Author Archives: Timothy Buckley

To Bail or to Bale. In this Case, it’s Both!

What the heck can one say at a time like this except, “Sorry for your pain.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if the money spent on lobbying, marketing and advertising on behalf of agricultural issues had the desired effect? That the trade war hadn’t happened? That the gods and goddesses of weather would give us a break? That commodity prices would better reflect the effort that goes into producing crops for a hungry world?

Damn, and then this coronavirus comes along, incubated in an Asian marketplace where a way too close proximity existed between butchering live animals (infected with the virus) and selling the meat to customers. It’s still hard to wrap one’s head around why bats are such prolific carriers of viruses and how their blight infects poultry and livestock that gets eaten by us, The science is solid, but confusing to understand.

Regardless, the financial and emotional impacts of this latest disease on Midwest farm families is threatening an already unhealthy agriculture industry. Prices have been low to begin with, and now with markets shrinking and a shortage of farm labor, things have just become worse.

If there’s any silver lining here, it will be evident in two places: in our communities and in the form of relief offered by governments.

  • Like in the old days, when a neighbor called on us for support, we respond by sharing whatever we have. Sometimes it’s only a listening ear, other times physical and financial support. In those times, the spirit of community seems to lift everyone up and bring us together, those receiving and those giving. We’re in it together, thick or thin, red or blue, Christian or non-believer.
  • Many in the Midwest generally support a type of governance that exerts little in the way of oversight – whether from state or federal agents. And when things go awry, such as with natural disasters like this pandemic, we want to insure that the government (and its hundreds of millions of taxpayers) are there to support the rescue and rehabilitation of communities worst hit by disaster.

Oddly enough, the verb “to bail” refers to evacuating something, like water out of a boat or a bank account out of insolvency. In farming, the verb “to bale” means to gather something up, to consolidate it, as in hay. Yet, the word “baling” is equally apt for either verb. In the case of the Midwestern farm, it may be a unique opportunity to unite the verb forms. Our businesses need baling out and we also need the baling – or coming together – that community action can bring.

Spring Forward with Annual Ryegrass

Spring is, for cover croppers, the time to kill your cover crop before planting cash crops – corn or soybeans. For others, spring is also the time to plant annual ryegrass as a cover crop!

Interseeding is the name for putting out annual ryegrass seed in the spring, when your corn is established but before it reaches knee-high. There are a couple of reasons to consider doing it this way:

  • You avoid having to squeeze in a fall planting of annual ryegrass, when harvest and weather and field conditions can play havoc
  • The annual ryegrass will be well established in the fall when you take off the corn. It will have been sitting nearly dormant all summer – in the shade of the corn foliage – but its root structure will have been expanding, inching its way into the earth. This makes the grass more resilient to colder fall temperatures, and more likely to winter over in the field.
  • You can plant the cover crop with the same equipment used for side dressing the corn, thus creating efficiencies in your operation.

For those interested in interseeding principles and practices, check out this flyer. Below, a cover crop mix of annual ryegrass and clover established in the spring as corn grows to each side.

Annual Ryegrass – Best Friend of Deep Cover Crops

In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, 90 percent of the world’s seed for annual ryegrass is grown. Because the water table is so high, the roots need not go far for moisture. In the Midwest, it’s a different story, and that was the first major “AHA” of its widespread adoption as a cover crop.

Over the winter, annual ryegrass roots can reach to depths of five feet, although the first year will probably not produce that depth. But over a span of five years, the channels built from successive years of annual ryegrass use will provide new access for deeper growth the next year.

For this and other reasons, Indiana farmer Cameron Mills says annual ryegrass is the best cover crop out there. “Annual ryegrass still gets a fair amount of bad-mouthing,” he said at a recent conference in Oregon, where many of the ryegrass seed growers were in the audience. “The important thing is, you have to keep getting good information out there about annual ryegrass to balance the negative. One thing you hear is that it is hard to manage. Well, that’s not true either, but you do have to manage it carefully.”

Annual ryegrass, he continued, solves a lot of problems, such as erosion, depleted organic matter, compaction, annual weeds and soybean nematodes. But to get it to work for you, you must be flexible about when you apply the seed and when you terminate it.

And as for terminating it, you have to be very conscientious that the herbicide used to terminate it doesn’t remain in the soil very long – commonly referred to as herbicide carryover; otherwise, it could inadvertently retard the growth of the next round of cover cropping. See below, two fields planted on the same day, only a mile apart from one another. One field shows healthy growth, and the herbicides were generic Bicep II and Impact. The other field, where Halex GT was used, is almost barren of cover crop. Mills said that there’s nothing wrong with Halex GT…it’s a great herbicide, but you must pay attention that the herbicide used doesn’t carry over into next year’s cover crop season.

Non GMO Seed and Cover Crop Management

Cameron Mills, a grower from Walton, Indiana, spoke a couple months ago at the annual Oregon Seed League conference. Among his surprising messages:

  • Moving away from GMO seed is a sound economic move
  • Glyphosate is under threat from consumers and we’ll have to adapt – but it certainly won’t put an end to use of cover crops
  • Big Ag is moving in the direction that consumers demand – “regenerative” ag
  • Introducing beef into the Midwest mix is very profitable

These days, Mills said, consumers are driving change in ag. “They want to know where products are produced, how healthy they are, and how safe,” he said. And consumers around the world are speaking ever louder that they’ve had enough of GMO.

Mills said that after 23 years of pushing GMO, the tide is moving against it. So instead of fighting the tide, Mills has grabbed onto Non-GMO full time, in a hurry. And, he made a convincing argument that Non GMO is a darn sight less costly than going with the “Magical Seeds.” See below.

He said that with the per/acre savings, there’s a better Return on Investment with Non-GMO. So what difference does it make if the GMO seed outproduces the Non-GMO seed by a few bushels/acre? By the way, he said “magical seed” doesn’t always perform to it’s promise anyway. His farm of almost 4000 acres – corn, soybeans, triticale, wheat and beef cattle – is 100 percent Non-GMO and he’s been in continuous cover crop since 2006.

In terms of cover crop choices, Mills says he likes annual ryegrass a lot, and it has helped him reduce damage on his fields in spring when he wants to get out and start planting, even when it’s still a bit wet.

In the next blog, we’ll talk about other topics he discussed, including how to apply cover crops, how to manage and how to learn to adapt quickly with Plan B, C, and D. Farming on the fly? Not exactly, but flexibility is important…and experience helps grow confidence in being flexible.

Cover Crop Management – Spring 2020

It’s time to think about getting in gear for cover crop season in the Midwest.

If you’re starting out with cover crops for the first time, here’s a handy, comprehensive Management Guide we put together a couple years ago.

If you’re familiar with cover crops, then you’ll know that spring is the time to get rid of the remaining cover crop in preparation for corn or soybean planting.

  • If the cover crop is still alive, glyphosate is the best way to kill it. Follow herbicide instructions to the tee, as you don’t want to come back and kick its butt a second time…because it gets harder.
  • Check out the specifics in our Management Guide.

For added tips, Here’s an article from Successful Farmer, which covers the benefits as well as some advice about types of covers to consider in the future.

Ryegrass Saves the Gulf of Mexico…well, not quite Yet!

An article in the recent issue of Grist spent a lot of ink reporting on the value of cover crops. They looked specifically at a small Indiana watershed (Tippecanoe) and recorded what happened to the water quality when cover crop adoption approached 100%. Perhaps more accurately, they recorded what DIDN’T happen…the nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers stayed on the property and didn’t end up in the Gulf of Mexico.

In a short video, you can get the gist of what Grist had to say. Here’s that link.

But if you want to read the longer article, it’s worth it. Here’s that link, called Last Ditch Effort. Among those interviewed was Jamie Scott, an entrepreneurial grower in Indiana who has been instrumental for expanding the use of cover crop, particularly annual ryegrass, in the past 10 years.

Here’s a quote from the article, in terms of what they determined, in summary. After 13 years and a million dollars in state, nonprofit, and federal funding, the data show a clear decline in nitrogen and phosphorus flowing out of this watershed during the critical springtime thaw. These two nutrients fertilize crops, but when they wash into the water, they fertilize algae blooms and cause a host of problems. In other words, the chemicals we rely on to grow food often end up poisoning the planet and threatening the lives of many species on it, including ours.

Maybe you caught the editorial slant in the last sentence. Yes, Grist is an environmentalist magazine run by millenials who probably think they can right all the wrongs right away, if all the old folks would just quietly go away and die. But seriously, if a tree-hugging bunch of youngsters think cover cropping is going to save the planet, that’s good news…because cover crops can take care of a bunch of pollution problems, and that’s the truth.

Covering Cover Crops – Democratic Candidates Converge in Iowa – Get An Earful About “Regenerative Agriculture”

A story in the New Yorker magazine today is raising the national visibility about “regenerative agriculture”. https://www.newyorker.com/news/campaign-chronicles/how-an-iowa-farmer-used-the-campaign-stop-economy-to-push-climate-action-on-2020-democrats

In a nutshell, Lacona, Iowa farmer Matt Russell managed to attract a half-dozen of the 2020 Democratic contenders for president to his farm. His pitch…climate change is real and regenerative ag practices can do a bunch of things to mitigate some of the issues. No-till, and cover crops are part of the solution, and he said farmers need the federal government to invest in that future.

Cover Crop Adoption Steady for 20 Plus Years

Back in the 1990s, nobody but a few cranks and academics were playing around with no-till and cover crops. Then Mike Plumer started researching and testing the hypothesis that both practices would benefit farm profits and soil health.

Fast forward a quarter century, and take a look at the rate of adoption of cover crops in the Midwest.

The good news, over the past 12 years, more than 15 million acres of precious farm acreage have been planted in cover crops regularly, and are now building value and productive qualities. The first 10 years of Plumer’s and Dan Towery’s work to educate growers produced negligible results of cover crop acres. But by 2006, adoption began to gather momentum and the growth since then has been impressive.

The bad news, only about 5 percent of the acres planted for agriculture in the slightly expanded Midwest map are currently planting cover crops.

The good news: Three states (Pennsylvania, Indiana and Michigan) have about twice that average, with Pennsylvania topping the list at 12.9 percent of farm acreage in cover crops. (Michigan and Indiana are just behind, with 8.5 percent each). Further, both Michigan and Indiana have made better than 50 percent increases in just the last five years.

The bad news: if the growth rate continues at current rates, only about 14 million acres of the most productive farmland in the Midwest will be in cover crops by the year 2025. Presumably, the rest – more than 100 million acres – will still be in convenventional tillage.

Annual Ryegrass – Turning The Big Ship of Agriculture Around

In December, cover crop guru Dan Towery came to Oregon to address a conference of growers and suppliers about the history of annual ryegrass in the renaissance of cover crop use in the Midwest.

His message had one of those “good news/bad news” stories. The good news: the number of acres planted in cover crops has grown steadily since the introduction of annual ryegrass in the late 1990s. In fact, the annual rate of increase has reached as high as 15 percent.

The bad news: the overall percentage of ag acres committed to no-till and cover crops is still very low, compared to the number of acres planted. See the graphic below.