Video – Innovations with Cover Crop Seeding – Jamie Scott

Indiana cover crop pioneer and innovator Jamie Scott presented an informative overview of cover crop seeding options in 2014. Click here to access the video.

Jamie Scott presentation - screen shot

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Spring Seeding of Annual Ryegrass in Knee-high Corn – an Update

The spring seeding of cover crops in Quebec began five or six years ago and Dan Towery had grave concerns. How does it make sense to consider adding annual ryegrass between rows of knee-high corn in June?

But after repeated trips to Quebec to witness the successes – including a bump in corn production – Dan is more than cautiously optimistic. He’s now pushing forward with vigor various trials with spring “interseeding” of cover crops in the northern Corn Belt.

Last year was the first limited trial and it was successful, both in terms of the cover crop surviving but also in terms of corn production. Perhaps the biggest benefit of a spring cover crop seeding: by doing the planting in the spring, it eases farmers’ fall schedule, pressed as they are with corn harvest and weather suitable for establishing a cover crop planted so late in the year. Pictured below 2015 Harrow retrofitted as a CC seederis an older harrow that was retrofitted (removed some teeth and adding a Gandy linear seeder on top) that was funded by the Oregon Ryegrass Commission, a pioneer in cover crop research trials and education in the past 20 years.

Last year, in different control plots, the bump in corn production over adjacent fields was 6 bu/ac using annual ryegrass, and 15 bu/ac using hairy vetch. “We’re not sure why the hairy vetch was so much more beneficial to the corn production,” he said, “but my hunch is that hairy vetch being a nitrogen fixer, there’s something going on with the mycorrhizal (fungal) hyphae in conjunction with the corn roots.” We’ll be looking at learning more that connection this year.”

2015 Interseeding MN

This year, Towery is overseeing the expansion of the test plots “in the northern one-third of the Corn Belt.” Towery said he’s curious how far south the practice will be tolerated. “The more heat, the more dryness, the less likely we’ll see a successful spring cover crop program.”


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Oklahoma State Extension Says Annual Ryegrass Excels

An article today in the McAlister News-Capital advises stock producers to consider annual ryegrass as a forage crop to promote healthy steers and balance sheets.

The author, an OSU Extension agent, said that annual ryegrass can be grazed in both the fall and spring, although the fall yield will be less:  900lbs of forage in the fall versus between 2 and 3 tons of forage from March through May – with added nutrients to the crop – and thus, “helping to reduce the winter feeding period.”

He said the nutrition value of annual ryegrass is high: “when in vegetative state, it will on average have a protein content of 12-16%.”

Click here to read the entire article.

Click here for a more comprehensive guide to growing annual ryegrass forage.


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Annual Ryegrass Roots – What’s Going on There?

Pioneering cover crop use in the 1990s, University of Illinois Extension educator Mike Plumer discovered something that surprised everybody. Annual ryegrass has a root structure that grows to depths of more than five feet over winter, while the top growth is pretty much dormant.

One of annual ryegrass’ most compelling features is that deep rooting system, because it breaks up compaction of all kinds, and in doing so, it also helps bring nutrients deeper in the soil profile up to the surface. This not only helps crops thrive, it also reduces the amount of nutrient inputs needed.

So, it’s unclear why Cornell and Michigan State universities still have printed information about annual ryegrass stating that annual ryegrass has “a shallow” rooting system.

In fact, the plant DOES have a shallow root mass, which makes  it valuable for preventing erosion. But what they don’t say is that annual ryegrass roots also grow to depths of five feet. And this is equally important, for reasons stated above.

In sum, the combined root mass of annual ryegrass also provide another benefit: helping to build organic matter in depleted soils. Once the plant is terminated, in springtime just before planting corn or soybeans, all that root matter decays and becomes the basis for a healthy population of microorganisms and a more friable soil.


soil pit2


(In the photo above, growers are inspecting deep channels created by annual ryegrass roots, which allow corn roots more penetration into the soil following those same channels. Thus, corn plants can better tolerate dry weather because they can reach deeper into soil for needed moisture.)

Plumer said that because of long-term tillage practices, plus tiling fields for drainage and not planting cover crops, Midwest soils have lost half or more of their organic matter. The good news is that for every additional percentage point of organic matter you can add back into the soil, you’re adding back about 1000 pounds of nitrogen per acre!

Annual ryegrass and other cover crops help to raise the organic level back up, though it takes years of consistent cover crop use to make up for the decades of less productive management methods including heavy tillage.

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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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