More Buzz about the Value of Cover Crops

“The good news is, soil will improve every year you grow a cover crop,” said Dan Towery, a crop consultant, and owner of Ag Conservation Solutions, living in West Lafayette, Ind.. “How soon you see measurable yield improvement depends on field history and what limiting factors, such as weather, are present in a year. For example, soils that are low in organic matter will benefit faster from cover crops.”

His comments are part of a longer article in the Farm Journal online. Click here to view the whole article.

Carbon sequestration graphicKen Ferrie is also interviewed for the article. Ferrie, Farm Journal’s Field Agronomist said “It might take many years to make big changes in soil health, but in some situations, you might see improvement (earlier than that.). For example, he cited a study in which annual ryegrass as a cover crop improved carbon content, bulk density and water infiltration IN THE FIRST YEAR!.

“As with any new practice, you’ll be eager to determine whether cover crops are having an impact,” Ferrie says. “Your soil physical provides a benchmark so you can follow up later and see if soil health is improving.”

Another farmer and rancher, Gabe Brown, talked about the benefits of cover crops in North Dakota. “You should use covers to address your resource concerns,” advises Brown. For the past two decades, he’s used cover crops to increase diversity, build organic matter, and improve water infiltration and the water-holding capacity of his soils.

“We look at each field separately and determine what the resource concern of each field is,” he says.

But make sure you choose a cover crop with a lot of forethought and advice from others with experience. Otherwise, you may be inviting failure or added problems. “Cover crops take more management, not less,” said Mike Plumer, who died last Christmas after dedicating 50 years to soil health and farmer education. “Farmers have to learn how cover crops react on their own fields.”

Plumer advised producers to start small with cover crops – perhaps a 20 acre plot or so, before “before incorporating on the entire farm.”

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Annual Ryegrass Eliminates Fragipan Scourge

Fragipan, that compacted soil preventing crop root penetration, covers an estimated 50 million acres of farmland in the eastern US.

Tillage, even deep ripping, didn’t begin to contend with the deeper compaction and layers of fragipan.

Then in the late 1990s, as the idea of no-till agriculture began to gain more attention, an Illinois farmer began to experiment with annual ryegrass to begin to contend with erosion on his hilly acreage.

Junior Upton, Jr. began with a test plot of annual ryegrass. Working with soil agronomist Mike Plumer (U. of Ill. Extension), they believed that annual ryegrass would grow well in low pH soil (like fragipan) and build organic matter because of the vast mat of roots thrown out by annual ryegrass.

He planted the grass seed after harvesting corn and then eliminated the crop a few weeks before planing corn again in the spring.  In a Farm Journal  story a few months ago, by Chris Bennett, he quoted Mike Plumer about that experience with Upton. “In just the first year of use, we saw (annual ryegrass) roots 24″ to 28″,” said Plumer. “The second year was 30″. After four years rooting, (the annual ryegrass root measurement) was at 60″ to 70″,” Plumer added. In normal fragipan, soybean roots often only reach 12″, but after five years of annual ryegrass, Plumer recorded soybean roots at 36″.

The article (click here to read the whole thing) goes on to say that after killing the annual ryegrass, the roots decay and leave a network of channels for corn or soybeans to occupy. With continuous no-till, the channels created by annual ryegrass allow corn and soybean roots to push deeper each year.

Another discovery: As root depth increases, yields also expand, as Plumer explained . “On Junior’s farm, we’ve got some fields 16 years in the making. His corn yields, before we started, were at a five-year average of 85 bu. per acre, but after six (additional) years (with annual ryegrass cover cropping), he was over 150 bu. per acre. After 10 years, he was over 200 bu. per acre, and it is all documented,” Plumer says.

And the miracle of annual ryegrass continued. As the depth of corn and soybean roots grew, Upton and Plumer measured a remarkable increase in soil nutrients being pulled from deeper soil up to service the crop. “The ryegrass went so deep and picked up phosphorus and potassium. We were doubling and tripling the phosphorus and potassium tests without making applications,” Plumer added.

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Annual Ryegrass Plugging Through another Winter

While the temperatures plunge and the snow whirls, annual ryegrass top growth has been dormant for months. But under the freeze, the annual ryegrass roots continue to flourish, adding depth, girth and mass to a system that builds healthy soil in numerous ways.

Corn roots in ARG 6-06 Starkey

The depth of rooting alone is a benefit, because it opens channels in the soil profile. Those channels, next spring and summer, will allow corn roots to seek deeper veins of nutrition and moisture. Even in a dry year, corn that goes deep will continue to thrive. And, with any normal precipitation, those root channels will help the soil absorb the rainfall rather than allowing it to run off.

Annual ryegrass has an appetite for nitrogen, too, so it becomes a storehouse of nitrogen when it grows. Then, in the spring, after it is killed with herbicide (before planting corn or beans), the nitrogen stored in the residue becomes a fertilizer for the hungry corn plants. And the massive root structure of annual ryegrass, when it is killed, that mass degrades and decomposes, increasing the carbon content and organic matter in the soil, giving worms and microbiological organisms a food source.

Because of annual ryegrass’ nature to sequester nitrogen, it’s place in the crop rotation allows you to lighten up considerably on nitrogen inputs.

For more information about annual ryegrass, why it’s beneficial and how to manage it successfully as a cover crop, you can check out this free four-page management guide. Or you can click here to view a series of YouTube videos on the subject.

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CTIC 2017 Report – Another Banner Year for Cover Crops – And a Double Win for You

The Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) published a 2017 report of another annual survey of people using cover crops. Here are the first paragraphs from the report:

CTIC logo

 

Following the use of cover crops, farmers reported increased yields of corn, soybeans and wheat, and improvement in the control of herbicide-resistant weeds, according to a nationwide survey. In addition, the survey of 2,012 farmers showed acreage planted in cover crops has nearly doubled over the past five years.

Survey participants—88 percent of whom use cover crops—reported that after cover crops:

  • Corn yields increased an average of 2.3 bushels per acre, or 1.3 percent;
  • Soybean yields increased 2.1 bushels per acre, or 3.8 percent;
  • Wheat yields increased 1.9 bushels per acre, or 2.8 percent.

This is more confirmation about how cover crops are profitable. The bigger bottom line, however, is that the acreage on which we draw our income is becoming more healthy as a result of planting cover crops.

Here’s the website where you can view and download the entire study.

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Cover Crops – Production Boost is Only the Start

CTIC logoThe Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) has been a champion of cover crops for many years, and the Oregon Ryegrass Growers Commission takes a  wee bit of credit for that being the case.

Since the early 1990s, Oregon’s annual ryegrass growers have worked with Midwest farmers to prove the value of ryegrass for cover crops. Gradually, universities and nonprofits began to take notice. Cover crops were, until then, seen as a threat to crop production.

Now it appears – given proper management of cover crops – that there’s practically no end to the benefits to planting cover crops. And yet, less than 10% of farms use the practice. Sure, it took a century of tillage to prove the damage of that system; it will take a few more decades before cover crops are uniformly adopted.

Take a look at this article, that quantifies the monetary value of cover crops. You’ll be amazed, and perhaps inspired to try cover crops yourself.

And, if you want to learn more, check out this brochure from the folks that started the cover crop phenomenon – the Oregon annual ryegrass folks.

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Mike Plumers Legacy Connected to Annual Ryegrass

mike-plumerWhen 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.

 

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“Give it to Mikey. Mikey Will Know What to Do!”

No-Till Farmer magazine founder Frank Lessiter said this about Mike Plumer, after hearing about his death late in December, while he was awaiting word on a possible lung transplant.

“Mike was a great friend of No-Till Farmer and a staunch advocate for helping farmers succeed with cover crops.He was a tireless teacher. He would stand in the hallways at our meeting for hours on end taking questions from farmers and helping them find answers to their cover crop challenges.”

No-Till Farmer has also published online a link to the many articles Mike authored or co-authored, as part of his effort to educate farmers about cover crops and the intricacies of managing them.

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Mike Plumer, Cover Crop Hero, is Gone, but Not Forgotten

“When we lost Mike, we lost a champion, a champion in innovative agriculture in the U.S., North America and other points of the world, primarily Africa.”

On Christmas Day, Mike Plumer died. The quote above is from a tribute written about him by Bryan Ostlund, administrator of the Oregon Seed Growers Commission.

Here’s a link to the whole article, which will be published this spring in the Oregon Seed magazine. 

mike-plumer

 

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Towery and Kok to Present at NNTC on Cover Crop Variety

The upcoming 2018 National No-Till Conference in Louisville, KY (Jan. 9 – 12) will feature some familiar faces, but with them comes new information about how to make cover crops work for you. Here are two of the classroom presentations you may wish to schedule.

Towery and Kok NNTC 2018

 

Dan Towery and Hans Kok have been educating people on cover crop choices for close to 20 years. Towery helped to introduce  “interseeding” of cover crops into standing corn and beans about six years ago. This year, Iowa farmer Loran Steinlage will discuss his experience with interseeding, and the increases in crop production as a result.

Photo - interseeder from Iowa 2017

 

Here’s a link to the whole 2018 NNTC program

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Ray Weil on Cover Crop Benefits

Ray Weil was a guest speaker at the 2017 National No-Tillage Conference in St. Louis. His presentation focused on how cover crops benefit soil nutrient levels not only in topsoils, but in lower depths as well.

Ray is a Univ. of Maryland professor and co-author of Nature and Properties of Soil.

Ray Weil

Here’s a link to the podcast he delivered this year.

Ray’s research has covered how cover crops influence soil nutrient profiles at various depths and optimal planting dates for cover crops, their effects on moisture retention and how compaction influences deep root penetration.

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