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:  http://extension.psu.edu/plants/crops/soil-management/cover-crops/interseeder-applicator


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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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Seeding Annual Ryegrass in Manure Slurry

Tim Harrigan, University of Michigan associate professor and agronomist, has developed farm equipment to deliver cover crop seed as part of a tank of manure slurry.

Livestock farmers have excess manure; planting a cover crop creates the perfect way to dispose of the excess nutrients to benefit a newly seeded annual ryegrass cover crop. With a cover crop on the field all winter, it holds the nutrients in the field, in the soil, instead of it leaching into nearby waterways. Then, when the annual ryegrass is terminated in the spring, it has tons of “scavenged” nitrogen to give to the oncoming corn or soybean crop.

Harrigan devised a way to deliver both the seed and the nutrient slurry together in one operation. “Combining several farming operations into one saves farmers time and money, at a time (fall) when we’re pressed to get all these things done,” Harrigan said.

Check out this video of the operation: http://tinyurl.com/5va5n5q

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Annual Ryegrass Seed Dealers List Update

See below for a list of participating Oregon annual ryegrass seed growers, who grow annual ryegrass varieties tested and proven effective in Midwest locations, particularly for winter hardiness.

The list has changed somewhat from last year. And this year, the varieties that have been tested for effectiveness in the Midwest are also listed. For a copy of the one-page flyer of the list, click here.

To go to the grower’s websites, click on the company name:

COMPANY WEBSITE                              VARIETY (2014)
Ampac Seed Company                            Bruiser
Cover Crop Solutions                              Tillage RootMaxTM
Grassland Oregon                                   Lonestar
KB Seed Solutions                                   KB Supreme, KB Royal
Lewis Seed Company                              King
OreGrow Seeds, Inc.                               Winter Hawk
Saddle Butte Ag                                      Bounty, Assist
Smith Seed Service                                 Ed, Marshall

Note: This is not an exhaustive list of growers or seed varieties.
Check our website for updates: ryegrasscovercrop.com/resources/publications

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Planting Annual Ryegrass – Tips for Success

The last blog post discussed the best planting dates for annual ryegrass, depending on whether you drill or broadcast with plane or high clearance equipment.

Many others are broadcasting annual ryegrass seed (after corn harvest) mixed in with manure slurry. This is a great solution for those raising livestock, looking for a way to recycle manure and a great source of nutrients for the young grass.

In some places, with ideal conditions, you can get a bit of grazing or a cutting before the end of the year. Otherwise, the return out of dormancy next spring will allow a grazing or cutting of annual ryegrass.

Using annual ryegrass as a forage – whether grazed or haylage – can provide additional savings on livestock feed, while providing a high quality food.

Here’s a link to a video on the application of annual ryegrass seed with a manure slurry.


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Annual Ryegrass – When to Plant and How Much is Enough?

If you use a no-till drill to plant annual ryegrass, you get better seed to soil contact, but the timing becomes crucial because of crop harvest variability. In the past few years, corn and bean harvests have been later and, in some cases, too late to plant annual ryegrass.

Planting with aerial seeding – plane or high-clearance equipment – can be done while corn and beans are still in the field. The seed lies dormant until sufficient rain germinates the cover crop. But because you’re seeding into standing corn or beans, you must use more seed.

The range of effective seeding rates is from about 12 lb/ac to about double that, if you’re broadcasting the seed. Some worry that applying too much seed will make it more difficult planting corn or beans into the cover crop residue the next spring. Thus, those people favor a lighter seeding rate. Even if the annual ryegrass looks thin in its top growth, the deep mat of roots are still doing their job in the soil, they say.

Others say that a heavier seeding rate is good insurance against harsher winters. Those with interest in using annual rygrass for forage will certainly want to plant at the upper rate of application.

In either case, annual ryegrass is among the least costly and most effective of cover crops. The cost for seed and application can easily be made up in the gains in soil health and increased crop production.

For more information about timing and rates of seed application, click here for a comprehensive brochure.

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Get Your Annual Ryegrass Seed Soon

Last year, with the growth in use of cover crops, seed suppliers seemed to find themselves low on seed when July and August came around. While supplies seem stable now, it would be a good idea to lock in your order soon.

Some apply it themselves, whether the old fashioned way, with a drill. In fact, that’s the surest way to get good soil to seed contact. But more often, growers are opting for aerial applications, whether by plane or with high clearance equipment retrofitted with a seeding boom. Both of these applications predate harvest, so as to get annual ryegrass on the ground with lots of time for optimum growth in the fall. Click here for a page of info on planting.

Here’s a link to a page with most of Oregon’s annual ryegrass seed growers. Many of them also grow other cover crop seed too, whether crimson clover or radish or another. Most, if not all, have staff available for free consulting. Many also have sales and crop consultants living in the Midwest.

One thing to ask the grower, or seed dealer: has this seed been grown successfully in the Midwest as a cover crop? This is a question that will get at two variables…the first – is it winter hardy? And the second – have you had any trouble killing the crop in the spring?

Aerial Seeding



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Annual Ryegrass Roots…”Go Dig!”

“My cover crop wasn’t green this spring!” Don Wirth’s answer to what sounded to him like a complaint was, “Go dig!”

His point: when annual ryegrass is established in the fall, it quickly sends roots down below a foot, even in fields that haven’t had a cover crop before. (In successive years, annual ryegrass roots can send roots to deeper than 40 inches, even when there’s only a couple of inches of top growth!) It is those roots that help prevent erosion. But that’s only the beginning. Deep rooting breaks up compaction, improves permeability. That’s still only the beginning. The biggest benefit is that cover crops improve soil biology, including a healthy population of earthworms and microorganisms. When that happens, crops thrive, production increases and costs for inputs go down.

A few years ago, he visited a Midwest farm in the spring, where no cover crop was evident on the surface. And yet, walking across the field, Don was able to point out where the annual ryegrass had grown the year before. It was as if a line had been drawn on the land. Cover crops had already begun to change the biology of the soil beneath. “I’m guessing that the field had very low organic matter content, so the addition of even a year’s worth of cover crop will make a significant difference in how the soil looks and feels,” he said.

Wirth, an Oregon grass seed farmer said there is a lot of reliable information now about the value of cover crops. But he heartily suggests that farmers be more informed about the health of their soil. He recommends reading Gary Zimmer’s book Biological Farmer, written in 2000. Here’s a short excerpt from the book’s description:

Biological farming does not mean less production; it means eliminating obstacles to healthy, efficient production. It is a safe and sustainable system designed to keep production up.
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Wirth also suggests becoming more in touch with improving your soil’s health. He said starting with an inexpensive Solvita test (about $150) will give you some basics.

The test uses a couple of soil probes loaded with a certain kind of gel that reacts to soil chemistry. Among other things, the Solvita measures carbon dioxide emissions…mostly due to microbial respiration. The level of microbial activity indicates the amount of active organic matter that is being broken down and the amount of nutrients being released.

Measuring year after year will give you a chart of the growth in soil biology and organic matter. Overlay that on a record of crop yields and you’d have pretty convincing evidence about the connection between cover crops,
soil health and profits.





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