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?

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  • 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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New Midwest Incentives for Cover Crops

Among other things, Dan Towery manages the Indiana part of the Soil Health Partnership, a network of innovative farmers in eight Midwest states. Dan has been a consultant for the Oregon Grass Seed Growers Commission that promotes use of annual ryegrass as a cover crop for more than a decade. He has been a steady voice for conservation agriculture since he graduated from Western Illinois University.

Dan was a staff agronomist for the Conservation Technology Information Center and was state agronomist in Indiana before joining the staff of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In recent years, Dan’s been tireless making connections – both one on one with Midwest growers – as well as nationally and in other countries, with leaders of industry, policy and conservation. That work created a natural space for him on the board of the International Soil & Water Conservation Society board for 6 years. He was selected as its president in 2012 and 2013.

This past growing season, the Soil Health Partnership conducted more than 40 field days in eight states, attended by more than 1500 farmers, eager to learn from each other the details of managing cover crops. The field days covered subjects like cover crops and other soil improvement methods, as well as equipment, nutrient management and other topics. The initiative, sponsored by the National Corn Growers Association has also gained tremendous support of a dazzling variety of groups including Monsanto, NRCS, the United Soybean Board, the Walton Family Foundation, the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy.

In September, largely because of its effective promotion of conservation tillage in the Midwest, the Soil Health Partnership learned that it won a $1 million Conservation Innovation Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The grant funding will help to quantify the gains being made by farmers using cover crops and other conservation strategies, according to a news release from the organization.

Farmers enrolled in the SHP program will be invited to participate in the carbon reduction incentive system, in which growers are paid by corporations to sequester carbon in their soil, according to the article.

“This is a great opportunity for farmers to continue being a part of the solution to carbon sequestration, and gain financial incentives for carbon-smart ag practices like growing cover crops and using minimum tillage,” said Nick Goeser, NCGA director of soil health and sustainability and director of the SHP. “We hope to provide businesses with a quantifiable method to reduce their carbon footprint by increasing these on-the-ground conservation practices.”

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Farm Progress Show Features Cover Crop Ed

The annual Farm Progress Show was held in Boone, Iowa, again this year, and cover crops were a popular topic of conversation.

According to a blog post by Practical Farmers of Iowa, it appears that “we’ve turned a corner with cover crops.” Basically, cover crops are becoming common knowledge, even if adoption is still lagging behind somewhat. The organization that boasts the slogan: “Don’t Farm Naked” wants everybody to keep something green on the fields year-round.

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At the Farm Progress Show, a variety of growers spoke to the crowds about their experience with cover crop varieties, seeding methods and impacts on production. Cover crop research expert Sara Carlson also addressed those with questions about management of cover crops.

Practical Farmers has also come forth with new trial information on cover crops, specifically the use of cereal rye in rotation with corn and soybeans. Their findings include the fact that cover crops DO NOT negatively impact crop yields – unless you mismanage the cover crop. In fact, their study shows that cover crops can INCREASE yields, especially in soybeans. Take a look at their study by clicking here. 

While Practical Farmers does not look specifically at annual ryegrass, other research over the past decades has shown annual ryegrass to also be a boost for corn and soybean production. Annual ryegrass has the advantage over cereal rye in that it doesn’t have as much biomass in vegetation in the spring. Cereal rye can be a problem when planting corn or soybeans into a dense, freshly-killed mat of cereal rye. For more information comparing annual ryegrass and cereal rye, click here.

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Cover Crops in the Midwest Saves Lives in the Gulf

Agricultural runoff has dramatically altered life in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Hypoxia, in essence the cutting off of oxygen, has choked off aquatic life in the Gulf. Continued practices will essentially kill off life, and the massive fishing industry will die with it. In the photo below, you can see the massive amount of farmland drained by the Mississippi River system into the Gulf.

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Cover crops can significantly reduce the amount of runoff, particularly nitrate, into the streams and rivers that supply the Gulf from the Mississippi River. In fact, in a study conducted by Eileen Kladivko (Purdue Univ.), Tom Kaspar (USDA-Iowa) and others, they estimate that the adoption of cover crops more uniformly by farmers, in just five Midwest states, can reduce the amount of nitrates by an estimated 20%. These five states (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan) are responsible for almost HALF of the nitrate loading in the Gulf.

Here’s a link to the study (click here)

The study looked only at cereal rye as a possible cover crop. Use of annual ryegrass has benifits over cereal rye.

  • It has deeper roots, which means deeper nutrients and moisture for corn and soybeans. Deeper roots also means less compaction
  • Annual ryegrass is a scavenger of nitrogen. In addition to saving on inputs of fertilizer, annual ryegrass stores nitrogen and then yields it to the corn in the spring, when the grass is killed.

Check out the other differences between annual ryegrass and cereal rye in this publication. Among other things, cereal rye can tie up nitrogen too long, thus requiring added inputs for corn growth. And, cereal rye can grow too much on the surface (6 -7 feet) and thus make it difficult to plant into in the spring. Annual ryegrass, on the other hand, releases nitrogen in time for the corn to use efficiently. And it’s root mass creates more biomass in the soil, thus creating more food for worms and microbes, more organic matter and healthier soil.

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Cover Crop Entrepreneurs

The National Wildlife Federation published a long article a couple years ago that caught my eye. It was the first publication that talked about the potential for rural ag communities to profit from the growing business of cover crops. Besides profiting from the benefits you see in the soil and in productivity, the article points out that some are profiting from their experience by becoming a supplier of cover crop seed, a crop adviser to others, helping others plant or terminate their cover crop or grazing fees.

The article also discusses the crazy history of cover cropping, and how the introduction of synthetic fertilizers and heavy machinery changed  America’s thinking about cover crops. Only in the last 20 years has our focus come back to the benefits of cover crops. What was interesting about the article was the many ways in which rural farm families can become active in the “business” of cover crops, not just the planting.

Websites like the Midwest Cover Crop Council feature more than 40 entrepreneurs. Many are called entrepreneurs simply because they have been innovators in the USE of cover crops. Some began with annual ryegrass or hairy vetch or cereal rye and then experimented to find the best fit for their acreage, weather and crop rotation.

But some, like Jim and Jamie Scott, from northeast Indiana, also saw the potential to translate their first-hand experience with annual ryegrass and other cover crops into a side-business. While he and his family still farm about 2000 acres in and around Pierceton, Indiana, he has added to his income by arranging to fly on cover crop seed for other nearby farmers. He contracts for the seed to be delivered to a nearby airport, has a pumper truck there and contracts with pilots to fly on the seed in late summer, while corn and beans are still in the field. Aerial seeding has largely replaced the old drilling method of applying cover crop seed. At last count, Jamie’s company was coordinating the seeding of about 60.000 acres. Doing so, presumably, has created additional cash flow for his business.

Loading annual ryegrass seed - Cameron Mills' custom seed loader; Townsend Aviation plane and pilot.

 

In like fashion, others have turned their knowledge and experience into additional revenue by becoming an adviser to neighboring growers who are just getting started in cover crops. Besides earning a few thousand extra dollars a year, those entrepreneurs are also helping to spread the use of cover crops quickly, which then helps other growers realize the benefits of cover crops.

Incidentally, the Midwest Cover Crop Council’s site has annual reports of cover crop useage for each of the Midwest states. It provides a lot of information about who’s doing what: in research and in practice. Click on the state you want and then look for the latest reports. Here’s Indiana’s report for 2015.

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Old Ways Fade as Cover Crops Gain Favor

Iowa isn’t known as an early adopter with cover crops. But according to an article in Farm Journal recently, more than half of the acres in production in that state are leased. So, while farmers themselves may choose to do what’s best for the soil, owners may be reluctant to invest.

Nonetheless, the article went on to say that about 25 percent of Iowa farmers claimed to be using cover crops, though most said the acres committed to the conservation tillage measure were small…usually less than 100 acres.

 

That’s great news, because it suggests that owners are beginning to see that investment in conservation tillage brings dividends. According to the article:

Researchers say that landowners could benefit economically from farmer adoption of conservation agriculture, which can reduce in varying degrees the use of fertilizer, pesticides, fuel, equipment and labor. Crop insurance provides another potential opportunity in light of evidence that conservation agriculture can increase crop resilience to weather threats such as droughts or floods.

In the article, reference was made to a 2010 study by the University of Illinois (another latecomer to the value of cover crops) that concluded that the jury is still out on whether cover crops increase yields for corn and soybean crops (we believe it is conclusive that they do). But the study did say that cover crops significantly increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, which indicates soil health.

…it does increase the amount of sequestered soil organic carbon. Soil organic carbon stock gains were 30% higher for no-till, 10% higher for chisel plowed and 18% higher for moldboard-plowed plots.

“This suggests that soil organic carbon stock losses from tillage, water erosion and some disturbance or mixing during no-till planting, aeration, nitrogen injection in corn years and mineralization were less than the soil organic carbon gain from the cover-crop treatment,” says U of I soil scientist Ken Olson.

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Mike Plumer – Granddaddy of Modern-day Cover Crop Advocacy

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before we had met Mike Plumer, he already had more than a decade of advocacy and research into no-till farming and cover crops, especially annual ryegrass. At the time, Mike was an Extension Educator with the University of Illinois, a post he held for 34 years..

We, in Oregon, where 90 percent of the world’s ryegrass seed is grown, had no idea that Mike Plumer was about to give the industry of agriculture an immeasurable gift, while giving the annual ryegrass seed growers a new reason to get up in the morning.

Plumer, working with an innovative Hamilton County, Illinois farmer named Ralph “Junior” Upton, helped quantify the benefits of annual ryegrass in “siltpan” (Bluford) soil. Upton was concerned about the productivity on parts of his 1800 acre farm, where the compacted soil restricted the root growth of corn and soybeans. He wondered if going no-till and adding cover crops might improve productivity.

Plumer began testing on Upton’s farm and quickly discovered what we in Oregon didn’t know – that annual ryegrass roots grow through and permeate compacted soil. Better than that, the roots then extend downwards to a much as five feet, creating new pathways to moisture and nutrients for corn and bean crops to follow.

Since 2004, Upton has seen dramatic changes in his corn yields., according to a USDA profile on him. He says no-till saves him around $15 an acre. Using cover crops costs $8-$20 dollars an acre but it is well worth it. The amount of organic matter in Upton’s soils started at less than 1 percent (.81). That level is now up to 3 or 4 percent. “And that’s exactly what I needed for my soils on those fields,” Upton said.

Since then, Plumer has experimented all over the Midwest (as well as contributing to agriculture internationally) and become the best known cover crop advisor in the country. Below are a couple of very informative power point presentations developed by Plumer, which outline both the benefits and the precautions of annual ryegrass and other cover cropping system. Visit the annual ryegrass by clicking here.

Managing Annual Ryegrass 

Cover Crops in Illinois: Why Use Them?

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Farmers, Environmental Organizations and the Feds Chorus the Benefits of Cover Crops

What doesn’t stay on farmlands can easily end up in nearby waterways and in the air we breathe.

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Cover crops like annual ryegrass have become friends of the environment. Imagine living in an era when farmers and environmental advocates are standing side to side to champion cover crops.

  • Green Lands, Blue Waters is an effort to save the Great Lakes, major U.S. rivers and the Gulf of Mexico from pollutants that are killing our fresh water.
  • The Sierra Club has goals about how agriculture must be carried out in an environmentally sound manner. Among them, number 7 from the top is this: Agriculture must promote the use of cover crops and perennial crops to protect soils from erosion and protect water resources from nutrient runoff and leaching.
  • The federal Environmental Protection Agency says this: Growing cover crops is a beneficial practice to reduce nutrient and sediment losses from agricultural fields and improve water quality. Cover crops also increase soil health through enhancing soil organic matter content. 

Finally, until recently, crop insurance was in jeopardy when farmers decided to protect their land with annual ryegrass or another cover crop. But, because of the results of improved soil biology and crop productivity, because of pressure from the agricultural and environmental communities, the laws have now been changed to allow crop insurance on cover crops.

Show up with results…and you can move mountains…well, in this case, fix unhealthy soils and weak profits, while saving the purity of our fresh water and  air.

 

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