their  game.

Cameron Mills, for example, was ready to seed his annual ryegrass cover crop seed in the fall, with a high-clearance sprayer adapted to plant cover crops. The late harvest, complicated by a wet fall, foiled his Plan A. His Plan B was a phone call to a nearby pilot to fly on the annual ryegrass seed.

Mills farms in Walton, IN, and has been a consistent cover cropper since 2005. His experience has put him on the front edge of cover crop field research. For example, he has studied the impact of annual ryegrass on extra nitrogen in the field. Accordingly, he’s reduced his input of N by 30 lb/ac and it hasn’t impacted yield. The following is from an article in Western Farmer Stockman

“In 2012, Mills layered in 170 lbs. of N per acre. Thanks in large part to his healthy no-till/cover-crop soil, he harvested a 165 bushel corn crop despite the severe drought.”

He said he believes he can trim that further, and Dan Towery agrees. Towery, an independent cover crop advisor and immediate past president of SWCS, said (in the same article) that, “after five years of continuous use of cover crops, farmers can typically cut N rates by an average of 50 lbs per acre for the crop year.” The savings will easily cover the cost of cover crop planting, he added.

The experience of others certainly helps those newer to cover cropping, and then having your own experience with cover crops will build confidence towards having your own Adaptive Management Strategy.

As Towery advises with adaptive management, “go slow and pay attention.”

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Russian Livestock Plan Calls for Cover Crops

Russia has moved into mega farming of livestock, and a lot of American advisers have helped them along the way. Here’s an article segment from Beef magazine, from its June 2014 issue. The article introduces readers to Miratorg, a “vertically integrated” company owned by two shareholders (experienced ranchers) with mind-boggling expansion plans, aided by a hungry government.

In the aerial photo, below, one of 30 pasture/feed lots owned by Miratorg, this one hosting a population of up to 49,000 head. Miratorg’s slaughter plant is located about a mile away.

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“Miratorg is the leading investor in the Russian agribusiness industry. It’s the largest meat producer and supplier in the Russian market, thanks to its high-performing vertically integrated agribusiness holding that took a leading position in production, processing, logistic supplies and sales of agricultural products.

In a recent inquiry from Mark Dodd, a Purdue trained agronomist/consultant working for Miratorg, he wanted to know about cover crops. Here’s a part of his description of the farm operation at Bryansk…at about the same latitude in Russia as North Dakota.

“I am an agronomist here in Russia, the largest ag project in the world.  over 200,000 angus cows with calves, and not enough pastures, not enough forages, 1 million acres of crops, and I am trying to do everything possible to find different solutions to this problem.     Interseeding [of cover crops],  double crop after triticale or wheat harvest (July 10), [with the] first frost on about 0ct. 15.    Sandy based soils, poor pH,(but applying lime finally)  usually good rainfall, had drought this year.  Miratorg has its own slaughter plants, and over 500 grocery stores, largest employer in Russia, over 30,000 people..   People are still very poor and some are starving here.      I need some help with advice.”

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Dan Towery, a well regarded US agronomist and cover crop consultant for the Oregon Ryegrass Commission, has contacted Mark…and begun to tell him about the cover crop successes in the US and Canada, with annual ryegrass and others. We’ll let you know more about those discussions soon.

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Cover Crop Chart from USDA-ARS

The USDA-ARS Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory in North Dakota published this chart a couple years ago. It’s a nice resource for the list of viable cover crops you can utilize. It contains some basic growing and growth characteristics, including the crop’s water needs and it’s rating as a “nitrogen scavenger.” Click here for a copy of that chart.

Below is the list of information the chart has for annual ryegrass.

Annual Ryegrass
Cool Season, grass
• Annual or perennial
• Upright plant architecture
• Major types:
– Annual (Oregon, Italian, Australian, Common)
– Perennial (English)
• Medium water use
• Fair salinity tolerance
• Seeding depth: ¼ – ½ inch
• C:N ratio: 14 – 40
• Will form arbuscular mycorrhizal associations
• Self pollinator (wind)
• Rated ‘very good’ at scavenging nitrogen from


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Annual Ryegrass in a Cover Crop Mix with Rapeseed

Ron Althof is an agronomist and cover crop seed specialist working out of Effingham, Illinois. In a recent conversation, he talked about the value of cover crop mixes. And while some “cocktail” mixes can contain more than a dozen different species…and cost upwards of $60/acre to plant, he suggested starting with more basics, especially if you’re new to using cover crops.

“More people this past year tried rapeseed (or “rape”) in combination with annual ryegrass,” Ron said. “The two work together very well and the cost per acre is about a third of what expensive cocktail mixes cost.” Annual ryegrass goes on at a rate of about 15 – 20 lbs/ac, depending on whether you’re drilling (less seed) or broadcasting it. Rapeseed goes on at a rate of about 2 lb/ac.

The value of annual ryegrass, of course, is its ease of germinating and growing, whether drilled after harvest or broadcast before harvest. Annual ryegrass has deep penetrating roots, as well as a large surface mat, all of which promotes soil stability and friability (crumbly texture), with more organic matter (from decaying roots after the ryegrass is killed in the spring) and attractive microbiology (healthy bacteria, earthworms, etc).

Rapeseed is a major crop worldwide, used for oil production (vegetable and biodiesel) and as meal for livestock. In recent years, rape has been successfully used as a cover crop as well. Ron mentioned some of its attributes:

“Rapeseed also broadcasts easily and establishes well,” Ron added. “It can be planted later than radish. Like a radish, rape also has a nice tap root; but its advantage over radish is that rape has strong lateral branching roots, whereas Radish has only small lateral root hairs. Thus, the rape root stays in the ground. The other nice thing: rape usually doesn’t winter kill. It’s hardy, like annual ryegrass, and thus will protect soil from winter and spring erosion and runoff problems.”

“Finally, rape and annual ryegrass is a great cover crop mix to use whether your next crop is soybeans or corn. Annual ryegrass is a perfect choice for sequestering nitrogen, useful to both beans and corn in July when the nitrogen is released by the decaying cover crop residue. Rapeseed also helps soybean foliage as the cover crop residue releases carbon dioxide. In the process, rape also seems to protect soybean plants from nematode infestation and sudden death syndrome.”

One final note from Ron: “When terminating rapeseed, the appropriate herbicide to use is 2, 4-D…glyphosate alone will not provide a good kill.”


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Annual Ryegrass Videos – Basics and Advanced Information

Perhaps you’ve already seen these dozen videos about annual ryegrass, both about how to plant and manage it, but also the benefits of having a cover crop on your soil. Click here if you want to review them...the link here is to the first one, and once on the YouTube channel, you can find the others easily by typing Annual Ryegrass in the search engine.

Here are a couple other videos about annual ryegrass, produced by Dale Strickler.

Annual ryegrass for forage and as a cover crop.

Annual ryegrass versus Cereal Rye.

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1st Year Cover Cropper Doubles Down on Annual Ryegrass

The advice about using cover crops for the first time is almost written in stone: “Start with a small parcel.”

John Werries, a third generation farmer from Chapin, Illinois, had a few things going for him that allowed him to skip the advice entirely. He talked to some long time cover croppers, he had done a lot of studying and had attended educational forums on cover crop management, and he wasn’t getting any younger. “I was 65 when I started cover crops. I may not have had a decade to experiment on a small scale,” he said.

Together, John, his son Dean and their neighbor, Andy Shireman, formed a cover crop business, Chapin Cover Crops. They went in on the purchase of a 40’ air seeder and air cart, and proceeded in 2012 to plant the entire Werries 3800 acres, over 2000 of Shireman’s acres and 1700 acres of custom seeding.

“You couldn’t have asked for a more perfect year,” he said. “We got an early start, drilling the annual ryegrass (Aug. 22) right behind the combine, and we were done with seeding the acreage by the end of September. After the first seeding, we got about four inches of gentle rain in the span of two days. I’m a private pilot and so it was a joy when, some weeks later, I flew over the property and saw all that solid, dense green!”

John’s land is almost all in corn. He strip tills and so the cover crop was primarily an aide in reducing erosion, especially on the half of his acres that are in rolling hills. “I just hate the idea of erosion,” he said.

The spring of 2013 was a very wet one, with nearly 15 inches in April and May. “I was so impressed with the annual ryegrass,” he said. There was some runoff but absolutely no erosion.”

The other benefit he saw immediately was in corn production. “In 2012, it was a drought year and we had a ‘whole-farm’ average yield of 133 bu/ac,” he recalled. “That was the worst corn harvest since 1988. But a year later, the average in 2013 was 234 bu/ac…a whole 100 bushels per acre better!” Besides the weather, he attributes some of that increase to the nutrients sequestered by the annual rye grass.
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The cover crop seeding of fall, 2013, was close to a disaster. “We flew on 1000 acres and drilled the rest, and virtually nothing came up,” he said. “We had a very dry fall followed by a brutal winter, very cold and no snow cover.” But the harvest this fall has been even better average than last year. He attributes some of that to the improvement in soil health from years of strip till corn, no till beans, and at least one successful year of annual rye grass.

This fall, another wet one, has presented difficulties both for harvesting corn and seeding annual ryegrass. Since early August, his farm has gotten more than 17 inches of rain. About two weeks after flying on the first 1000 acres, the area got a hard five inches of rain and John’s farm has seen no erosion. Since then, he’s flown on most of his acres with annual ryegrass and feels cautiously optimistic about the survival of the cover crop this winter.

“I’m now less worried about year to year differences,” he said, “and more focused on the long term. I go out there now and, my gosh, you wouldn’t believe the number of earthworm holes. That’s evidence of better organic matter and less compaction. I tell you,” he added, “there’s no turning me around on cover cropping at this point. It’s a winning solution.”

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Annual Ryegrass Forage in the Fall and Spring

Click here to access an article from a Missouri dairy specialist who advises planting forage crops in the fall to supplement feed stocks with healthy grasses and grain foliage.

Extension agent Ted Probert said, “Annuals are useful in extending the grazing season into late fall and early winter and can also provide the earliest available spring grazing. Small grains including wheat, rye, triticale and oats are old standbys for annual forage production,” he said.

He also advised livestock owners to consider annual ryegrass as another species to consider for winter annual forage production.

“Ryegrass is not as early as cereal rye regarding spring grazing but will usually start growth earlier than most perennial pasture species.” An advantage of annual ryegrass, he said, is that it’s productive life into the spring as a forage is longer than winter annuals.

But, if you’re also using the annual ryegrass as a cover crop, planning to follow it with, say, a corn or bean crop, naturally you’ll want to terminate the annual ryegrass a couple of weeks in advance of spring planting of cash crops. Click here to view the annual ryegrass management guide for more details of that.



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Interseeding Annual Ryegrass and other Cover Crops

Interseeding of annual ryegrass has been successful for the past five years in southern Quebec and continues to increase in use there, according to Dan Towery. Interseeding is the practice of planting a cover crop when the corn is about V4-V6 stage (about knee high).  Annual ryegrass has been the go-to cover crop but crimson clover and even daikon radish have also been successful.

By the time the annual ryegrass has reached about 4-6 inches, the corn has grown sufficiently to shade it out.  Without sufficient sunlight, the cover crop’s growth stops and it goes dormant. Once the corn starts drying down and sunlight reaches the annual ryegrass, it will begin growing again. This method of seeding allows additional root and top growth, and a better chance of surviving the winter, especially in Northern Corn Belt.

Towery and a few others have been watching this interseeding experiment carefully.  In the past year, he interseeded annual ryegrass plots in various locations from central Michigan south to central Indiana.

“Corn went in late and the cover crop seed was broadcast a little later than normal by the calendar.  However, the warm, rainy period in mid June provided excellent conditions for germination and very good stands resulted in all plots,” Dan said.

Upon checking plots in September there was a good stand on half of the plots but there was no cover crops on the other half.  It’s possible that the annual ryegrass will return when it gets full sun (maybe).  Residual herbicides need to be selected carefully so as not to affect germination.

Several years of additional plot work will undoubtedly yield further information as to the best management practice with interseeding, and whether it’s a good bet for the Northern Corn Belt.  Towery also cautioned that interseeding is currently in conflict with RMA rules for crop insurance. They don’t want farmers trying to collect crop insurance if, for instance, the interseeded cover crop is blamed for a reduction in corn yield.

In the meantime, he said he’ll collect data on the yields on plots where surviving interseeded cover crops are located. He suggested that, as with any new farm practice, producers should proceed in this endeavor with caution and only on small plots.

Penn State faculty have developed an interseeder which drills the cover crop seed when corn is knee high.  Click here for more on that equipment:


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Annual Ryegrass and Cover Crops – No “Bad” Years

Last winter’s cover crop season was disappointing, said Nick Bowers, a pioneer in the cover cropping revolution and a partner in the Oregon-based KB Seed Solutions.

Even though newer varieties of annual ryegrass are hardier in tough weather, the winter of 2013/2014 was “the worst in 25 years,” he said. “When you have winter wheat and cereal rye not surviving a winter, you know it’s been severe, and that’s what we saw last year.”

Nonetheless, his sale of cover crop seed hasn’t been hit too badly. And that’s because of two things:

  • The popularity of cover crops has continued to attract farmers trying cover crops for the first time, even as some disappointed by their first try may decide to step back a year or so before trying it again.
  • The number of seasoned cover crop users has also continued to grow. Even though they may not see 2014 as a good year for their cover crop, they’ve seen plenty of evidence of its cumulative value to push forward…taking 2014 in stride, knowing that cover crops won’t be a winner each and every year.

“Those who’ve been in the cover crop program for more than three years are sold…they’ll never quit,” Nick said, “because they’ve seen the benefits in better crop yields and improved soil conditions.”

His advice to new adopters of cover crops has always been to “be cautious, start simple.” He worries that with new government incentives offered, growers will jump in without enough information or experience. He suggests planting small plots of cover crops and check strips, so as to compare results side by side in a field.

But those farmers with whom Nick has been working now for over seven years all tout the virtues of staying with the cover crop effort. “One guy who had years of erosion problems was saying that the water leaving his fields is now cleaner than when it arrived,” he continued. And that’s only the beginning of the benefits, Nick said.

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