Category Archives: Soil Quality

Cover Crops and Organic Matter

Organic matter, a foundational element of health soil, is the key to plant health and consequently human health. Without organic matter, there would be nothing to feed the myriad forms of life that make up healthy soil.

Cultivation of land leads to extreme loss of organic matter. Midwest crop acreage 150 years ago probably had between 4 and 5 percent organic matter. Some acres today have less than 2 percent. Thankfully, with no-till and cover crops, a healthy percentage of organic matter can be regenerated in a decade of careful application of conservation practices including cover crops.

According to crop scientists like John Biernbaum at Michigan State, there are multiple types of organic matter. First, there is the living part which includes plant roots, earthworms and other insects, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and more, Then there are several “dead” parts of organic matter in various stages of decay. Some forms, like plant leaves, stalks and roots, break down in a matter of weeks to months, while other forms like tree trunks, take decades or longer.

Organic matter, in addition to being the primary source of food for the many forms of life in the soil, is also important for the infiltration and retention of moisture. Researchers tell us that each pound of carbon in the soil can retain up to 40 lbs of water.

Cover crops function in a couple of important ways in this cycle. First, they keep the soil in place, preventing erosion. Next, the roots of cover crops exude sugars that feed life below the surface. Finally, they create channels through which rain and snowmelt get deeper into the soil profile.

For more information about growing cover crops, check out this Management Guide.

Cover Crops Promoted in Film Documentaries

When Hollywood and TV legend Woody Harrelson decides to spend his time and money promoting cover crops and other conservation methods, it’s a sure bet that America is embracing the idea of nurturing the soil from which our food comes.

The 2020 film Kiss the Earth was released last year and is available for streaming on Netflix and Vimeo. One of the “stars” in the film is Ray Archuleta, a career Conservation Agronomist with NRCS

Here’s a link to the movie’s websiite: https://kisstheground.com/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw7pKFBhDUARIsAFUoMDYI5A7UxwS76riX-e6e9GA9Sh_gCPcRrYl1v5njY4c4AwVzCY6hybEaAtssEALw_wcB

Kiss the Ground Film | Official Website

Another documentary called Living Soil, with host Jerry Hatfield, goes into more detail about the components of healthy soil. Hatfield, director of the USDA’s National Lab for Agriculture and the Environment, is free to view on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntJouJhLM48

And, here’s another one, Dirt, very educational and entertaining, that looks at the importance of fertile soil….and the way we can keep it from becoming barren. In order to watch this, you have to sign up…but watching it is free. https://tubitv.com/movies/312590/dirt-the-movie?start=true

And, given that the Oregon Ryegrass Commission has produced a series of videos about how to grow cover crops successfully, you can click here to see the details. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klrE48Zve7A

The Germ Seed of Cover Cropping in the US – Part 14

The Chemical in Ryegrass that Crumbles Fragipan

The hunch that annual ryegrass use was breaking down the fragipan at Junior Upton’s farm in Illinois was like music to Lloyd Murdock’s ears. The University of Kentucky (UK) research team had begun to experiment with different chemicals in the greenhouse and field where he worked at the University of Kentucky’s Princeton farm and in the lab on the main campus.

While they waited for results on field plots of annual ryegrass they planted that year, the UK research team began working with the plant in controlled lab and greenhouse environments. They created extracts made from annual ryegrass roots, as well as from the foliage. “Naturally cemented fragipan clods were placed in a solution of annual ryegrass extract. Thirty days later the size and distribution of the remaining aggregates were determined. As the binding agent in the fragipan is dissolved by the chemical, the fragipan clod begins to fall apart. The greater the dissolution of the binding agent, the smaller the remaining aggregates.  Ag related chemicals were also tested but it was annual ryegrass that demonstrated the most significant ability to dissolve the cementing agents biding the fragipan particles,” he said.

Lloyd also made numerous trips to visit Junior’s farm in those years, to authenticate what they were experiencing there, and to apply what was being gleaned. “We’ve known, for example, that some plants do not exert much pressure at the root tip. Annual ryegrass roots tips, on the other hand, exert a high amount of pressure,” Lloyd said. “So those roots will seek out a crack or weak spot in the fragipan and break through there. It doesn’t take many roots getting through to make a difference. And when corn roots follow those same channels the following year, they’re getting access to nutrition and moisture below the fragipan,” he added. The combination of plant chemistry and root pressure has a dramatic effect on fragipan.

The UK team did replicated trials in five Kentucky and Indiana sites. Below, Table 1 shows, in controlled studies, annual ryegrass reduced the thickness of fragipan significantly at each site, allowing more soil depth for crops.

Dave Fischer is a beef producer from Indiana, and it is his Debois County farm mentioned in the table above. Fisher has planted annual ryegrass on his farm for the past eight years. “When I visited his farm last year, I found that he had lowered the fragipan depth by 14 inches and had annual ryegrass roots 29 inches deep,” Lloyd said.

“Those results floored me,” said Fisher in a video on the project. “But at the same time, I had noticed that these fields seemed to not dry out as fast compared to what they used to and to neighboring fields. We were hanging in there a lot longer during drought periods,” he said. “I would plant it just because of the forage, but the addition of breaking up the fragipan has just been super.”

“I’m more excited about this research than any other project I’ve worked on in my 45 years at the University of Kentucky,” Lloyd said in a University news article, “because it can help so many people. It is something that farmers can work into their operations now to increase their yields.”

As he prepared to retire once again, Lloyd said he has been grateful for the Oregon Commission, and others, whose support was crucial for the UK team’s work on annual ryegrass research. “And it looks like others who have noticed our work are picking up where we’ve left off,” he said with a smile. “Claire Phillips, who received her PhD from Oregon State University and has been a soil scientist for the USDA in Iowa for six years, as well as Dr. Dan Olk and Dr. Dana Dinnes are interested in continuing the work we began. And, likewise, John Pike, an agronomist at Southern Illinois University, has also expressed interest in helping to further the research of fragipan and to continue promoting the use of annual ryegrass as a cover crop.”

The Germ Seed of Cover Cropping in the US – Part 13

Annual Ryegrass…When “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”

An “aha” moment began this 14-part series, and it’s fitting we end it with another aha moment!

Dr. Lloyd Murdock has spent many of his productive years at the University of Kentucky as a soils and crop specialist. The link in the previous sentence summarizes a decades long effort that has earned Lloyd a well-deserved reputation as one of America’s “pioneers of no-till agriculture.”

“I had retired in 2012,” Lloyd recalled, “but specifically returned part time the following year to focus research on how to eliminate, or at least reduce, a deep layer of cemented soil called fragipan. Of course, during his career, Lloyd was aware of the seemingly intractable fragipan problem. “But with all the other things I was involved with, I didn’t have enough time. So, when I returned in 2013, I involved a soil chemist, soil pedologist and another agronomist and we set about doing lab, greenhouse and field testing on how to break up that cemented layer.” The breakthrough project is described in a lengthy report published last year by the University of Kentucky.

Fragipan soils are present in almost a third of the US, running from east Texas northeast into New York and parts of New England. In Kentucky alone, it hampers agriculture on 2.7 million acres. Fragipan is almost like bedrock in places, beginning anywhere from 18 to 32 inches below the soil surface. The layer becomes cement-like because of an iron-associated aluminosilicate that binds soil together tightly and restricts water penetration and root growth. Crops grown on these soils have limited soil depth, below which crop roots cannot go. Furthermore, in wet weather, fragipan prevents proper drainage. Topsoil gets saturated and squeezes out oxygen, increases the loss of nitrogen, delays planting, and increases the chances of even more soil compaction with any new tractor traffic.

In the 40 years he was researching and teaching the benefits of no-till, Lloyd said he recalled how people were addressing fragipan. “I was involved in early experiments injecting lime or other chemicals into the pan on 30-inch centers, hoping to break it down,” he said. “I was aware of field trials at other universities using deep mechanical rippers to break up the fragipan.  But in a short time, the soil would reconfigure and harden once again. It was quite expensive and none of it proved effective.”

Then in 2014, through the Oregon Ryegrass Commission, Lloyd was introduced to Mike Plumer, another pioneer in conservation agriculture who had been working on contract to the Commission since the early 2000s. It was he who had begun to quantify the value of annual ryegrass as a cover crop. Inadvertently, at Ralph “Junior” Upton’s farm in southern Illinois, they stumbled on the discovery of annual ryegrass’ deep roots. And in the process, they saw how ryegrass roots seemed to be growing into the fragipan on Junior’s compacted acreage.

“Everything happened by accident,” Junior said. “When I started, I only had about 5 inches of topsoil before I would hit the fragipan. I was trying to get through dry weather. I got a grant and started studying no-till and cover crops. Then a representative of Oregon Ryegrass Commission asked me to try annual ryegrass as a cover crop.”

“They’d stumbled onto something really big,” Lloyd said. “Thankfully, Mike and Junior kept good records on their annual ryegrass work. They found that after a few years, the corn production on the acres Junior planted annual ryegrass began to outproduce fields without it. When they started tracking progress on those fields in the early 2000s, he and Mike determined that Junior’s acreage was producing 10 to 20 bushels per acre less than the average in that county. Today, those same acres are producing 40 bushels per acre more than the county average.

The Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 12

Cover Crop Adoption – Expanding Geometrically as Knowledge Expands Exponentially

“Planting annual ryegrass in the fall and seeing nothing come up is greatly disappointing,” said Jamie Scott, a 3rd generation Indiana farmer. “At first, cover crop experts chalked it up to planting too late, for example, or not enough fall rain to germinate the crop, or winterkill – getting frozen out in a harsh winter. That was in the early 2000s,” he added. “That was back when there was still a lot to learn about cover crops. And we’re still learning.”

By 2010, after extensive field trials and research, agronomists discovered that there could be residual herbicide in the field that prevented cover crops from taking root. “We would spray herbicides on fields in the fall to control winter annuals,” said Jamie, now a 20-year veteran of cover crop use. “And by the end of the winter, the effectiveness would have lapsed. But companies have come out with longer lasting herbicides that will keep weeds down for a year,” he added. “That’s great if you want the lasting effect, but it’s a problem if you plan to use a cover crop the following year.”(Check out this flyer)

Jamie is among a growing number of Midwest farmers who have expertise on how to successfully manage cover crops. After their first year, trying it out on three fields, the Scotts went all in, and now no-till and cover crop their entire 2000 acres. He has helped to pioneer aerial application of cover crop seeds, after experiencing how difficult it is to consistently get a cover crop planted after fall harvest.

“In our second year with cover crops, we tried a variety of planting methods. The third year, with a lot of advice from Mike Plumer and Dan Towery, we were putting the seed on with aircraft. We flew it on prior to harvest and thus gained weeks on the planting date. We tried using a helicopter one year, but shortly realized its shortcomings,” he continued. “We were trying to save a few pennies per load and ended up losing dollars on the other end.”

As the years went by, the knowledge about when and how to fly on seed kept growing, and Jamie has presented to national audiences with details needed to get started. As a result, Jamie started a side business – Scott’s Cover Crops LLC – in order to help other growers who now wanted seed applied earlier in the fall. “At the start, it didn’t really interfere too much with our farming operation,” Jamie said, “and my dad handled that for a month while I organized the cover crop application for customers.”

“But now it’s become almost a year-round business,” he explained. “As a turnkey operation, I manage the seed mix purchase and delivery, the aerial application and the termination of it in the spring,” he said, “and among the clients I’ve got in my cell phone, you’re looking at more than 100,000 acres.” That amounts to over 400 farmers in Northern Indiana and Southern Michigan.

Jamie is enthusiastic in terms of describing the changes in the industry in his lifetime. “I compare what happens to an individual who doesn’t care for themselves to that of the ag industry,” he said. “When I get to racing around during a busy time and I don’t eat right, I’m gonna pay for it. If I do that year after year, I run a higher and higher risk for some kind of health scare – heart attack or cancer, for example. Well, the same is true for farming. We’ve run up against a health scare, in which we’ve run down the quality of the soil and polluted the water and air in the process.”

In addition to his work in the field, Jamie has also been active as a cover crop educator, attending trade shows and introducing newcomers to cover crops, just as he was introduced 20 years ago. He is also the Chairman of his county’s Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), as well as being Vice-President of the statewide association of SWCDs. In that work over the past years, he has continued to learn about the partnerships that have formed to better protect the precious resources. Two in particular that he has worked with: Bob Barr, a scientist working for the Center for Earth and Environmental Sciences, and Jennifer Tank, PhD, Director of Notre Dame University’s Environmental Change Initiative. “Those people, and their universities, are helping all of us to understand the value of capturing carbon in the soil, keeping nutrients in the field, and thus improving the quality of watersheds that  eventually feed the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.”

The Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 11

One Helping Hand Deserves Another

Jamie Scott, a 3rd generation Indiana farmer now in his mid-40s, grew up having heard about no-till and cover crops from his dad and grandad. As you may have read in earlier posts, no-till was barely on Midwest farmers’ radar screen in the 1980s, and cover cropping was even more of a rarity.

The Scotts had not adopted the practice vigorously at that time, and conventional tillage still ruled the day on their farm and most others farms as well. Nonetheless, the Scotts were not averse to it, which made a big difference. “My granddad would hand-sow clover or plant cereal rye with a spreader after harvest on certain plots,” Jamie said. “And I remember my dad telling me about his buying the farm next door in 1976. The previous owner, like my grandad, had also used cover crops. My dad was amazed to learn the difference between that neighbor’s fields and some of ours. Where he had consistently used cover crops, the organic matter was at or just above 4.0, compared to tilled acreage like ours which in places was as low as 2.5. That got my dad’s attention!”

It wasn’t until after attending a couple of ag conferences in 2002, though, that Jamie and his dad began to get serious with no-till and cover crops on their 2000 acres northwest of Fort Wayne. He visited the Oregon Ryegrass booth at the National No-Till Conference that year, and the Farm Machinery Show in Louisville, talking with Oregon grass seed growers Larry Venell and Don Wirth. “They were skeptical that I would be able get annual ryegrass to winter over that far north,” Jamie chuckled. “Back then, they thought annual ryegrass wouldn’t stand up to winter weather much north of I-70,” he added, “and we’re 125 miles north of there! One of the things that was helpful at the time was that they didn’t try to cover up what they didn’t know about ryegrass as a cover crop and how to manage it in this environment.”

Jamie Scott, Indiana farmer and cover crop advisor – https://www.no-tillfarmer.com/articles/7463-no-tiller-discusses-rotation-and-cover-crop-strategies

Fast forward to 2021. The entire Scott farm acreage is in no-till and cover crops. Jamie has become a regional expert on cover crops and oversees application and management of cover crop seed on more than 100,000 acres a year in his area. “If it weren’t for the Oregon Commission, and guys like Mike Plumer and Dan Towery to help me out, I probably wouldn’t be working with cover crops at all,” he said. “Their knowledge and willingness to come out to work through it with me was crucial.”

Their first year, after the corn and beans had come off the fields, Jamie and his dad Jim put in about 40 acres of annual ryegrass. “In that first year, the seed had three varieties in the same bag,” he said, “and this was before they had figured out which varieties were the hardiest. So, our results were mixed,” he added. “One corn field looked great, another was so-so, and the bean field we planted too late with annual ryegrass looked like nothing happened at all. But, the next spring, it turned out that even in the bean field, the ryegrass had sent out a lot of roots and we got benefits without much top growth. And in each of those fields, production was improved over fields where no cover crops were planted. We were sold after that,” he said. “In fact, I was driving by the bean field with an agronomist the following year, and he noticed without my saying anything that the beans where annual ryegrass had been planted looked greener and healthier.”

“I’ve come to understand that as stresses increase, like droughts, the greater are the benefits of cover crops,” Jamie added. “Take for example the deep rooting of annual ryegrass. It creates root channels that are used by corn plants to access moisture far deeper than otherwise. In dry years the difference in yield between cover-cropped acres and those in conventional tillage is remarkable.”

“The knowledge we lost in the 20th Century about no-till and cover crops is coming back,” Jamie continued. “After generations of nothing but deeper and deeper tillage, we’re becoming more conservation-minded as an industry. We’ve come to appreciate the connection between cover crops, soil health and crop production. On our property, we’ve gradually built the organic matter back up, and it has more than paid for itself in healthier soil and better production.

The Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 9

Remember this bumper sticker: Every Day is Earth Day for Farmers?  

It was a reminder to tree-huggers who, since the first Earth Day (1970), had been wagging their fingers at farmers for being “bad for the environment.” Farmers, for their part, have been equally suspicious of environmentalists for wanting to restrict farm livelihoods with unrealistic government regulations.

Given that animosity and suspicion, it seemed unlikely that a partnership might ever form between farmers and environmentalists. But that is exactly what happened in the early 2000s, after The Nature Conservancy (TNC) had identified the Tippecanoe River watershed in Indiana among its top 10 priorities in America, in terms of threats to aquatic wildlife. They showed how sediment in the runoff from fields adjacent to the Tippecanoe River were killing freshwater mussels and other aquatic species in northwestern Indiana’s watershed.

Dan Towery, who by then worked as a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) agronomist and educator for the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) in West Lafayette, Indiana, witnessed the historic partnership in real time. An Illinois native and graduate from Western Illinois University and, later, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dan had started his professional agronomy career in 1980, with NRCS.

Recalling those earlier days, Dan said the early ‘80s was when no-tilling began to attract the attention of agronomists and innovative growers. Given the erosion problems and loss of organic matter since the 1950s, people awoke to the value of no-till, and leaving plant residue on the soil after planting. Besides reducing erosion, no-till farming also reduces the number of tillage trips, thereby reducing fuel consumption as well as soil compaction. Likewise, it sets the stage for increasing organic matter and healthier soil biology, leaving soil intact and decomposing plants to be consumed by earthworms, fungi, and healthy bacteria.

Dan credits Larry Clemons, a conservation organizer for Indiana TNC, with the skills to bring together a diverse partnership to address the problem of freshwater pollution. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management was included, as were various land trust and environmental organizations, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Purdue University, corporations, and landowners, some whose activities impacted the river’s health. By the time Dan started at CTIC, it was already part of that effort. It was he who suggested the use of annual ryegrass as part of TNC’s plan to reduce runoff from fields.

Dan was introduced to the Oregon Ryegrass Commission administrator, Bryan Ostlund, in 2004 when Bryan was in the Midwest meeting with Mike Plumer and a number of growers, looking at early cover crop test plots on small farm acreage, using annual ryegrass.

By then, annual ryegrass had demonstrated its worthiness as a cover crop, and that was one of the primary ways in which TNC addressed agricultural impacts to the Tippecanoe. Buffer strips planted along the river eliminated most of the riverbank collapse. Cover crops in adjacent fields reduced or eliminated soil. But more importantly, it kept agricultural products (fertilizer, chemicals, animal waste) from leaching into nearby waterways. Since then, continued conservation efforts have begun to make progress in cleaning up the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Towery formed his own company in 2006 – Ag Conservation Solutions – and became a contractor for the Ryegrass Commission, collaborating closely with Mike Plumer. Working solo and as part of a team, Dan and Mike worked passionately, if not tirelessly, as advisors, facilitators, educators, and networkers. Sadly, Plumer died in 2017, and Dan continues his work to this day.

In terms of their outreach and education, both Dan and Mike were active in organizations – both ag and conservation related – that helped define best practices. Some of their advocacy work helped stimulate more financial incentives for those reluctant to try cover crops. Some of their work helped to shape environmental and ag policy, including the annual Farm Bill passed by Congress.

 Even as a good teacher, Dan has also been the first to admit that his success has hinged on his ability to listen and to learn. “And among the greatest teachers,” he said, “are those that live the closest to the soil.” It is in that respect that Dan has come to be a champion of “regenerative agriculture.”

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.”

Annual Ryegrass – the Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 3

Deep Rooting Annual Ryegrass Busts Compaction

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 – Part 2

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.

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.