Mike Plumer on Annual Ryegrass as a Cover Crop

“I’ve been going non-stop with cover crop meetings all winter,” Mike said in late January. From Missouri to the Wisconsin border and throughout Indiana and Illinois, he has come before a diverse audience to share current information about cover crops. Because of his 3-decades of experience with cover crop management, Mike is seen as an independent, respected resource.

“I’ve talked to more than 3300 people in the last three weeks,” he added, saying also that his work days are longer now than when he was working full time for the University of Illinois Extension.

It still surprises me,” Mike said, “but one of the biggest misconceptions still out there is the confusion between annual ryegrass and cereal rye.”  He points out that comparing the seed side-by-side makes the distinction easier. Annual ryegrass is much smaller and lighter: about 24  lbs/bushel versus 56 lbs/bu. for cereal rye. “Cereal rye grows more like wheat,” Mike added, “and some varieties can get to six feet tall if you let it go.” Annual ryegrass, on the other hand, grows only to about two feet, though he emphasized that burndown in the spring must occur before joint stage – when the plant is six to 12 inches. For more on the comparison of these cover crops, see: http://tinyurl.com/89rzvb4.

In addition to being a full time educator and crop consultant, Mike continues his field trial work on cover crops. With two Illinois farmers – both long-time cover crop advocates – he is monitoring test plots that will look at winter hardiness, burndown strategies and cover crop mixes. “In one case, I’m also testing annual ryegrass on its effectiveness against soybean cyst nematodes,” he said. In past years, Mike has reached the conclusion after researching literature and in field trials that annual ryegrass has the ability to suppress crop-destroying nematodes. An enzyme in annual ryegrass roots triggers a nematode egg hatch in the fall and spring   Upon hatching, nematodes find ryegrass roots are not a food source and they die, he theorized.

Beyond his work with individuals, Mike is also very active with local, regional and national organizations. His work has helped the NRCS to fully appreciate the benefits of cover crops, and the cost-sharing efforts in place are attracting thousands of newcomers to cover cropping practices annually. Likewise, he has worked with the EPA on use of cover crops to manage nutrients on farmland, a national effort to reduce hypoxia in watersheds, rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. “There’s new cooperation between regulatory, ag-related, and environmental groups,” he said. In that respect, besides NRCS and EPA, he has worked closely with Soil and Water Conservation districts, the American Farmland Trust, the Conservation Technology Information Center, and many agriculture organizations and businesses.

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