Category Archives: General Information

Annual Ryegrass – the Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 1

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 put in some test plots of annual ryegrass seed that fall, after harvest, to see if it might slow down erosion over the winter and into spring.

In the next dozen 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 the details.

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.

Transition to Cover Crops – Cornerstone to Sustainable Ag

Check out this video on YouTube – of Rich Clark, Field to Market’s Farmer of the Year in 2019. Rich is a fifth generation Indiana (Williamsport) farmer and his claim to fame is making conservation tillage and cover cropping into a full-time affair. The term for this type of ag – “regenerative”!

He began no-tilling and cover cropping only a decade ago, but said his first year with it (annual ryegrass) convinced him he was on the right track. He said after only one year doing a cover crop in corn, it produced the best average yield of his entire 7000 acre farm!

Since then, Rich has converted his entire acreage to cover crops. He’s gone all NON-GMO seed, which has given other farmers the incentive to try it too. Massive food companies like Dannon and Unilever contract with farmers like him to grow products sought by more and more people seeking food health and safety.

He said, “We have a diverse mix of crops and we have cattle. We are 100% non-GMO on all crops and we don’t use any starter fertilizer, fungicide, seed treatment or insecticide at all.”

One of his key practices is crop rotation, because it (and cover crops) contributes to a natural bonus of nitrogen into the soil. It also reduces weeds, interrupts the life cycle of pests and thus eliminates the need of pesticides. Here, from an article in the Sustainability Alliance website, Rick describes how he manages the rotation. “One-third of our farm is in a three-crop rotation – corn, soybeans and wheat. Another third is in a four-crop rotation – corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa for a nearby dairy. The remaining third is in transition to organic. We have just got approval for our first organic certified acres, which I’m very excited about.”

Among the outcomes of this switch to a Nature-oriented growing is that Rick says he spends LESS per acre than he used to…less on fertilizer and other chemicals, and less on equipment (he doesn’t need as much power so he sold off some of his more powerful tractors in favor of smaller ones, which saved him $35,000 in fuel in the past nine years!)

And the frosting on the cake…his choice to move to regenerative ag has him working with other customers who pay premium for non-GMO, locally raised crops and livestock,

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.