Old Ways Fade as Cover Crops Gain Favor

Iowa isn’t known as an early adopter with cover crops. But according to an article in Farm Journal recently, more than half of the acres in production in that state are leased. So, while farmers themselves may choose to do what’s best for the soil, owners may be reluctant to invest.

Nonetheless, the article went on to say that about 25 percent of Iowa farmers claimed to be using cover crops, though most said the acres committed to the conservation tillage measure were small…usually less than 100 acres.

 

That’s great news, because it suggests that owners are beginning to see that investment in conservation tillage brings dividends. According to the article:

Researchers say that landowners could benefit economically from farmer adoption of conservation agriculture, which can reduce in varying degrees the use of fertilizer, pesticides, fuel, equipment and labor. Crop insurance provides another potential opportunity in light of evidence that conservation agriculture can increase crop resilience to weather threats such as droughts or floods.

In the article, reference was made to a 2010 study by the University of Illinois (another latecomer to the value of cover crops) that concluded that the jury is still out on whether cover crops increase yields for corn and soybean crops (we believe it is conclusive that they do). But the study did say that cover crops significantly increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, which indicates soil health.

…it does increase the amount of sequestered soil organic carbon. Soil organic carbon stock gains were 30% higher for no-till, 10% higher for chisel plowed and 18% higher for moldboard-plowed plots.

“This suggests that soil organic carbon stock losses from tillage, water erosion and some disturbance or mixing during no-till planting, aeration, nitrogen injection in corn years and mineralization were less than the soil organic carbon gain from the cover-crop treatment,” says U of I soil scientist Ken Olson.

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Mike Plumer – Granddaddy of Modern-day Cover Crop Advocacy

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before we had met Mike Plumer, he already had more than a decade of advocacy and research into no-till farming and cover crops, especially annual ryegrass. At the time, Mike was an Extension Educator with the University of Illinois, a post he held for 34 years..

We, in Oregon, where 90 percent of the world’s ryegrass seed is grown, had no idea that Mike Plumer was about to give the industry of agriculture an immeasurable gift, while giving the annual ryegrass seed growers a new reason to get up in the morning.

Plumer, working with an innovative Hamilton County, Illinois farmer named Ralph “Junior” Upton, helped quantify the benefits of annual ryegrass in “siltpan” (Bluford) soil. Upton was concerned about the productivity on parts of his 1800 acre farm, where the compacted soil restricted the root growth of corn and soybeans. He wondered if going no-till and adding cover crops might improve productivity.

Plumer began testing on Upton’s farm and quickly discovered what we in Oregon didn’t know – that annual ryegrass roots grow through and permeate compacted soil. Better than that, the roots then extend downwards to a much as five feet, creating new pathways to moisture and nutrients for corn and bean crops to follow.

Since 2004, Upton has seen dramatic changes in his corn yields., according to a USDA profile on him. He says no-till saves him around $15 an acre. Using cover crops costs $8-$20 dollars an acre but it is well worth it. The amount of organic matter in Upton’s soils started at less than 1 percent (.81). That level is now up to 3 or 4 percent. “And that’s exactly what I needed for my soils on those fields,” Upton said.

Since then, Plumer has experimented all over the Midwest (as well as contributing to agriculture internationally) and become the best known cover crop advisor in the country. Below are a couple of very informative power point presentations developed by Plumer, which outline both the benefits and the precautions of annual ryegrass and other cover cropping system. Visit the annual ryegrass by clicking here.

Managing Annual Ryegrass 

Cover Crops in Illinois: Why Use Them?

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Farmers, Environmental Organizations and the Feds Chorus the Benefits of Cover Crops

What doesn’t stay on farmlands can easily end up in nearby waterways and in the air we breathe.

Image result for photos cover crops and water

 

Cover crops like annual ryegrass have become friends of the environment. Imagine living in an era when farmers and environmental advocates are standing side to side to champion cover crops.

  • Green Lands, Blue Waters is an effort to save the Great Lakes, major U.S. rivers and the Gulf of Mexico from pollutants that are killing our fresh water.
  • The Sierra Club has goals about how agriculture must be carried out in an environmentally sound manner. Among them, number 7 from the top is this: Agriculture must promote the use of cover crops and perennial crops to protect soils from erosion and protect water resources from nutrient runoff and leaching.
  • The federal Environmental Protection Agency says this: Growing cover crops is a beneficial practice to reduce nutrient and sediment losses from agricultural fields and improve water quality. Cover crops also increase soil health through enhancing soil organic matter content. 

Finally, until recently, crop insurance was in jeopardy when farmers decided to protect their land with annual ryegrass or another cover crop. But, because of the results of improved soil biology and crop productivity, because of pressure from the agricultural and environmental communities, the laws have now been changed to allow crop insurance on cover crops.

Show up with results…and you can move mountains…well, in this case, fix unhealthy soils and weak profits, while saving the purity of our fresh water and  air.

 

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Feed the World? Feed the Soil First

The American Dust Bowl was a reminder about taking care of the soil. Yet here we are only 75 years beyond that deadly scourge and we find that the soil is still taken for granted.

Cover crops are an inexpensive way to replenish the soil. Here are some benefits to consider:

  • Keeping something green on the fields year ’round will keep the soil in place. Reduce or eliminate erosion. Reduce or eliminate topsoil being removed by wind. Annual ryegrass along the nation’s waterways would greatly reduce the dire problems in the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico and many other places, because of agricultural runoff.
  • The roots of annual ryegrass penetrate deep into the soil, breaking up compaction, creating millions of channels that allow other crops to follow.
  1. Corn roots can’t penetrate compaction. So, in dry years, corn suffers because the roots hit the compaction and then go laterally instead of deeper. Annual ryegrass roots extend to depths of 5 feet or more over the winter, passing right through compacted layers.
  2. When ryegrass is killed off in the spring, the mass of roots becomes organic matter, food for all kinds of critters that live mostly below ground.
  3. Once those channels open up, rainfall and snow melt can more easily be absorbed into the soil. Corn and other cash crops can find moisture and nutrients in deeper soil.
  • Cover crops, both the live plants and the decaying residue, are fodder for many life forms, including microorganisms, that are beneficial for soil health.

For more information about all these things, visit our website, or download a comprehensive guide to growing annual ryegrass.

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Aerial Seeding Annual Ryegrass

Planting annual ryegrass or other cover crops in the fall is tricky. Weather determines when the harvest arrives. If the ground is wet, the harvest can be delayed. If winter arrives early, there may not be enough time to plant a cover crop. That leaves the field subject to erosion, unless you’ve protected it with no-till and prior cover crops.

Farmers find aerial seeding of cover crops a better fit with their schedule. While there are issues involved with aerial seeding – how to avoid wind-drift onto neighboring farms; the cost of hiring a plane or finding a high-clearance rig with a seeder – the advantages seem to outweigh the hurdles.

By seeding annual ryegrass into standing corn or beans, you have a better chance of getting the cover crop established before winter. There are risks, of course. Seeding when rain is expected will give the annual ryegrass something to germinate into…although annual ryegrass seed can lay on top of the soil for weeks without rain without any harm. The risk is that the crop germinates and then you experience a dry spell.

Once the harvest is taken from the field, the annual ryegrass can then flourish in full sunlight. This often gives you extra weeks for the crop to establish before cooler weather sets in and stunts the top growth.

For more information about broadcast seeding and the equipment – whether a plane or a high-clearance spreader – click here.

Loading annual ryegrass seed - Cameron Mills' custom seed loader; Townsend Aviation plane and pilot. Van Tilberg 2011 Hi-Boy Seeder2

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Interseeding Webinar – Seeding Annual Ryegrass and other Cover Crops in the Spring

This spring, the University of Pennsylvania conduced a webinar on the subject of interseeding.

As you may have read here in past blog posts, interseeding is done in the late spring, when corn and beans are sufficiently established (v 6 in corn) to plant annual ryegrass or another cover crop between the corn or bean rows. This planting is done with customized equipment – often a sprayer retrofitted with an air seeder. Some are combining this seeding effort with a side dress of nitrogen, to give the cover crop and the corn some boost.

 

2015 Interseeding MN

Interseeding has the benefits of being planted when there’s more time…trying to plant in the fall, around harvest, is often complicated with the harvest itself and sometimes weather. Interseeding has the added benefit of establishing a cover crop in the spring – which then goes semi dormant in the shade of summer foliage – and then its being able to get a good growth spurt in the fall after harvest. The early establishment of the cover crop thus increases the chances for the crop to survive the winter. It also acts as an effective weed suppressor.

Click here to access the webinar on interseeding.

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Cover Crops Benefit Soil Microbiology, including Fungus

Soil is alive…literally…and it hosts hundreds of thousands of different living organisms: insects,worms, microorganisms, bacteria, etc. Tilling in the old fashioned way strips life from the soil. Cover crops restore soil health and these different life forms are part of that important balance. Farmers realize that when the soil is happy, crops grown in the soil tend to thrive. Your soil, kind of like a dependent child, needs constant nurturing and healthy practices to grow strong and productive.

Part of that rich mix of life in the soil include Mycorrhizal Fungus. The fungi send out rootlike extensions (hyphae) which take up water and soil nutrients.  Plants produce sugars (polysaccharides) in their leaves and send them to the roots. Together, this symbiotic relationship produces a protein (glomalin) which captures and groups particles of organic matter, plant cells, bacteria and other fungi together. The soil takes on a crumbly texture, which creates the lightness and porosity that allows better drainage. Glomalin is a key part of important substances in promoting and stabilizing soil aggregates. It also aids in plant uptake of water and nutrients.

Glomalin - plant roots and mycorrhizal fungus

 

 

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Planting Annual Ryegrass as a SPRING Cover Crop

It may have begun in Canada, the practice of planting annual ryegrass as a cover crop into knee-high corn. Based on the pioneering work of cover crop innovators like Daniel Briere, an agronomist with Plant Production Quebec, hundreds of northern Corn Belt U. S. farmers are now doing likewise – planting annual ryegrass as a cover crop in the spring.

One of the biggest impediments to cover crop adoption has been planting them in in the fall after harvesting the main cash crop. Especially in the northern Midwest, where harvests can come off the field just before cold weather sets in, planting a fall cover crop has been difficult. Planting in the spring is therefore a great option.

Here’s a video of the equipment that’s being used to broadcast annual ryegrass when your corn is at five or six leaves. After it germinates and gets established, the annual ryegrass goes dormant for most of the summer because it is shaded by the corn. Then, in the fall, it takes off again, after harvest, and stays alive throughout the winter, provided there’s enough snow cover. Then, in the spring, the idea is to kill the annual ryegrass in the weeks before planting the next corn crop.

Interseeding equipment screen shot - JPEG

Although the idea of planting a second crop into the cash crop seems counter intuitive, it looks like the synergy of annual ryegrass and corn builds soil and adds bushels of extra corn at the end of the season.

Another benefit of interseeding is that, during corn harvest, the combine is rolling over the ryegrass, which further protects the soil from compaction and giving the combine added traction.

 

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Finding Good Annual Ryegrass Seed for Cover Crops

In a mild winter, even the old standby varieties of annual ryegrass will make it through to spring in the Midwest.

But in a harsh winter, those same varieties of annual ryegrass will die in the severe weather, freezing and thawing, stiff winds and little to no snow.

But over the past 20 years, seed  growers in Oregon have developed varieties that are hardier in the winter. Not to say that annual ryegrass is bullet proof, but there are a half dozen varieties that significantly outperform the older varieties that are still popular in the south for sports arenas, golf courses and lawns.

Check out this seed source publication Loading annual ryegrass seed - Cameron Mills' custom seed loader; Townsend Aviation plane and pilot.before you commit to your seed purchase this year. Oregon growers are knowledgeable and friendly. Many have spent tons of time and money developing these varieties of annual ryegrass, and they’re pleased to talk about it.

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Kill it Good…Annual Ryegrass is Your Friend until it Isn’t

Farmers have been successfully controlling annual ryegrass, as a cover crop in the Midwest, for more than 20 years. If somebody tells you “it’s a weed,” tell them politely, “Yes, I know, and it’s possible to control it if you know what you’re doing!”

Click here for our website page on successfully taking care of annual ryegrass in the spring.

Click here for our publication on  Annual Ryegrass management Recommendations (2016 version)

burndown

Here are a few tips from those online sources:

  • Don’t let annual ryegrass stay around too long in the spring: kill it before the “joint” stage when the grass is between 4 and 8 inches tall. By now, the grass is active, so watch it carefully to optimize herbicide effectiveness
  • Wait for the right weather: daytime temps above 55 consistently; no rain, preferably spray earlier in the day to allow for maximum uptake by the plant before sundown and cooler temps
  • Use the right sprayer: don’t use a sprayer with coarse droplets
  • USE THE RATE LISTED ON THE LABEL. Don’t scrimp here. You don’t want the herbicide to fail, then have to battle annual ryegrass that comes back with more tolerance.
  • Spray again if you see any lingering color after a week. Use another herbicide with a different mode of action
  • Getting the pH of the water right is important: add ammonium sulfate with a surfactant to the water BEFORE adding the glyphosate to the tank.
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