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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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.


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.

Image result for hypoxia in the gulf photos

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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