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Annual Ryegrass – the Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US

Part 3. From Pedestrian to Princess: Annual Ryegrass in Midwest Cornfields

Annual ryegrass has led a bit of a Cinderella life. Plain and pedestrian for a century or more, it was a go-to seed for jumpstarting green acreage quickly in city parks and ballfields, highway roadsides, golf course fairways and big estates around the world. Among its greatest assets over time: it’s easiness to germinate and affordability.

But then, in the mid 1990s, Oregon seed growers and the Ryegrass Commission gave Junior Upton an opportunity to see what the crop might do to slow the erosion on his thin, hilly acreage east of St. Louis. The old Cinderella seed did its job keeping soil in its place as spring rains tried to pry it loose. But the new Cinderella story, the thing nobody anticipated, was the crop’s deep rooting capability. In a couple of years on his no-till corn and beanfields, annual ryegrass roots were found at depths of four to five feet, having busted through the fragipan layers. The other ‘ah ha’ was that his corn production began to rise. Well, these three things helped add energy and excitement to a fledgling cover crop movement.  It was the first of what has become a long list of benefits, courtesy of annual ryegrass as a cover crop.

Junior and Mike Plumer weren’t shy about the results on Upton’s farm, with his yield on marginal land overtaking that of his neighbor’s acreage, which had historically been superior. But as with any new thing, Upton and Plumer found it challenging to convince others to try annual ryegrass. Farmers are wary of new gimmicks. Generation after generation has come to rely on more power, deeper rippers, and better chemistry to keep field production high. They’d say, “Conventional tillage was good enough for my pop and grandpa, so it’s good enough for me, too!” Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed three stages of truth: at first, most people ridicule it. Then as it gains traction, they vigorously oppose it. Finally, when it has become familiar and others are on board, they accept it and act like they’ve never doubted it in the first place.

Don Wirth said that, at each of those stages, you’ll find a different type of person. Those who see change as their friend and are always looking for a new angle he calls innovators. The next tier are the “early adopters”, who benefit from the innovators and put changes into effect quickly. The final group are those who, like Junior’s neighbors, wait to see how things turn out before getting their feet wet. There’s nothing wrong with any of the three groups, in fact it’s a natural thing. But it shows why it takes so many years to change habitual behavior in human beings.

Thankfully, we were able to find  more than a dozen innovators willing to cooperate with our project in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  What helped the project immensely were these three things:

  • The Oregon Ryegrass Commission commitment to a long term educational and marketing effort, backed by dollars contributed by Oregon seed growers themselves
  • Don Wirth, Nick Bowers, and a few others from the Oregon seed growing industry, continued to be of immense value, for their funding, their seed and their many voluntary trips to the Midwest to witness field trials, work with cooperating growers, go to trade shows and answer questions about annual ryegrass with people interested in cover crops.
  • Hiring Mike Plumer and Dan Towery to network, work with cooperating growers, attend trade shows, become active on regional and national boards related to agriculture, and spending tons of time out in the field, adding quality control to what was one big-ass experiment.

In the next blog, we’ll talk about some of the new benefits discovered in those early years, as well as some of the interesting partnerships formed, including with environmental groups eager to try new ways to clean up polluted Midwest waterways.

Part 2. Deep Rooting Annual Ryegrass Busts Compaction

Annual Ryegrass – the Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US

In the last blog post, you learned that the Oregon Ryegrass Seed Commission funded field trials and research in the mid-to-late 1990s into mid 2000’s, to determine the ways in which annual ryegrass might be a beneficial cover crop. You also recall that this effort was triggered by an “ah-ha” that Oregon seed grower Don Wirth got from talking to Ohio farmers at the Farm Machinery Show, who were using annual ryegrass for grazing and sileage, but who found that it helped boost corn production in those same fields.

Don was so avid about the project that he carved out more time from his business to join the Ryegrass Commission board and voluntarily lead the new effort taking place in Illinois and Indiana. All seed companies were asked to donate annual ryegrass seed, specifically diploid ryegrass varieties, having two sets of chromosomes per cell instead of four (tetraploid varieties). These tend to be hardier in yield, even in less than ideal growing conditions. Don’s seed company agreed to mix and ship the seed at his expense. 

The plan began by inviting innovative farmers already no-tilling to add annual ryegrass to their management practice. On his first trip back, Don met with a number of people, including no-till pioneer Jim Kinsella, veteran agronomist Mike Plumer, and Purdue University agriculture professor Eileen Kladivco. Oregon seed grower and Commission member Nick Bowers came on that trip, as did Commission administrator Bryan Ostlund.

In the first year of the program, Purdue helped to locate cooperative growers eager to try a small plot of annual ryegrass. “The fact that cover crops require a change in management practices, it was important to start by learning from mistakes on small plots,” Don said.

Veteran cover crop researcher and educator Mike Plumer, examining the root structure of annual ryegrass in a core sample taken from a cornfield, where the annual ryegrass was introduced as a cover crop.

Among the first to try annual ryegrass included Dan DeSutter in Indiana and Ralph “Junior” Upton in Illinois. “Mike Plumer, an Extension agronomist at the University of Illinois, took me to Junior’s farm, a veteran of no-till who had begun experimenting with cover to reduce erosion,” Don continued. “He farms in Springerton, Illinois, on hilly, compacted and poorly drained soil that had very little topsoil when he started. The year after Junior planted annual ryegrass, Plumer returned and they dug into the field to look at root structure. They were dumbfounded to learn that annual ryegrass sent roots down to 40-plus inches deep, 10 inches deeper than either corn or beans were going that year.

In a tribute article to Junior’s innovative practices and willingness to teach others, No-Till Magazine gave him a “Legends of No-Till” award, along with an article, which is quoted below, in which different cover crops are discussed for their different benefits.

Cereal rye helps with weed control and soil erosion and is a great companion crop for the other cover crops. The root system of ryegrass helps to break up the fragipan in his soil and also assists with weed control. When managed properly, hairy vetch generates both supplemental nitrogen and additional weed control.

Some other early experimenters with annual ryegrass came to a different conclusion, based on some pretty awesome mistakes. “People thought annual ryegrass could become a pest if not controlled properly,” Don said, “and they’d be right about that. A weed specialist in Dickson Springs, Illinois,  told me ‘anybody promoting and selling  annual ryegrass is committing a crime!’ He based that on his failure using herbicide spray on the annual ryegrass in the spring. The booms on his sprayer were way too low and he was getting all kinds of skips in coverage,” Don added.

“Another weed scientist on the research farm in Jacksonville Tennessee, warned that annual ryegrass would easily develop a tolerance for glyphosate and other herbicides,” Don continued. “But, in his case, he was using a variety of annual ryegrass seed out of Australia (Lolium rigidum) instead of the varieties we grow in the U.S., which are all derived from Italian annual ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum). Again, these early mistakes are very useful, as we came to emphasize the importance of proper equipment and chemistry to successfully control the cover crop. In the 25 years we’ve been doing this, we haven’t heard yet of any horror stories of our varieties developing tolerance to herbicides.”

In the next blog, we’ll talk more about the methodical way in which Oregon seed growers and Midwest cooperating farmers began to flesh out the various benefits of annual ryegrass. We’ll also summarize the efforts seed  growers undertook to develop new varieties that would be winter hardy and still be susceptible to burndown in the spring. And finally, you’ll hear about the innovation taking place in the timing of annual ryegrass seeding and the different ways being developed to apply the seed economically.

Annual Ryegrass – the Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US

Note: this is the first in a series of blog posts summarizing the growth of sustainable agriculture in the U.S. Specifically, this series will look at the role of cover crops and how  Oregon seed growers played a crucial role in introducing cover crops to Midwest farms.

  1. Ah-Ha is Shorthand for Innovation

Don Wirth is accustomed to “ah-ha moments” in his life. So, the Oregon grass seed farmer and co-owner of Saddle Butte Ag Inc. wasn’t surprised when the lightbulb went on in his head at the annual Farm Machinery Show in the mid 1990s. He was there representing Oregon grass seed growers, specifically those who grow tall fescue.

“Three farmers from Ohio approached me and asked me what I knew about annual ryegrass. I knew enough to ask them what they knew first,” Don laughed. “Well, they told me they had been rotating annual ryegrass into their corn acreage and using it for grazing and sileage, and that they were getting up to seven tons of ryegrass silage sileage per acre with it.” None of that surprised him, although plenty of questions popped up for him, like what time of year they planted and how they got rid of the ryegrass before planting corn again.  They said they drill the ryegrass into corn stubble and then no till corn into the ryegrass stubble.

When the guys claimed that their corn production had improved in the acres planted with annual ryegrass, Don’s “ah-ha” was the stimulus for what has been a quarter-century of growth in cover cropping and “sustainable agriculture”.

He came back to Oregon that February and shared his news with Nick Bowers, co-owner of another Willamette Valley seed farm and Bryan Ostlund about putting some plots on dairy farms in the Midwest.   The Commission funded the project and plots were established the next year.

At the time, annual ryegrass was a high-volume, low-priced seed used primarily in warmer climates, sprayed liberally on ball fields, parks and highway rights-of-way. The idea that this lowly species might find a niche market, at a higher price, in the corn belt was attractive. At that time, in the mid-1990s, a few innovators had already been expressing delight with the benefits of no-tilling. But cover cropping was almost unheard of.

Fast forward for a moment to 2020. No-tilling and cover crops are household terms in farm country. The reduction of what was called “conventional” tillage is stunning, as farmers adopt management practices that rebuild the soil instead of continually ripping it up every year and seeing much of it wash or blow away during the year’s weather cycles.

The acres committed to no-tilling has risen from about 3 million acres in the mid-1970s (the era that ushered in Earth Day, and the far-reaching Clean Air and Clean Water legislation) to more than 100 million acres. The growth chart suggests that the practice is continuing to climb steeply, as more growers come to understand the benefits, and the savings, available with new management practices.

When Don, Nick and the Commission jumped into promoting annual ryegrass and cover crops, it’s safe to say there were only a handful of highly innovative farms testing cover crops with no-till, which basically amounts to planting a cover crop in the field after corn has been harvested.

Today, the number of acres planted in cover crops is somewhere between 15 and 16 million acres. But, like no-tilling, the rate of adoption is remarkable. For example, in just five years (2012 – 2017) the number of cover crop acres increased by almost 50 percent! And the number of farms using cover crops also increased by 15 percent in that same time.

In the Annual Report 2019 – 2020 Cover Crop Survey published by SARE and the Conservation Tillage Information Center (CTIC), the following paragraph describes what has become an “ah ha” for the agriculture industry.

Growers clearly appreciate the contributions they attribute to cover crops: healthier soils, lower herbicide and fertilizer costs, reduced erosion, and improved weed control. In fact, they appreciate the benefits enough to invest substantially in cover crop seed, and about one in three cover crop users pays for application as well. More than half of the horticulture respondents reported that cover crops increased their profitability.

In the next blog post, you’ll learn more about how the Oregon growers became instrumental in the Midwest adoption of cover crops, through a combination of inspiration, perspiration and innovation and cooperation with Midwest growers, universities and nonprofits.

In the meantime, make note of this FREE educational opportunity, the Fall 2020 national Cover Crop Summit (nov 17 – 18). One of the sponsors is KB Seed Solutions, co-owned by Nick Bowers, one of the Oregon cover crop innovators you’ll learn more about in the next chapter.

Cover Crop Pioneers Grow in Oregon

Oregon makes a big deal of its history. Among the most acclaimed events is the settlement of that territory by whites coming west on the Oregon Trail from what we now call the Midwest. It was such a big deal, a “reenactment” event celebrating the 150th anniversary of the start of that westward migration was held in the early 1990s. I vividly recall watching covered wagons rickety-wracking over the old dirt ruts in eastern Oregon, as men, women and children dressed in period clothing came trudging on towards their own Promised Land, the dust and grime of the journey clinging and whirling around in their footsteps. Many of them, around the campfire that night, told stories about their perilous journey overland from St. Joe, Missouri, just as their ancestors had done before them.

About the same year, in the mid 1990s, a couple of pioneering grass seed farmers began working on a novel cooperative agriculture project in the Midwest. With encouragement from Mike Plumer, a couple of willing corn and bean growers in Illinois, and Purdue University ag scientists, a some test plots of annual ryegrass seed were planted in the fall, after harvest, to see what benefit it might have on erosion control over the winter and into spring.

In the next few blog posts, we’ll be looking at some of those grass seed pioneers, who spent a whole lot of time and cash proving that annual ryegrass could change the way agriculture is done in America. It would eventually signal an end to the heavy equipment, the deep ripping of soil and the added expense of chemical inputs. Annual ryegrass and many other varieties of cover crop soon followed: cereal rye, hairy vetch, crimson clover, and others have been revolutionary in showing how to improve yields while also improving soil health.

These Oregon grass seed pioneers had considered annual ryegrass to be a perpetually low-priced commodity plant, most often used in great quantities for roadsides, city parks, sports fields and golf fairways. By developing a new market for the lowly variety, farmers bet that the price might inch upwards for that specialty use, and it has.

But in order to be considered worthy of continued use as a cover crop throughout the Midwest, southern Canada, New England, the Atlantic seaboard and into the south, seed growers would be pushed into developing new varieties that would withstand harsh winters. In other words, they had to be toughened up, so as not to wither and die in sub-freezing weather. But at the same time, they had to build into the equation a vulnerability to herbicides, particularly glyphosate. Because, if annual ryegrass were really tough, it would be hard to eliminate in the springtime and even become a persistent pest weed. Thankfully, they succeeded and annual ryegrass is very easy to manage, as long as you’re particular about paying attention to detail.

This year and next, we’ll be celebrating the 25th anniversary of those first annual ryegrass field trials in Illinois, with veteran crop educator Mike Plumer at the front of the pack, helping to understand how cover crops could help improve soil health, reduce erosion, improve water and air quality, and still end up profiting those who used it.

Annual Ryegrass – A Quarter Century of Cover Crop Growth

Mike Plumer was still alive when the cover crop experiment began in the Midwest. An innovator from the get-go, Mike was doing his own farming while also on the faculty of the U. of Illinois, researching and helping area farmers become more successful.

In the mid 1990s, Plumer and Ralph “Junior” Upton got together and the revolution got a new boost. Upton had already been experimenting with cover crops on his Springerton, Illinois acreage. The year Plumer and he first planted annual ryegrass made their eyes practically bug out. Here’s how Junior describes it, in a recent SARE article:

Upton recalls introducing ryegrass into his system and seeing roots 48 inches deep, growing through the fragipan, even though above-ground biomass was less than five inches tall. Being vulnerable to droughts was an ongoing concern in the past, but now cover crops have helped to alleviate some of that worry by improving both the water-holding capacity of his soil and the rooting depth of his corn and soybeans. “Dry weather killed me in the past due to a fragipan,” Upton explains. “I had been farming the top five inches of soil, where now I use four feet of soil.”

Since then, the number of farms employing cover crops has increased dramatically, partly because of the educational work of Plumer and Upton. Until his death in 2017, Plumer was a tireless champion, and Upton continues his efforts that, he said, have been in the direction of conservation tillage since 1970.

In celebration of the quarter century of work that has gone into cover crop market development and usage, we’ll do some interviews with growers from Oregon who funded a lot of the research and development of winter hardy species of annual ryegrass and other cover crops. We’ll also interview some of the early adopters in the Midwest, and the innovators who came up with more efficient ways to plant cover crops and even how to interseed cover crops with standing corn.

While the adoption rate to cover crops has still been a drop in the bucket (a bit less than 10% of all farm acres in the Midwest are in cover crops), the rate of acceptance has continued to rise. At the current rate of new acres being planted, it’s estimated that we could double in the next 10 years what has been planted in cover crops in the past 25 years!

Green All Year – The Legacy of Cover Crops

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the results of large scale pivot irrigation from the air. The square miles of patchwork rectangular fields interrupted by amazingly green circles of green.

Cover crops have the potential to turn lots and lots, acres upon acres, into green. And I mean that in more ways than one. And among the most beneficial aspect of planting something like annual ryegrass? It doesn’t need to be irrigated. And, because of its deep rooting nature, irrigation of crops is required less, if at all.

Annual ryegrass roots grow to depths of four, five and even six feet under. The mass of roots, in addition to being a great source of food for microbiology in the soil and a way to increase your organic matter, actually create an environment in which available precipitation is more easily integrated into deeper soil structure. That means your crops will be better able to withstand dry and drought conditions.

With its deep rooting structure, annual ryegrass also “mines” nutrients from deeper soil layers, like P and K. And because annual ryegrass sequesters available nitrogen while alive, that nitrogen is available (through the decay of roots and residue) during the growth season for corn and beans in late spring, after terminating the cover crop.

The final “green” in the equation is profit. With annual ryegrass as a rotation partner, you’re not having to invest in irrigation equipment. You’re spending less on nitrogen and weed control. You’re not having to repair eroded fields or install miles of tile lines.

Then, you find out that your soil’s health is improving with cover crops. You learn that the organic matter is increasing again after a generation of deep tillage. You find that you can graze the cover crop and make extra money with livestock. Then you see that your corn production is increasing with fewer inputs! Your harvests are larger. Your bottom line is bigger.

So when you hear the liberals chanting about a “Green New Deal” you can smile and say “I’ve got my green new deal. It’s called annual ryegrass, and I’m happy as a clam.”

The Paradox of Cover Crop Statistics

A survey of ag lands in the US shows that the Midwest is adopting cover crop usage at a faster rate than the national average.

If you remove from the total farm acreage those acres planted in hay and winter wheat, there is about 230 million acres planted in crops that could benefit from cover crops. Estimates from the survey say that cover crops were planted regularly on almost 15 and a half million acres of cropland in 2017. While that number is still below 10 percent of total cropland committed to cover crops, the good news is that the average increase is about 8 percent a year since 2012.

Better news yet is that the adoption rate in the Midwest far exceeds the national average. Whereas the nation gained just shy of 50 percent in cover crop adoption in those five years, the Midwest was at almost 80 percent increase in that time!

The above table shows that Iowa almost tripled its cover crop acres in fie years while four other Midwestern states more than doubled theirs. Indiana, an early adopter state (partly due to the work of pioneer cover crop advocates like Mike Plumer and Junior Upton) did not double the acreage devoted to cover crop use, although the state continues to lead the nation in the total number of acres planted in cover crops.

At the current rate of increase, the US would could reach 40 million acres in cover crops in this decade. Rob Myers, the regional director of extension programs for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), said that if rate increases elsewhere begin to follow the Midwest states’ trend, the 40 million acre figure might actually be much higher.

Cover Crops and COVID

Change is hard, and COVID shows us again how adapting to a new regimen is necessary for human survival.

Conventional farming is another example. For decades, farms became more productive by adding more acreage, more equipment and more chemistry.

Conservation tillage may be the equivalent of mask-wearing, social distancing and immunization requirements during this pandemic. It’s tough medicine. It’s aggravating and inconvenient. And the older we are, the more reluctant we may be to embrace those new ways.

Walking in the woods, while often relaxing, is also a way to see how change is normal in nature. Fallen timber, once upright and vibrant, are now “nurse logs” for a host of microorganisms, fauna and flora that rely on the decay of carbon in the tree for new life in so many forms.

Cover crops are like nurse logs in that way. When the cover crop is eliminated, the residual top growth and decaying roots become organic matter, the life blood of other forms of life.

When soil becomes naturally healthy again, when no-till and cover cropping allow the myriad life forms to return, the crops grown in that improved soil will pay dividends.

regenerative agriculture | Re-Source

That’s why younger farmers are embracing new methods with gusto. Just as we old timers did in our day, the younger men and women are not afraid of hard work, nor are they afraid of change. They’re in it for the long haul, and they know their investment in cover crops and regenerative agriculture methodology will pay off for them and their children.

The great thing about regenerative ag is that it will also pay off for the rest of us…everybody up and down the food chain.

Seeding Options for Annual Ryegrass

Moving into fall and harvest season, it’s time to think about seeding your cover crop for next winter and spring.

While “interseeding” of cover crops has become more popular – where you plant annual ryegrass or other cover crop seeds into knee-high corn or beans – the majority of cover croppers still plant in the late summer or fall. Here’s a quick summary of options.

Broadcasting seed by aircraft or high-clearance field equipment is very popular for a couple of reasons. First, it’s done before harvest, where there’s less going on in the field in terms of equipment use. Secondly, it takes advantage of warmer weather to allow the cover crop seed to germinate before colder weather sets in.

The downsides to broadcast seeding are few, but here they are:

  • Aircraft application can be messy – missing some areas or drifting over into a neighboring field
  • Broadcasting in any fashion may waste seed – getting caught in foliage, for example, or laying on top of the soil without enough precipitation to germinate. It’s best to seed just ahead of a predicted rainstorm for best results.

The old standard for planting cover crops was to drill it into the field at the time of corn or bean harvest. When done in optimum conditions, there’s no better way to assure a good cover crop because it gets the best seed-to-soil contact. But there are a couple of reasons why many farmers have moved to other cover crop strategies.

  • Harvest time is busy enough without adding another chore
  • Harvest time is not predictable and thus planting cover crops is sometimes left to chance – will the fields be in good enough shape to plant? Will there be suitable weather to allow establishment of a cover before temperatures drop?

Click on the following links to find out more about seeding options.

Cover Crops Linked to Cleaner Water

” Agricultural land and good water quality usually do not mix.” That’s according to academics and agronomists, who echo what farmers are finding out for themselves. That’s why cover crops are essential.

You’ve learned by now how cover crops keep nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus in the field, instead of rushing off the field in heavy rainfall or spring thaw. Whereas agriculture used to be considered destructive to the environment, with conservation tillage it’s a whole new ballgame. In fact, in the article quoted above, the upper Midwest research indicates that reduction of agricultural runoff is helping to clean up the Great Lakes.

It’s hard to imagine that the Great Lakes contain over 20 percent of the freshwater on the planet! Thus, it’s a major source of drinking water for about 40 million people, it’s crucial that the source remain viable for that purpose, as well as serving as habitat for countless species of wildlife, fish and other forms of life.

Reports from the East and Gulf coasts indicate that cover crops also are having an impact on water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and in the Gulf of Mexico, where algae bloom from excess ag runoff has caused eutrophication and hypoxia. Basically, those words mean death to aquatic life, an important fishing industry and eventually tourism as well.

It’s hard to imagine that you planting annual ryegrass on your acreage would have that kind of effect. But as thousands of farmers each year are finding out, the small improvements made on your property has ripple effects a thousand miles away.

Not only do cover crops make your property (and your bank account) healthier, the effort you make impacts millions of others who depend on a clean environment for their food, health and entertainment.