Category Archives: Soil Quality

Annual Ryegrass – the Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 7

Meet Mark Mellbye – Oregon’s ‘Johnny Appleseed’ of Annual Ryegrass – Part 1

As you may have read, Oregon grass seed growers and the state’s Ryegrass Commission were largely responsible for giving the Midwest cover crop initiative a substantial push over the past 25 years, as has been summarized in previous posts.

The growers you’ve read about in this series, namely Don Wirth and Nick Bowers, both named another Oregonian for acknowledgement, who put a considerable imprint on the project’s success. That man is Mark Mellbye.

Mellbye was raised in Oregon and earned two ag-related degrees from the state’s land grant college in Corvallis – Oregon State University (yes, another OSU!). He joined the Peace Corps after his first graduation and spent 18 months in Lesotho, teaching science and math, then another year traveling throughout Africa.

Before taking a position back at his alma mater, in 1986, Mark was an extension agent in Washington State. The nature of his position at OSU, he said, matched the state’s interest in helping to promote Oregon ag products, and that’s why he was able to spend so much time with Midwest cover crops in the past 25 years.

“A large part of my work in Oregon was to respond to local growers’ requests,” Mark said, “to work on projects of use to them.” Before he retired, Mark was the District Agronomist, overseeing OSU Extension projects in three counties, collectively known as “the grass seed capital of he world”. “The other aspect of my job, and the University was very supportive of this, was to help extend the marketplace for Oregon seed. The Midwest cover crop initiative was the focus.”

He added, “Of course, I was only marginally responsible for what happened with annual ryegrass adoption in the Midwest, but it’s impressive to think that when we started in the late ‘90s, there was no annual ryegrass seed sales to the Midwest whatsoever. Today, there’s upwards of 20 million pounds being shipped there for cover crop use annually, out of about 200 million pounds of annual ryegrass seed produced in Oregon.”

Mike Plumer’s name is forever linked with pioneering cover crops in the Midwest. What is less known is that Plumer, the Illinois crop advisor, didn’t consider annual ryegrass as a possible cover crop until he met Mark in 1997 and they began working together. Until then, Mike had been dabbling with cereal rye, winter wheat, hairy vetch and peas as cover crop potentials. And, as those who knew Mike understood, he was very principled and would immediately balk if he sensed he was being used for some commercial purpose, including the sales of annual ryegrass.

For the cover crop project to succeed, it would have to succeed on a number of fronts. After all, change is hard for most people, and new things tend to have bugs to work out before they are widely accepted.

“One hurdle was that the equipment needed to plant any seed into a no-till field – whether you’re talking corn, soybean or cover crop seeds – was in the process of significant upgrade and modification,” Mark said. “Today, machines can consistently plant those seeds into residue and even into green standing cover crops. Another hurdle was that the nature of annual ryegrass growth in cash crops was an unknown, but the notion was already out there that it should not be trusted. There was a suspicion, generated mostly by weed scientists, that annual ryegrass would become uncontrollable if it got loose in Midwest cornfields.”

“We’ve largely cleared those hurdles,” Mark said, “and we’re on our way to clearing the next one, which is largely educational. It may take the next generation of growers to accept the idea that conventional tillage is too expensive, and that despite the learning curve, cover crops are better for the wallet, for the soil and for the environment.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.