Cover Crops and Grazing in Your Future?

A Pennsylvania Extension educator has shown that intensive grazing on cropland low in organic matter can rebuild the soil quickly – in a matter of a few years in some cases. The cover crop and grazing practice also led to a “drastic increase in cation exchange capacity and water holding capacity of the soil,” according to the author, Sjoerd Duiker. (Read the article by clicking here).

Cation exchange capacity (CEC) refers to the soil’s capability to store and then provide certain nutrients, like calcium and magnesium, to crops grown on the soil. While soil types tend to dictate a CEC range, building soil organic matter greatly increases the capacity for cation exchange. That, in turn, determines the productivity of the soil and how much fertilizer you need to add.

Duiker said he sees potential for increased profitably by bringing grazing animals back on the croplands in the US. Crop and livestock experts he talked to advised combining nighttime-grazing and daytime stall feeding to allow for continued high milk production (75 lbs/day).

In terms of cover crop varieties used, Duiker mentioned annual ryegrass mixed with triticale for fall and spring forage and other crops like tillering corn, sudangrass, sorghum-sudangrass hybrids and forage soybeans, cowpeas, brassicas and sunnhemp for the rest of the year. He said that perennials are “tremendous soil builders and the annuals add benefits such as meeting forage needs during the summer slump when the weather is hot and dry as well as in late fall, and are a break crop between an old and new perennial pasture stands.”

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Annual Ryegrass – Part of a “Sustainable” Soil Future

SARE: Sustainable Agriculture Research and EducationIf you want to build soil without investing much in a cover crop, consider annual ryegrass. A quick-growing, non-spreading bunch grass, annual ryegrass is a reliable, versatile performer almost anywhere, assuming adequate moisture and fertility. It does a fine job of holding soil, taking up excess N and outcompeting weeds.

Ryegrass is an excellent choice for building soil structure in orchards, vineyards and other cropland to enhance water infiltration, water-holding capacity or irrigation efficiency. It can reduce soil splash on solanaceous crops and small fruit crops, decreasing disease and increasing forage quality. You also can overseed ryegrass readily into corn, soybeans and many high-value crops.

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Cover Crops in a Semi-Desert? Seems so!

Midvale, Nevada receives less than 5 inches of rain annually. The Klein’s have started a no-till and cover crop experiment that they hope will ultimately do three things:

  • increase organic matter
  • reduce the need for irrigation
  • add substance and permeability to light, compacted soil

Click here for the full article, in No-Till Farmer.


In their first year of cover crop trials, 2013, the first-generation family operation (sugar beets,alfalfa, malt barley, beet seed, sheep and bees) planted a blend of cover crops, in June, to an acre parcel  on the edge of a center-pivot irrigation system.

The mix contained forage corn, sunflowers, sorghum, buckwheat, radishes, turnips, kale and some additional plant species. He seeded it at about 40 pounds per acre and then incorporated it with a harrow.

One thing that surprised them: the cover crop plants dominated other annual weeds and thrived, well into the fall, even after the first frosts. The second surprise: even after that one year, the soil in the acre of cover crop was “much more mellow.” And their sheep found the new crop tasty, which gave the Klein’s another possible source for supplemental forage value.

While tillage seems advantageous in the first year of cover crop planting, the type of equipment can be less aggressive. Eventually, the benefits to the soil will preclude the need for tillage, and far less water, they believe.

“The carrot at the end of that stick is better water infiltration and water-holding capacity. We have a gut feeling we’ll need less irrigation as soil quality improves, although it’s too early to confirm that,” said Richard Klein.

In 2014, the Klein’s planted five fields in cover crops, the largest of which was about 18 acres. By staggering the planting dates and using a GPS, they were better able to determine the best time to plant. This spring, they saw another benefit: the cover crop residue has reduced the impact of frequent seasonal wind storms on soil loss.



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Return on Investment from Cover Crops – 266 % – say Indiana Farmers

No-Till Farmer magazine just published a great article that quantifies the benefits of cover cropping. In this case “quantifying” means translating more than a decade of field data into dollars saved.

The article (click here) looks at data collected by two Indiana family farmers as well as the NRCS. The pair presented the data at this year’s Iowa Cover Crops Conference. Look at the following charts. The first contains the costs for cover crops – seed and planting: about $26/ac.

The second chart looks at the benefits: fertilizer saved, corn yield increase, soybean yield increase (less disease), drought tolerance (a 10 year average), increase in organic matter and erosion reduction. Ken Rulon, one of the farmers, said that the “return on investment” has been 266 percent, with a net benefit/acre planted at $69.17. Even if he had gotten only half the benefits, it would still be profitable, he said.

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Retrofitting Equipment for Cover Crop Seeding

When corn was knee high this spring, a growing number of producers tried “interseeding” annual ryegrass into the cash corp. We’ve talked about interseeding before and will continue to cover it as we gain more experience in field trials throughout the northern cornbelt.

Interseeding means planting annual ryegrass, or another cover crop seed, into standing corn early in the season, in this case June. The practice has become quite popular in southern Canada, above the Great Lakes.

In this photo, a grower has mounted a Gandy linear seeder on an old rotary harrow, with some of its tines removed. In this case, the grower was able to cover about 20 feet in one pass. The retrofit cost him about $11,000.

2015 Harrow retrofitted as a CC seeder

So far, only a small number of cover crop advocates in the US have tried interseeding, but more education about how and where to plant will entice others to try it too. The advice at this point is that if you’re located north of I-70 or, roughly, north of Indianapolis, you have a good chance of interseeding being profitable.

The reason a cover crop like annual ryegrass will work in those conditions are these:

  • Planted in the spring, even if wet like this year, annual ryegrass will germinate under the foliage of immature corn.
  • Later, with corn shading the ground beneath, the annual ryegrass will go semi-dormant.
  • After harvest this fall, the added light will jumpstart the cover crop again and, with established roots from the spring, the ryegrass will have a better chance of weathering a difficult Midwest winter. 

There are some distinct advantages of this kind of cover cropping system. First is timing. Fall time is often busy with harvest activities, hence cover crop seeding can get left until too late. Or, even if aeriel seeding into standing corn, if the Midwest is experiencing dry weather, cover crops can struggle to get established in the fall.

But there are also cautions about this type of cover cropping. First, if the summer is dry, the combination of no light and no water for the young cover crop, it can perish in the field before corn is harvested. Secondly, there are still questions about whether this kind of crop would jeopardize a farmer being able to qualify for insurance payments, should there be a crop failure because of drought, say.


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Annual Ryegrass Adds Value Topside and Below

In an online article this week, outlines the benefits of various cover crops. High on the list is annual ryegrass. Click here for the whole article by Kacey Birchmier.

Here’s the piece about annual ryegrass.
Scientific name: Lolium multiflorum
Those who have goals centered on preventing erosion, improving soil structure, and scavenging nutrients should consider annual ryegrass, recommends Barry Fisher, an Indiana soil health specialist at USDA-NRCS. This thick, quick-growing grass produces significant deep root biomass that builds soil organic matter, accesses nutrients, suppresses weeds, and curbs soil erosion. The root system of annual ryegrass is dense at shallow depths, but also sends roots deep into the subsoil. Ryegrass can also scavenge leftover N, and provide a timed release of stored N for the following crop.

“You can minimize the N tie-up by waiting a few weeks for the cover crop to decompose before planting the following crop,” says Tracy Blackmer, research director at Cover Crop Solutions.

Annual ryegrass can be terminated by mechanical or chemical means as it overwinters. However, spring termination should be executed before the seed sets for a complete kill and to avoid potential chemical resistance. Annual ryegrass is easiest to terminate before the first node appears, says Blackmer.

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Successful Tips for Cover Crops

In a recent article on by Edith Munro, Dan Towery offered these tips for cover crop success.

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Cover crop decisions can be initially overwhelming. “Details – especially timing – are critical,” says Dan Towery, president of Ag Conservation Solutions and Soil and Water Conservation Society.

Here are five questions and tips Towery gives to guide you if you are considering a cover crop.

1. What do you want to accomplish with a cover crop?
Cover crops offer a range of possible benefits that include:
• Reducing erosion.
• Reducing soil compaction.
• Scavenging nitrogen.
• Fixing nitrogen.
• Increasing organic matter.
• Improving weed control.
• Increasing water infiltration.
• Improving soil biological activity.
• Matching goals with cover crop selection is essential.

Selecting a maximum of three is the first step to narrowing the list of cover
crops to consider.

2. How will you plant it and when? 
Planting method and timing are key interrelated decisions. Traditionally, the best seed-to-soil contact comes from drilling, but that must occur after harvest. In the Upper Midwest, seeding that late limits the cover crop options.

3. What will follow the cover crop in your rotation?
Since some cover crops tie up nitrogen, it is especially important to consider the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of the covers being considered if the following crop will be corn.

4. Which cover crop will you plant? 
Multiple options are available depending on location. Consider using the Midwest Cover Crop Council’s Cover Crop Decision Tool.

The tool provides customized guidance for Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, Ontario, and Wisconsin. It allows you to plug location, cash crop, planting and harvest dates, and cover crop objectives to narrow the list of cover crop choices that match your specific conditions.

Two books offer more detailed information:

  • Managing Cover Crops Profitably (Third Edition), published by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (
  • Cover Crops Field Guide, from the Midwest Cover Crops Council.

5. How will you terminate your cover crop? 
Towery recommends planning early and killing the tougher cover crops early. Some cover crops will winterkill on their own, and some may be easy to kill. Others may require following fairly specific instructions to terminate.

Once you have completed your initial research and have decided on a potential list of cover crops, Towery recommends planting a small trial plot to become familiar with various cover crop traits.

“It can be as small as 10×10 feet. Look for opportunities where you can watch how your cover crops do through a fall-winter-spring cycle,” he suggests. “A sweet corn patch is good, or if you have a small wheat or corn silage field.”

Success with cover crops requires a systems approach, Towery says. “The reason some growers can make cover crops work but their neighbors can’t isn’t complex. It’s all about attention to details and timing.

“Doing the homework minimizes unpleasant surprises. You must complete all the steps for success,” he says.




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Cover Crops Maximize Your ROI on Each Acre

Those with a few years experience with cover crops and no-till agriculture have come to expect there may be an occasional year when the results aren’t as terrific. It’s the long term picture that counts, according to Nick Bowers, a partner in Oregon-based KB Seed Solutions, producer of KB Royal annual ryegrass.

“There are newer guys who are tempted to give up after a disappointing year, where the cover crop stand gets winter-killed,” he said.  “But those who’ve seen years of improved soil conditions and harvest increases are convinced of the value of cover cropping each year.”

Nick said he worked last year with a Minnesota farmer who did a side-by-side comparison: one field with no-till only and the other with no-till and annual ryegrass as a cover crop. “The soil temperature where annual ryegrass grew was an average 7 degrees warmer than soil with none,” he said.

He said the cover crop acreage also provided a better environment for planting into. “The soil was fluffier this spring and that allowed for less down-pressure on the planter. So, it was easier for the tractor to plant corn, and that saves on fuel.”

Some producers will always fight change, Nick added. “But those who pay attention to profit and to changes in management practices will end up better off.”

“You can always get more bushels of corn by adding nitrogen, but at some point there is no positive return on your investment.  Using a cover crop such as annual ryegrass, you can become more efficient with your inputs. The goal should not be to produce as many bushels as possible, but to have the maximum return of investment per acre.”


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Annual Ryegrass Cover Crop – Inexpensive and Effective at Eliminating Nutrient Runoff

Des Moines, Iowa, City Council is poised to file a federal lawsuit against several watershed councils in order that the level of nitrates be reduced in city drinking water. (Click here or above to see the news article) Even though Iowa is one of only two states in the Mississippi River Basin to have a nutrient reduction plan in effect, the effort has not diminished the nitrate levels in the Raccoon River flowing through downtown Des Moines. The river is a source of drinking water for the city.

There are a couple of ways to reduce runoff. One is mechanical, the other is vegetative. Installing monitoring stations at the edge of fields does a good job telling regulators how much nutrient is leaving. The cost to install even low-cost equipment gets expensive if you’re required to install hundreds on a farm of a couple thousand acres. And, monitoring the field, while useful, doesn’t reduce runoff.

The Environmental Protection Agency is among the regulatory agencies stepping up pressure on farmers to cut runoff of nitrates, coming from animal waste and fertilizers. The EPA says that other measures are effective of reducing or eliminating that runoff…cover crops are among the least expensive. Here are their suggestions:

  • Cover crops: Planting certain grasses, grains or clovers can help keep nutrients out of the water by recycling excess nitrogen and reducing soil erosion.
  • Buffers: Planting trees, shrubs and grass around fields, especially those that border water bodies, can help by absorbing or filtering out nutrients before they reach a water body.
  • Conservation tillage: Reducing how often fields are tilled reduces erosion and soil compaction, builds soil organic matter, and reduces runoff.

Don Wirth, a grass seed grower from Oregon, has been working with corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest for more than a decade. He said that it’s sad that the farming industry could not accomplish the task of reducing runoff without government intervention. He is optimistic, however, that the popularity of cover crops will constitute an effective and less expensive method of reducing nutrient runoff.


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Annual Ryegrass Forage Story from Southern Canada

From the Canadian Cattleman magazine, a story from Alberta about a cattleman with an eye for steer health and profits. Click here for the whole article.

Andy Schuepbach, a registered Hereford breeder in southern Alberta, uses two varieties of ryegrass to provide fall and winter feed for his cattle. The high protein content of these grasses eliminates the need for any other protein source.

“We grow barley for silage, and after it’s seeded we seed 10 pounds of a mixture of Italian ryegrass and annual ryegrass. The Italian ryegrass has phenomenal feed value. We bale a little for our calves but use most of it for winter grazing,” he says.

The Italian ryegrass has fine leaves and is very palatable so young calves do well on it. Calves won’t eat coarse feed, and this grass is very soft. “We calve in February and March, and always struggle with ulcers in the calves. We have a lot of windbreaks and open-face sheds with bars across, halfway back, so the calves can get into the back part. This is where we set up a round bale with panels around it. The calves can eat the bale through the panel bars,” he explains.

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