In 1996, Oregon sold perhaps a total of 100,000 pounds of annual ryegrass seed into the Midwest. By that time, the annual ryegrass cover cropping project had been active for almost a decade.But cover crops had not caught on in a big way, even though those early adopters were enthusiastic about the results they were seeing in their soil and their yields.
By the end of 2010, the annual amount had risen to about 5,000,000 pounds. Two years later, that figure has tripled (15 million pounds/year) and by some estimates, that amount could nearly double again next year.
What happened to propel sale of annual ryegrass in the Midwest? Four things, according to Mike Plumer, a pioneering cover crop educator and crop consultant:
- The government’s heavy subsidy of ethanol fuel production. Beginning in 2008 farmers in the Midwest began to get ahead a few dollars and so they invested in cover crops to boost soil health and yields.
- Because annual ryegrass had become a familiar product (because of a decade or more of education, field days, conference presentations, etc.), farmers turned to annual ryegrass for a cover crop alternative.
- Government promotion of cover crops as an effective conservation measure
- The drought of 2012 further encouraged cover cropping simply because so many farmers had excess nitrogen in the field and wanted something that would keep it there.
Annual ryegrass was among the most popular cover crops because those who had planted it last fall may have had less crop losses because of the deep rooting.