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)

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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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Managing Annual Ryegrass as a Cover Crop

This past winter, annual ryegrass hardly went into dormancy….it was that mild. Of course, the value to the soil is multiplied in years like this, when ryegrass roots extend to depths of four or five feet.

Soon, it will be time to spay out the ryegrass, and it pays to do it right. Here are some tips for managing it properly. For more detail, click here.

  • Spray when the ryegrass has broken dormancy, and before it reaches 8 inches. Like lawn grass, if the cover crop looks long enough to mow, then it’s time to spray it with glyphosate.
  • Use a full rate of glyphosate in order to kill the grass on the first application. Keep an eye out to make sure it’s good and dead and spray again if there’s any regrowth
  • Wait for the right temperature and daylight to spray. Consistent daytime temps of above 55F is best. Gray, cloudy or rain…delay the spray.

Look at the website above for more details. And you can also download a free annual ryegrass management guide by clicking here.

ARG burndown

 

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Commodity Prices Tied to Cover Crop Usage?

Corn prices having fallen from $8/bu to about $3.50 has impacted farmers use of cover crops, at least some of them, according to Nick Bowers, a grass seed grower in Oregon (http://kbseedsolutions.com/)

Those new to cover crops are the ones taking a second look, he said. Considering all the inputs one must prioritize, cover crop seed might not make the list after fuel, fertilizer and pesticides.

Talking to hundreds of farmers at Midwest farm shows and field days, Bower finds that those who have been planting acreage with cover crops the past five years are not deterred by the drop in corn prices. “They’ve seen the value in cover cropping: improved soil structure and deeper moisture levels, the reduction of nitrogen inputs and the yield bumps they get with corn and beans,” Bowers said.

It takes three to five years planting annual ryegrass or other cover crops to begin to see a consistent benefit that translates into higher yield and profits.

Here’s a recent report from the Conservation Tillage Information Center (CTIC) about the value of cover crops, based on interviews with more than 3000 Midwest farmers. (The specific yield differences are discussed in pages 23 – 27).

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Indiana Roots with Annual Ryegrass Cover Crops

Soil and Water  Conservation Districts are getting more and more involved in the promotion of cover crops. The reason is simple: over the past 20 years, it has been shown that cover crops protect the soil in ways that no-till alone cannot.

Farm cover crop workshop turnout pleases organizers

(Photo: Rod Rose, Lebanon Reporter. A Boone County farmer discusses core samples comparing fields where cover crops are planted, compared to samples from fields without. He discussed the benefits of cover crops.)

Here are some of the reasons he mentions:

  • Leaving green in the field year-round prevents soil run-off and loss of precious nutrients.
  • The residue from past crops, including cover crops, becomes important food for the biological diversity of the soil. Likewise, residue begins to build the depleted organic matter and carbon carrying capacity of the soil
  • Deep roots – especially from annual ryegrass – break up compaction. This is so important in soils that prevent corn and soybean roots from going below the fragipan layer. Once broken, the corn roots can grow to depths of 5 feet and access moisture and nutrients…especially important in dry growing years
  • Annual ryegrass is a nitrogen sink, soaking up excess N when growing and giving it back to the soil when the residue decays in early summer, just when the corn needs it most
  • All these reasons add up to more profits – fewer field inputs, better soil health and bonus yields.

Here’s a link to that article, which mentiones annual ryegrass rooting capabilities, and the popularity of cover cropping systems in the Midwest.

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Soil Health Partnership Grows From a Desire to Thrive – Biologically and Economically!

The National Corngrowers Association started the Midwest Soil Health Partnership three years ago. Here’s what they say about the novel effort, supported at the beginning by Monsanto, The Walton Family Foundation and with technical support from The Nature Conservancy. Among its staff is Dan Towery, an agronomist from Indiana, who has been working with cover crops for decades and has been a consultant to the Oregon Ryegrass Cover Crop project for more than a decade.

This spring, the organization begins in its third year identifying, testing and measuring farm management practices that improve soil health. These include growing cover crops, practicing conservation tillage like no-till or strip-till, and using sophisticated nutrient management techniques.

 The program’s goal is to quantify the benefits of these practices from an economic standpoint, showing farmers how healthy soil benefits their bottom line. They also have positive environmental benefits, like protecting water from nutrient runoff.

Twenty-five more farms have joined the research effort, which could change the way the whole farming industry views agricultural best practices. The number of participating farms expands to 65 this year, located in eight Midwestern states. Data from farms will play a key role in widespread changes for improving soil health, said Towery, the Indiana field manager with partner Hans Kok, PhD.

From the Soil Health Partnership website, here is a goal statement:

Our ultimate goal is to measure and communicate the economic and environmental benefits of different soil management strategies, and provide a set of regionally specific, data‑driven recommendations that farmers can use to improve the productivity and sustainability of their farms. To that end, we plan to do the following:

  1. Recruit a network of demonstration farms 
    that will serve as showcases for other farmers to investigate innovative soil management practices, including reduced tillage systems, cover crops and advanced nutrient management.
  2. Establish research protocols that will allow us to measure the connection between a diverse range of soil management practices and soil health.
  3. Publish findings and recommendations 
    that highlight the economic and environmental benefits of healthy soil.
  4. Support networking and technical assistance 
    that will help growers and their advisors make decisions that will result in positive changes for the profitability of their operation and the sustainability of the soil.
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Illinois Makes Strides in Conservation Tillage and Cover Crops

The American Farmland Trust says this about the Midwest’s heritage in agriculture:

With flat prairies, plentiful water, and rich, deep soils, the Midwest is one of the most intensely farmed regions in the world. We depend on it for many of our grocery staples – from corn and soybeans to wheat and meat.

But the Midwest’s abundance of fertile farmland has sometimes led us to take it for granted. We’re rapidly paving over some of the most productive soils and farmland in the world.

At the same time, tons of prime topsoil washes away – and we can’t afford to lose it. In the Midwest, we need to save the land – not just by the acre but also by the inch.

Illinois, 2nd in the nation in production of corn and soybeans, has been somewhat late to the table on soil conservation methods. Cover crop pioneer Mike Plumer worked for decades for Illinois’ major ag university as an Extension educator and agronomist. Despite his untiring advocacy for no-till and cover crops, his university seemed indifferent and even adversarial to his claim that conservation practices were the future of agriculture. Adverse to change, some believe that quality soil will continue without fail, and what dips in productivity one experiences, you can augment with chemistry.

Another Midwest pioneer in cover crop practices, Dan Towery, hails from Indiana, but his work has taken him far afield, and also in close-by partnership with Plumer. His current involvement in a NRCS and SERE project in Illinois, however, spells good news for the day when Illinois will hit its stride with its neighbors, advocating soil conservation, better soil management and improved water quality..

A sign of things on the move in Illinois is the information available from the NRCS office. CLICK here for a look.

And, through NRCS and EQIP, funding is available this year for Illinois growers interested in doing more to save the quality of their soil through conservation measures, like cover crops. CLICK here for an application, courtesy of the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices.

 

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Beating Compaction with Annual Ryegrass

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An article this week in No-Till Farmer, about a well-attended seminar at the recent National No-Till Conference. Click here for the whole article.

Beating Compaction

While radishes get a reputation for being a compaction buster, Hans Kok and Dan Towery say annual ryegrass is probably the No. 1 cover crop for resolving compaction.

Kok, coordinator of the Indiana Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative, says annual ryegrass does a better job in the long run of breaking up compaction layers because its fine root system is able to cover a larger area.

“Radishes have that fine root network too, but it’s usually that one tuber that goes through,” he explains.

On compacted glacial-till soil in Indiana, Towery, a no-till consultant with Ag Conservation Solutions in Lafayette, Ind., dug a hole in April where there was 9-inch-tall annual ryegrass. He found its roots went 51 inches deep.

One of the most extreme cases of compaction they saw was in southern Illinois on hard, fragipan soils. Kok says the growers there had 18 inches of topsoil, and their corn and soybean roots couldn’t go any deeper.

But 5 years of annual ryegrass started to break through that compaction layer, and now the growers have 3 feet of topsoil for their corn and soybeans, Kok says.

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Kentucky Researchers Praise Annual Ryegrass

Annual Ryegrass Dispatches with Fragipan Problems, They Say.

Midwest  farmers who have been working with annual ryegrass for some years as a cover crop know that annual ryegrass busts up fragipan (and other soil compactions). They have probably seen for themselves how annual ryegrass as a cover crop then allows corn and soybeans roots to access deeper soil moisture and nutrients.That boosts production, as we’ve seen now for about 20 years.

Mike Plumer, a long-time pioneer in no-till ag and cover crop systems, discovered the deep rooting aspects of annual ryegrass back in the 1990s, when he was still working as an agronomist for the Univ. of Illinois Extension. He and his cooperating farmers also discovered that the roots grow right through compacted soils. In subsequent years, they noticed a yield increase in crops in those same fields.

In a recent article in No-Till Magazine, researchers at the University of Kentucky did both laboratory and field trials using annual ryegrass on soils with fragipan. Here are a number of paragraphs from that article.

Soil fragipans exist in 2.7 million acres in Kentucky and in 50 million acres in the U.S. In Kentucky, the average depth of the fragipan layer in the soil is about 20-24 inches. This results in a shallow soil that limits crops’ yield potential due to low water-holding capacity. This is especially true during dry growing seasons or droughts. These same soils are easily saturated with water in the winter, which limits yields on cool-season crops such as wheat.

 Breaking down the fragipan would increase the soil depth and should significantly boost grain yields in the state, similar to the boost farmers received from implementing no-till production.

Four years into the research project, Grove and fellow UK soil scientists Lloyd Murdock, Tasios Karathanasis and Chris Matocha have found that annual ryegrass and some chemical combinations appear to break down the fragipan.

 In the lab, Karathanasis submersed chunks of fragipan in several different solutions, one of which was a ryegrass extract.

“Within 2-4 weeks we began to see the ryegrass extract break down the fragipan,” he said. “Not only does ryegrass have a deep root system that can penetrate the pan, but it also releases a chemical or chemicals that can help break it.”

 UK soil scientists have planted annual ryegrass as a cover crop in grain fields followed by either corn or soybeans for the past three growing seasons with the fourth round now in the ground. The first year when annual ryegrass was followed by corn, there was no yield difference. The second year when it was followed by soybeans, there was a 25% yield increase in the soybeans. The third year, the researchers followed the ryegrass with soybeans again and there was a slight, but not significant, yield increase.

UK researchers traveled to Hamilton County, Illinois, to take soil samples from a field that had been planted in a ryegrass cover crop since 2000 and followed every year with no-till corn. Mike Corn roots in ARG 6-06 StarkeyPlumer had used a part of this field in some of his earlier cover crop studies.

They found the fragipan layer to be much deeper in the soil profile in the fields with ryegrass. More encouraging news came when the farmer told them about his yields.

“When the study started in 2000, the farmer’s yields were 15 bushels an acre below the county average. His fields are now averaging 30 bushels more per acre than the county average,” Murdock said. “We really do not know how well this field represents our situation in Kentucky, but this gives us significant encouragement that we are beginning to prove that annual ryegrass is effective and will give significant results with accumulative years of a ryegrass cover crop.”

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Annual Ryegrass Management Guide – Comprehensive

Every year, the Oregon Ryegrass Commission updates its publications based on the prior year’s experience. We have updated  two free annual ryegrass management guides for those using it as a cover crop.

The 4-page guide is more comprehensive. Click here.

The 2-page quick guide is perhaps more convenient, especially for those who know and use annual ryegrass already. Click here for that one.

In addition to new tips for planting and tips for killing the cover crop effectively, there are new precautions about use of residual herbicides, which can reduce or eliminate a cover crop if you’re not careful.

 

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New Annual Ryegrass Management Guide for 2016

ARG in Quebec - November photoClick here for the new “Quick Guide” for managing Annual Ryegrass as a cover crop.

In addition to new tips for seeding, the guide also outlines an emerging problem for managing cover crops in the Midwest. Many farmers use residual herbicides in the field to control weeds like marestail and waterhemp.

The lifespan of some of these herbicides extends into the next growing season for cover crops and have been shown to have a “carryover” effect on the success of the cover crop.

In the next post, we’ll outline more details on the types of herbicides to watch out for and how to continue using cover crops, too.

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