When Oregon growers of annual ryegrass began wondering where this inexpensive plant might be of added value in agriculture, they looked at the Midwest, where many millions of acres are calling out for remedies to heal depleted soil.
Mike Plumer, in the early 1990s, was an ag resource educator working for the University of Illinois. It was the connection the Oregon growers would mark as the starting point for launching a new effort in soil conservation. It was a turning point in the corn and soybean industry, as well as in the Oregon grass seed industry.
It became obvious quickly that annual ryegrass was a radically root active plant and that, during mild winters, would sink roots deep into the Midwest soil. In optimum conditions, the new cover crop would stabilize soil from erosion. We learned, through Mike’s efforts to secure test farms on which to try out annual ryegrass, that it was good for increasing organic matter, mining nutrients, suppressing weeds, suppressing cyst nematodes in beans, reducing the amount of nitrogen added to corn, increasing soil friability with increased infiltration of precipitation, and so on and so on…it’s a very long list.
But what Mike was instrumental in helping Oregon growers figure out was this:
- The “old” varieties of annual ryegrass (Gulf especially) was ill suited to withstand Midwest winters. At his urging, Oregon growers invested heavily in time and research cost to develop new varieties that are winter hardy.
- The other early issue was ryegrass management. If let go, the plant could become a weed, and one that developed resistance to herbicides necessary to kill it in the spring. Mike helped farmers and crop advisors understand the science that drove a change in farm management. Because of his keen observations, his stern warnings and his ever-present assistance, the potential problem has been avoided…farmers took the warnings seriously and adopted necessary management techniques to control the cover crop while extracting the maximum benefits.
- In more recent years, Mike had been vocal about the trend towards more cover crop “mixes,” using annual ryegrass with other varieties. It proved ill advised to mix certain ones together, simply because each breaks dormancy at different times in the spring. Thus, achieving an effective kill of all cover crop vegetation was problematic, because the plants need to be out of dormancy and in active growth to absorb the herbicide.
Aside from his tireless inquiry into best practices in the field, Mike was also a tireless advisor for those seeking to improve crop production while aiding the soil’s improved health.
And among many of Mike’s assets was patience, perhaps learned in his many years as an educator…or fisherman. He was patient with those too stubborn to change, just as he was patient with those wanting to race ahead without science as their guide.
He will be missed for all that he represented in one fine package. The silver lining, if there has to be one, is that he leaves in his wake a lot of room for those who learned at his feet to grow into his shoes.