Category Archives: General Information

Once The Floods Recede!

Geez, Louise! Another crappy winter leading into a way too damn damp Spring!

When the water recedes, many conventional tillers will be faced with another plague: erosion.

All the damage – washouts, drain tiles plugged, and the value of land washing on down the Mississippi!

In addition to damage to homes, barns, roads and bridges (and the extra cost to import and export product via detours!), farmers have to deal with the prospect of a late spring planting.

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Perhaps those who have practiced no-till and cover crops will sigh a bit of relief, if the soil is still on their property when the flood waters drop again. The sight of green grass or legume popping up above the leftover silt and muck will be like a day of sun. Cover crops on the field can be like money in the bank, and erosion protection is just the beginning. Here’s more info on planting annual ryegrass as a cover crop in the spring, if you want to start a new tradition on your land.

Click here for a free booklet on the management of annual ryegrass as a cover crop.

In the next month, those with cover crops will be “managing” their annual ryegrass. Managing, in this sense, means killing it with some form of glyphosate. It’s very important for this step to be done right; if it’s not, it can become a weed and a very robust one at that.

But, take heart, in the 20 plus years of our working with farmers throughout the Midwest, in New England, in the Upper and western Midwest, and in the southern-central provinces of Canada, paying attention to the details of spring cover crop management pays dividends immediately. The residual nitrogen becomes food for the young corn plants, for example. And the rotting annual ryegrass roots make room for corn roots to grow deeper into the soil, adding a layer of protection in the event of a dry summer. Finally, the massive decaying roots of cover crops feed untold gazillions of microbio life forms that contribute to healthier soil.

Best wishes to those of you with water on your property…may the Lord be merciful to you and your families! And when the water drops, consider going down to the Coop and checking out cover crops for protecting your property investment for the next go round. You may decide that trying out a small plot this spring – seeded into knee-high corn (interseeding method) will be this year’s innovation.

 

 

Videos about Successful Annual Ryegrass Planting and Forage Applications

Two of the most popular videos on the Ryegrass Cover crop YouTube site are:

In the first, Mike Plumer and others talk about the basics of no-till with cover crops. Mike, the late (and great granddad of cover crop reintroduction in the Midwest) Illinois agronomist, was instrumental in getting farmers to try cover crops. He was also among the first to begin to quantify the economic and environmental benefits of annual ryegrass.

Video frame - Annual Ryegrass

In the second, Don Ball and Garry Lacefield introduce the basics of developing a successful forage program on your farm. In this segment, they talk about annual ryegrass, because of its ease of development and its superior nutrition. Dr. Ball is a professor emeritus from Auburn University; Dr. Lacefield is a professor emeritus from the University of Kentucky. The pair wrote a very popular book: Southern Forages, now in its 4th printing.

Video - Forage Keys to Profitability

While you’re checking out these basics, you might also want to check out other free resources on the annual ryegrass website. Click here.

Farmer Success Stories with Annual Ryegrass

Over the past 20 years, tens of thousands of farms across the Midwest have quit tillage practices because they harm the soil. Instead, they’ve gone to no-till and cover crops.

To review reasons to switch to cover crops, click here and get a free detailed guide to the benefits.

ARG Chris B 45 days 10-15 to 12-30-2005

Here are brief summaries of some who have become champions of annual ryegrass as a cover crop, because it makes both agricultural and economic sense.

Loran Steinlage, West Union, Iowa: “I use annual ryegrass in mixes on critical areas like washouts and Highly Erodible Land.”

John Werries, Chapin, Illinois. “I hate erosion. We think annual ryegrass had the best root system of any cover crop. It’s amazing to see the roots that it puts down.”

Donn Branton, Le Roy, New York. “Cereal rye can really get away from you in the spring. There’s less risk of that with annual ryegrass. And ryegrass has good, deep roots. Compared to cereal rye, annual ryegrass has a lower carbon-to-nitrogen ratio.”

Mike Starkey, Brownsburg, Indiana. “I’ve been using annual ryegrass as my cover crop of choice for at least ten years. Annual ryegrass has the biggest root mass of any cover crop. The roots can go down 36 to 48 inches deep. Those annual ryegrass roots scavenge a lot of nitrogen, which gets released later in the growing season.”

Mike Shuter, Frankton, Indiana. “We have a 110-acre field in a wet area of the county that needs drainage. After seeding it to ryegrass in the fall of 2012, we didn’t lose any corn in 2013. But all of the fields around it had spots that drowned out.”

Matt VanTilburg, Celina, Ohio. “We seed 20,000 acres of ryegrass in mixes a year – several thousand of ours and the rest custom.

Dave Wise, Iowa dairy farmer. “I first tried annual ryegrass in 2011, drilling 40 acres. Now, I seed it on continuous corn ground chopped for silage. In 2014, annual ryegrass seeded on bottom ground took off very well and overwintered well, too.”

How to Pull Nitrogen into Corn with Annual Ryegrass

One of the dozen benefits from planting a cover crop like annual ryegrass is to sequester, or uptake, available nitrogen (N) in the soil. This is accomplished mostly by reducing the amount of N that leaches out of the field over winter and spring.

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Annual ryegrass is among the most popular cover crops for a variety of reasons, including erosion-proofing your crop acres. Before that, it germinates easily and grows well in cool weather, whether planted in the fall after corn harvest or interseeded with corn in the spring. If planted in the fall, it maximizes root growth and N uptake before cold weather limits growth. If interseeded, it establishes among knee-high corn then goes dormant in the shade of a corn canopy, then goes to town after fall harvest.

Perhaps the biggest asset of annual ryegrass is the depth of its roots. In no-tilled fields after a few years to work its wonders, ryegrass roots can be found to depths of 4 and 5 feet, far below other cover crops. But even in new-to-cover-crop acres, ryegrass roots can easily sink to 3 feet over the winter, breaking up compaction on the way to accessing nutrients deeper in the profile.

But further savings can be realized when considering that annual ryegrass (and other cover crops) sequester available N in their leaves and roots. Then, once terminated in the spring (with glysophate), the cover crop residue composts in the field, releasing N just when the corn needs it most, in late spring and early summer. With a cover crop like this, you can reduce your input of N fertilizer by up to  half, depending on other factors.

Learn more about the benefits of annual ryegrass by clicking here.

 

 

 

Erosion Control – Listen to Cover Crop Innovator Steve Groff

It’s hard to believe that no-till and cover crops are still a strange concept to farmers, even after all the positive news there has been about it. Even after 30 years of increased popularity, less than 10 percent of Midwest farmers are active users of this revolutionary practice.

Steve Groff, a Pennsylvania farmer since the 1970s, said he first looked into no-till in the early 1980s, trying to slow down the erosion on his acreage. He said in a recent interview  that the practice did slow down erosion, especially after he began using cover crops.After three years,  he also noticed that the soil began to “mellow out,” meaning the infiltration of rain water increased, the organic matter was more evident and the microbiology in the soil improved.

In 1995, when cover crops first began to emerge, thanks in part to the Oregon ryegrass seed growers (and Mike Plumer at the Univ. of Illinois Extension), Groff began working with Dr. Ray Weil, a Univ. of Maryland professor of agriculture and natural resources. Groff and Weil partnered on research on cover crops. In the fourth year, Pennsylvania experienced a drought and Groff noticed that corn yield on acres planted in cover crops got 28 bushels more than adjacent fields with no cover crops. That was what convinced him…the boost in yield because of healthier soil.

“You couldn’t pay me to NOT plant cover crops,” Groff said.

But, to go back to erosion for a moment. In the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast, with John Kempf,  the host described just how devastating erosion is for healthy crops. NRCS calculated that, on average, farmland in Iowa loses two pounds of topsoil every year for every pound of grain harvested!

Put another way, Groff said, every 1/4 pound hamburger represents four pounds of of topsoil lost to erosion!

Image result for dust storms midwest US 2018

Dust storms in Midwest, in addition to stripping topsoil from productive agricultural acreage, also causes fatalities due to poor visibility on roads.

Later in the podcast, Groff said that when he thinks about soil health, it’s not so much about a problem with erosion but a problem with infiltration. In other words, cover crops dramatically increase the soil’s ability to absorb water instead of it washing off the surface and removing topsoil with it.

He also said that soil health is not so much an issue with fertility as with microbial health. He said that if you have something growing in the field all year, with cover crops in the wintertime, the bacterial and microorganisms that rely on stable soil (untilled) with lots of organic matter. So, if the microbial health is there, the soil quality will be there as well.

Ryegrass, Good for a Climate Goin’ Through Some Changes

Science tends to win out over guesswork. Few would disavow centuries of medical experience in favor of hocus-pocus and suspicions. Similarly, those with decades of working the soil tend to heed the sciences pertinent to agriculture, rather than winging it based on something you heard from your brother-in-law.

So, whether the science of climate change is spot on, there’s little question that weather continues to be a major factor in growing healthy crops. Storms may be getting stronger, so it’s crucial to protect your most valued asset: the soil.

Corn Plant on Field

Annual ryegrass protects the soil from erosion throughout the year, because the soil is never fully exposed to the wind and heavy rain. Infiltration of water into the soil is improved, thus increasing the reservoir of moisture for later months. And when flooding does occur, cover crops like annual ryegrass will slow it down, and keep the event from washing out field tiles. Cover crops keep the moisture in the watershed, instead of it washing downstream, carrying  precious nutrients.

No-till and cover crops also provide soil integrity, allowing the roots and other organic matter to create an environment of stable health. As a living entity, the soil environment stays in place better when bad weather occurs if you’ve got it covered with a cover  crop..

When it turns dry, cover crops tend to reduce oxidation of the soil, and to provide a longer period before the soil dries out. Annual ryegrass roots being far deeper than other cover crops, it’s a safe bet that corn will flourish if annual ryegrass has been in the field for even five years as a cover crop.

Genetic engineering has played a significant role in crop durability and production. Coupled with no-till and cover cropping, agriculture in the Midwest is better equipped to withstand the changes brought on by climate variations, whether for the short term or permanently.

What if ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ also Refers to Your Soil?

As human beings, we tend to think narrowly about what, in the book of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” He went on to say that, besides the first commandment (to love God), loving thy neighbor is the second most important commandment.

As you look out your window, past the windrow and the bare trees , over the landscape now almost barren of vegetation, perhaps you can catch a glimpse of your neighbor’s barn and house. Of course, you’ve driven by it hundreds of times every year. Maybe you’ve visited. Maybe you’ve helped out in their need, as they’ve helped out in yours. This is surely what Jesus meant about loving thy neighbor.

Image result for image love thy neighbor as thyself

But what about a less conventional idea of neighbor? What if the soil is your neighbor? When you think of what makes up soil, how is it really different than you and me? We are both living, organic systems of life, hosting incalculable other forms of life that we don’t really see as us. We couldn’t exist without bacteria helping to digest food and eliminate waste, for example.

To take this argument a step further, consider this fact: Cells in our body couldn’t reproduce without the existence of mitochondria. These tiny factories inside our cells turn sugars, fats and proteins into energy. They also guard against cells staying around too long and mutating. Without mitochondria, we would not exist.

If you look closely at the hair roots of living plants, mitochondria are there too, just behind the tip of each root hair, helping transform water and soil nutrients into energy that is then transported throughout the plant for growth.

We know from our own health record, how ignoring a balanced life can cause early onset of disease and death. We know, and sometimes forget, that good nutrition, proper rest and plenty of physical work are ways to keep our bodies and minds healthy.

And so it is with the soil. For generations, we thought that deeper plowing and more inputs of fertilizer and pesticides had no consequence. We now know that, like the human body, the soil must have its own form of good nutrition, rest and exercise. Without it, the mitochondria are gone, organic matter is lost and the soil becomes lifeless.

Jesus surely knew the importance of healthy soil, just as much as he preached about a healthy soul. While he was able to make plenty from next to nothing – like the loaves and the fishes, and turning water into wine – we are not Jesus. We cannot wave a magic wand to make our soils healthy once again. But we can do it the old fashioned way, by loving your soil as yourself.

Giving Thanks

Pete Seeger, in the 1950s, adapted a verse from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-8) and the song reached #1 on the Billboard chart of American hits in mid 1960s.

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It starts: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: 

A time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

During this time of reflection, pause to consider whether our country has had enough killing, enough breaking down, enough weeping and enough mourning?

Perhaps we need to devote more time to healing, building up, laughing and dancing?

Side by side with the gifts we receive in life, we must also consider the responsibilities we have been given, How can we widen our normal sphere of influence: family, friends, church, co-workers and acquaintances?

How can we celebrate our diverse heritages and faiths while also lending a hand up to those whose lives are led on the fringes of our society: the old and dying, the poor and uneducated, the traumatized and under-treated, those imprisoned, those we often lose sight of or discard as worthless?

Churches are famous for their rituals, and rituals are important. How can we extend what they offer in our personal lives, away from church? How can we build a daily practice of seeing one another as children of God?. How can we build up community goodwill through seasonal celebrations of our commonalities, the things that unite us rather than what separates us?

Grass Roots are Important – Whether in Politics or in Cover Crops

This recent election proved again why “grass roots” are important. More than colorful flyers and 30-second ads can ever do, grass roots is where democracy started, and continues to start each election cycle. The more money being thrown at negative advertising has never been higher, and our political divide between “right and left” drives some to think that violence may be the only way forward. We must fight that urge, for practical reasons and for spiritual ones.

Having taken part in “door to door” get-out-the-vote efforts this year, I can say that grass roots democracy brings people together, organizes us around central (hopefully honest) ideals and unifies us towards laudable goals. In one conversation, a guy working on tree pruning asked me about what campaign I was working on. At first, he bristled when he realized I was on “the other side.” Then we talked about values underneath our different opinions: the value of human life, the value of personal choice and the value of freedom. We parted ways, not necessarily any closer politically, but we both found space in out difference to laugh, to shake hands and to find reason to respect the other.

Image result for image grassroots of politics

Perhaps It’s instructive that we use grassroots to describe ways humans organize. Divisive politics is like using a ripper…it goes deep but doesn’t add any nutrients in the process. And, if you look at the soil just under the plow blade, you’ll see compaction. To get crops to grow, you have to add more and more inputs to create a healthy crop Divisive politics is the same way. You keep adding money from outside, but it does little to create unity; instead it creates compacted opinions and compacted hearts.Unhealthy and unsustainable.

Using annual ryegrass as a cover crop, you can see a whole different story. Its deep roots bust through old compacted layers and find a treasure of nutrients and moisture below. And the fine web of roots spreading out from the main stem connect in a network with all kinds of life around it. It unifies rather than divides. It includes rather than separates. It shares and creates opportunities for all kinds of healthy life around it. Fewer outside inputs, it becomes sustainable because it works with nature, not against it.

Let us know what stories, or ideas, you have about creating more grassroots efforts where you live. We’ll use the stories in a subsequent blog post.

Recalling a Man Who Put Annual Ryegrass on the Cover Crop Map

mike-plumer

 

Mike Plumer was a guy who made sure he knew what he was talking about before he’d open his mouth. He didn’t tout his academic degrees or his professional experience as much as giving you the benefit of his PERSONAL experience.

When it came to cover crops, Mike was out in front of practically the whole country. With his friend Ralph “Junior” Upton, Mike began to experiment with no-til and cover crops. Junior’s land, hilly with some bottom land and featuring a lot of fragipan layering, was as good a place to start as any.

What Mike and Junior noticed almost right away, back in the early 1990s, was that annual ryegrass was easy to germinate. It tolerates being wet, so the bottom land blossomed. And, though he approached this next step carefully, he saw that annual ryegrass killed easily in the spring, provided you do your homework on killing it properly.

One of the biggest surprises, however, was how deep annual ryegrass roots grow over the winter. Because the seed is raised in Oregon, on wet soils, the roots don’t need to grow deep to flourish. But in the Midwest, the moisture and nutrients are way deep sometimes, and annual ryegrass goes after it.

Thirty years hence, the Midwest continues to adopt cover cropping slowly, but surely. Farmers understand economics, and cover crops make money, in several ways. They improve soil quality, so the harvest is fuller. Annual ryegrass sequesters nitrogen, so you save on fertilizer input. And cover crops store carbon and build organic matter, which makes the land you own that much more valuable when it comes time to sell.

Mike Plumer, may he rest in peace. Who knows, perhaps there’s an Extension Service in heaven, and Mike’s been put to work building healthy futures there, too.

Click here to view a helpful powerpoint presentation Mike put together in his last years.