Mike Plumer Gets Acknowledged for His Contribution to Cover Crop Science

At the recent National No-Till Conference in St. Louis, a number of people were acknowledged for their contributions to agriculture. Mike Plumer was among them, and his recognition is well deserved. If there is ever a candidate for the Cover Crop Hall of Fame, Plumer is it.

Mike Plumer

Mike has made a career out of helping others, whether as an Extension Agent, Natural Resources Educator, Agronomist or Crop Consultant. Even during his 34 years working for the University of Illinois, he was also farming his own land, researching and testing ideas on his own crops.

Since leaving the University, he has been at the forefront of cover crop innovation. It was he who managed the early field trials of annual ryegrass, when it astonished growers and academics about annual ryegrass’ deep rooting and compaction busting properties.

He started and continues to work with the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices. He was on the ground floor with the Midwest Cover Crop Council. He has helped thousands of growers learn quickly how to employ cover crops in various states, different climates and with many different soil properties. He has given selflessly to big and small audiences, from the Midwest to both U.S. coasts, and from  Austria to South Africa.

In recent years, as more government agencies and nonprofit environmental organizations began to recognize the value of cover crops, Mike was a consultant and patient guide in their steep learning curve. He has been a tireless advocate and champion of cover crops in whatever setting he finds himself.

With Mike’s consistent effort, the word spread quickly about cover crop benefits. From only hundreds of acres in cover crops during the 1990s when he began his push for use of annual ryegrass as a cover crop, the number of farms using cover crops has grown geometrically. Recent estimates indicate that between 2 and 4 million acres in the Midwest are planted in cover crops each year. The increases, year over year, indicate that the growth curve is not abating. SARE and the CTIC surveyed farmers and they said there was a 37.75 percent increase in cover crop acres from 2012 to 2013 alone.  And according to Practical Farmers of Iowa, the increase in cover crop seed flown onto to farmland grew 200 percent increase between 2010 and 2013.

But Mike has also been a keen observer of best practices and has continued to caution and educate people about making small steps to increase their chances of success. In a quote from a National Wildlife Federation publications on cover crop management, Mike said, “It’s important for farmers to have the right help when they are starting out with cover crops. Because cover crops require a totally different set of management skills to be successful.”

Congratulations, Mike. And thank you.

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How Hardy is Annual Ryegrass as a Cover Crop?

In the chart below, you can see color-coded bands that pertain to climatic zones. In the accompanying guide to growing ideal cover crops, the Pioneer and DuPont agronomists determined that annual ryegrass was not recommended for use above Indiana, except in Michigan surrounded by lakes Huron and Michigan.

Plant Hardiness Zone Map

But here’s the catch. If the extreme temperature and wind chills hit annual ryegrass uncovered, it can certainly kill it off, or knock it back significantly. What is key to know, however, is that if the plant has snow cover to protect it from the icy blast, it can survive winter perfectly well.

In southern Canada, Ontario and Quebec specifically, lots of farmers use annual ryegrass each year. Their usual snowfall almost guarantees a healthy winter for annual ryegrass. Farmers in Minnesota and North Dakota also find annual ryegrass a viable cover crop even with their harsh winters, again, because of adequate snowfall.

In the report’s other graphic, showing the attributes of different cover crops, it shows annual ryegrass as ideal for a variety of reasons, namely for scavenging nitrogen, busting up compaction, preventing erosion and building organic matter. Click here for more information on growing and managing annual ryegrass as a cover crop.

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Annual Ryegrass Video Series – for beginners and intermediate cover crop users

soil pit2The experts said it back in 1998, that no-till and cover crops were a winning combination for corn and soybean growers. Ten years later, a series of videos were done to introduce the idea and bring basic understanding of the what and how of cover crops. Back in 2005, the idea that a cover crop could sink winter roots down to 50 inches or more was revolutionary in the ag industry. Today, the practice is becoming widespread in the Midwest. The videos stand up to the test of time, and continue to be a solid source of information.

In the first video segment, you can get a glimpse of the main characteristics of annual ryegrass, and a couple of its major benefits.

Root depth: “Better than a deep ripper, in terms of its ability to break up compaction,” said Dan Towery, of Ag Conservation Solutions, an Indiana consultant on soil health.”Far deeper than other cover crops,” said Mike Plumer a former university agronomist and pioneer in cover crop development in the Midwest.

Nitrogen scavenger: those who use livestock manure in the field benefit by having the nutrient stay in the field.
“Annual ryegrass is a great nitrogen scavenger,” said another cover crop pioneer in Indiana, Dan DeSutter, …keeping it in the field instead of sending it down the tile lines in the spring with runoff.”

If the videos are of some interest, perhaps you would also like more information about the science and the management of annual ryegrass. If so, click here for a free brochure. Or, click here for a library of information on the annual ryegrass website.

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Annual Ryegrass – a Christmas Gift that Keeps Giving


With snow covering a lot of the Midwest this month, cover crops like annual ryegrass have a good chance of wintering over. That means continued activity in the soil, even if the vegetative part of the plant is dormant.

Annual ryegrass roots can dig all winter long, extending to a couple of feet or more by springtime. In the winter, the roots permeate compacted soil and open it up for better water infiltration and biological activity. These are important aspects of soil health and crop production next summer.

Here’s a recent article on annual ryegrass and other cover crops, from the Farm Journal, that outlines some basics in choosing a cover crop, some tips on selecting varieties and a lot of encouragement to try it out…even on a small test plot, until you get the hang of the management changes necessary for adding cover crops on a big time basis.

Here are a couple of other resources about annual ryegrass, how to grow it, where to get it, and how to terminate it in the spring.



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National No-Till Conference – 25th Anniversary – Features Lots of Cover Crop Ed.

This year’s annual National No-Till Conference – Jan 10 – 13 – in St. Louis is perhaps the best ever. Here’s the link to the website. Click on the image below to see the entire prgram listing.

NNTC17 Program Cover

For you cover crop fans, here’s a listing of the speakers, classes and roundtable discussions about cover crops. There are plenty available on each of the three days of the conference.



  • Ray McCormick, Indiana, 2400 acre grower, all no-till w/cover crop
  • J.C. Cahill – U of Alberta…how plants talk to each other and how knowing that might be important for your farm.


Ray Weil, U of Maryland soil scientist

  • Improve crop access to water and nutrients
  • Keep more N on your farm – research on how cover crops help N mgmt.
  • Boost soil bio processes in deeper layers

Ray McCormick, Indiana, 2400 acres, all no-till with cover crops

  • Adapting equipment for use in seeding cover crops
  • How to do it inexpensively ($13/a).

Dan Towery and Hans Kok, Indiana/Illinois

  • Interseeding cover crops into corn
  • Adding wheat to your rotation
  • Planting 8 – 15 way cover crop cocktail after wheat…and how that could produce a double digit increase in corn and soybean yields while cutting your N application rates in half.

Egon Zunckel, South Africa

  • Mitigating poor water infiltration, erosion and stagnant yields with a variety of practices, including cover crops
  • Introduction of livestock to help manage large amounts of crop residue.

Seth Watkins, Iowa

  • Cover crops, prairie strips, buffers, native grasses, terracing, crop rotation and rotational livestock grazing – protecting soils while building organic matter quickly and boosting profits.

Jim Johnson, Noble Foundation soils consultant

  • Grazing cover crops – how to get started
  • Research results from a variety of states.

Ten No-Till Round-table discussions on Cover Crops, including:

  • From the North Plains states, to NE and Mid Atlantic
  • Great Lakes and Ontario
  • Southern and High Plains
  • Midwest states: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri.

Mike Plumer – Making Sense of Cover Crop Mixes

  • When does one cover crop – or two or three – make more sense than a cocktail of mixes?
  • How to balance cost with needs?
  • Determine what soils need before making decisions about seed.


Joe Breker, ND grower (spoke at inaugural No-Till Conference in 1993)

  • Cover crops in northern climates
  • Slash input costs with improved organic matter, banding fertilizer and cover crops.

Mike Plumer – Tips for Terminating cover Crops more effectively

  • How to do it effectively and save yourself headaches?
  • How weather, seed varieties, growth states and herbicide choices factor in?
  • Why to avoid the Variety Not Stated (VNS) label?

Alan Mindermann, Oklahoma

  • Use cover crops to help mitigate the effects of unpredictable weather and limited moisture
  • How to track moisture and herbicide applications while making rotation decisions?

Robert Kremer, Ag Research Center, MO

  • Impact of cover crops on suppressing weeds and weed seed banks.

Roundtable discussions

  • Making the Right moves with Cover Crop mixes
  • Seeing the Potential in Cereal Rye Seeding
  • Getting out of the Starting Gate with Annual Ryegrass
  • Turning Up No-Till Diversity with Radishes


Round-table discussions

  • Tips, Tools for Timely Cover Crop Seeding
  • Cover Crops that Cut Your Fertilizer Bill.

Randy McElroy, Sustainability researcher at Monsanto Co.

  • Transform soil with a variety of tools, including cover crops.





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Thanksgiving – A Gift to Keep Giving

A cover crop like annual ryegrass gives fertile minds the room to use it as a metaphor, or symbol.

The roots of ryegrass go deep, like the roots of our common heritage as humans. Whether we came from Europe, Africa, Pacific Islands or Asia, we derive from the same holy place. We thrive each day by consuming the bounty of the earth. We surrender to that same earth on the day of our death.

Glomalin - plant roots and mycorrhizal fungus

The inter-workings of Earth and the Solar System have conspired to make life habitable: breathable air, drinkable water and nurturing soil. Caring for each helps to assure our continued life here, among all the plants and animals that also sustain us.

Partisanship has no comparison in agriculture. You either work together with nature or you shrivel. Cooperation of the Native people made the Pilgrim’s first weeks on this continent possible. Cooperation with your neighbors in times of hardship and in times of joy, has given this country the chance to show a beacon of hope to other countries struggling with fairness and with sufficient food. Communities, like cover crops, help to blunt the erosion of society and to grow a more healthy crop of children to take our place.

Annual ryegrass is a vehicle for bringing together the elements of our environment. Rain feeds its birth; sun feeds it’s growth; and the decay of all things that make up the soil feeds its nutrient qualities.

In turn, annual ryegrass – like other cover crops – feeds the soil and feeds the crops that follow. In like fashion, we are called upon by our faiths to do likewise. The product of our goodwill towards others begets a new season of peace.

But society, like annual ryegrass and the soil itself, takes careful management. We cannot take for granted that our liberty and our freedoms feed themselves. Without awareness and action, the life in our community can be leached away. Being able to guide our culture thorough the deep values in our life is as important as knowing how to improve the pH and organic matter in your fields.

At this time of Thanksgiving, think about your place in the chain of life.Consider how your life is similar to a cover crop…how your roots go deep into a soil of age-old values, how your sturdy form and health have given life to others, how the fruits of your labors have created life and work for others. And consider, too, how those who you have never known, who you will never meet, also contribute to your health and your family’s sense of security and well being.

May you know peace. May you enjoy health. And may you find at this time of year, an opportunity to give thanks and show gratitude for all those who have contributed to your life.

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Grass Roots Political Populism and Cover Crops – What’s the Connection?

The recent national election has raised a lot of debate about what is going on in America. One thing seems clear: the people spoke loudly that politics-as-usual is unacceptable. Change – even with high risk – is better than being force fed more of the same disappointing results. In that sense, grass roots populism is like planting annual ryegrass as a cover crop.

Thirty years ago, the idea of planting grass seed over top of a corn or bean field was seen as lunacy. Until then, conventional thinking held that deep cultivation and multiple inputs of fertilizer were the answer to our quest for more crop productivity and profit. But as cost increases for fuel, equipment and fertilizer outpaced price hikes for crops, farmers saw productivity continue to rise while return on investment did not.

At the same time, innovative farmers and Extension agronomists revitalized the ancient practice of no-till. No-Till Farmer magazine began in the early 1970s as a way to promote the benefits of leaving crop residue on the fields and eliminating cultivation, both to reduce compaction and lower the number of equipment passes on the fields.

By the mid 1980s, a new generation of farmers upended conventional wisdom again by introducing cover crops.Like the recent election, popular growth in new ideas coupled with a lot of discontent about the status quo. The idea of keeping something planted in the fields year-found seemed radical. Planting annual ryegrass seemed counterintuitive. Why would you introduce a weed into a field you wanted to use for profitable corn or beans?

Interseeding equipment screen shot - JPEG

Well the results are in – cover crops and no till increase organic matter, improve soil tilth, foster health grown of microorganisms and increase crop productivity. Today, every year, thousands of new converts try planting cover crops. And the results have been overwhelmingly positive. People start with a small plot and learn how to manage the crop before moving to larger fields and then the whole farm.

Cover cropping and no-till agriculture reminds us of Arthur Schopenhauer’s famous quote: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Populism, like changing agriculture practices, seems at first to be scary. But in the long run, it’s better to rely on the wisdom of the people than to get trapped in a rut with politicians more eager to keep their jobs than to do the voters’ bidding.


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Annual Ryegrass – Deepest Rooting of any Cover Crop

By now, with winter around the corner, your cover crop is already going to work to secure topsoil from the erosive qualities of run off and wind. (If you don’t have cover crops on all your acres, it might be interesting to compare how bare topsoil, or even crop with residue laying on top compares with a health cover crop field.)

Annual ryegrass, researched now for more than 20 years (throughout the Midwest, parts of the East coast, upper south and into southern Canada), consistently ranks first among cover crops in terms of deepest roots. Why is that important?


  • Deep mining of nutrients. After generations of plowing, the top foot or more of soil is depleted of nutrients and organic matter. Annual ryegrass roots access nutrients deeper in the soil profile, providing health to the crop but also limiting the amount of fertilizer inputs needed. The residual root mass, left after the crop is terminated in the spring, continues to feed the microbiology of the soil and create crucial organic matter.
  • Compaction. Annual ryegrass roots grow right through compacted layers of soil. After the roots die each year, corn and soybean roots can follow the same channels created by annual ryegrass. Eventually, the compacted layer is so run-through with root channels, the compaction is completely permeable, allowing roots and infiltration of moisture.

For more information about the benefits of annual ryegrass, click here.

Corn roots in ARG 6-06 Starkey

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Annual Ryegrass Seed Source

Click here to review an updated flier about where to buy annual ryegrass seed.

Why buy from the grower? Two main reasons:

1. Buying from the grower means you have direct access to the ones most knowledgeable about the variety you buy. That’s important because each variety has growing characteristics that can enhance its productivity.

  • You want it to germinate quickly and to establish before winter
  • You want it to winter over and be resistant to cold temperature.

2. Most of the Oregon growers have decades of experience in how their seed performs in the Midwest. Most have spent many years working with Midwest farmers in testing their products against other varieties.

  • In most cases, you can get a tremendous amount of information about growing annual ryegrass as a cover crop or forage crop from these companies.
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Annual Ryegrass Has Important Benefits

Farm Progress published a management guide for growing cover crops…it’s available FREE online. Click here. (You will be asked to fill out the information they want – name, email address – before emailing it to you free.)

Cover Crops: Best Management Practices

Here’s part of what the report says about annual ryegrass:

Today, farmers often hear about annual ryegrass and cereal rye grain as popular cover crop choices. It’s important to know the differences of each of these cover crops. Annual ryegrass is a versatile cover crop choice that will protect the soil, reduce soybean cyst nematode populations and hold nitrogen through the winter. Annual ryegrass – which is often referred to as “ryegrass” – has about 33% more roots than cereal rye and provides higher quality feed than cereal rye grain. Annual ryegrass is lighter than cereal rye grain and farmers and custom applicators using high clearance, drills, spreaders for dry fertilizer and airplanes can seed more acres before having to refill than if they choose cereal rye. Annual ryegrass needs to be seeded in August into early and mid-September, depending on location and the weather, while cereal rye grain can be seeded later in the fall, often into October. That, of course, also depends on the weather and location.

If you regularly plant cover crops, it’s probably a safe bet you’ve planted by now. If you’re considering planting a cover crop for the first time, looking at Farm Progress’ Management Guide is a good start. You can also find tons of detailed information about growing and managing annual ryegrass by clicking on this link, which will take you to the annual ryegrass website.

Or, click here to look at videos that discuss various aspects of managing annual ryegrass.


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