Category Archives: Soil Quality

Earth Day – A Tribute to No Till and Cover Crops

Perhaps the hoopla about climate change and global warming is yielding some new converts to no-till and cover cropping.

Not to say whether “man caused” or “cyclical trends” is the primary factor for the increased severe weather in the Midwest. Suffice it to say that, no-till and cover crops can help mitigate some of the weather-related damage.

Tillage is almost as old as human agriculture, a sure way to reduce weeds in cropland. No-till is also an ancient practice, but in the US, it wasn’t until the 1970s that it began to make headway in modern farming.

Cover crops are also historically significant. In ancient Rome and throughout Asia, farmers have long known the value of adding natural nutrients back into crop rotations to sustain soil fertility and health. Use of a type of Vetch, for example, rejuvenated rice paddies and, just before a new planting, the vetch was removed and composted. Leaving it for too long, they learned, could rob the soil of nitrogen.

In the US, George Washington was an advocate for cover crops and extended rotations. Just before he took office as our first president, he wrote a letter about his quest for barley seed, as well as clover to be used as a cover crop.

In more recent times, the Oregon Ryegrass Commission developed a partnership with university agronomists and farmers to launch what has become a very profitable addition to agriculture. Profitable, yes, for those growing and selling of seed. But even more profitable for those planting cover crops, because of its immense value at reducing costs while increasing soil health, diversity and productivity.

Whether it’s used primarily to reduce compacted soil, to reduce erosion, reduce weeds or reduce the amount of extra nitrogen in the field, cover crops like annual ryegrass are proving their value. Whether you’re looking to increase organic matter, deepen the soil profile accessed by corn plants, improve water infiltration into the soil or increase crop yields, cover crops deliver on those promises.

So as Earth Day rolls on by, give a shout out to those innovators who continue to advocate for farming practices that save the air, the water and the earth…while adding to your bottom line.

 

Exceeding with Interseeding

When you think about planting this spring, consider whether you might want to include annual ryegrass seed in the mix.

More producers are adding an annual ryegrass seeding in late spring, planted between rows after corn has reached mid calf to knee height.

Interseeder

Interseeding makes sense for a number of reasons. First, it’s a more reliable time to plant, rather than the fall, worrying about whether the weather will hold out long enough to establish a cover crop before freeze up.

Annual ryegrass will germinate quickly between the young corn crop, if there’s enough moisture. When the corn grows tall enough to shade the cover crop, the annual ryegrass goes dormant for the summer. Then, after harvest, the ryegrass takes off with whatever light is left in the fall. Having established it in the spring, there is an established root system, so the growth in the fall can be significant….perhaps even enough to graze, if that’s in your plan.

Interseeded cover crops have a better chance of wintering over because they were established early in the year. The crop will be there in the spring after the snow’s gone, and you can graze it again before killing it at about this time of year, before planting corn again.

Dan Towery, a longtime consultant to the Oregon Ryegrass Commission and a pioneer in cover crop agronomy, is an expert on interseeding in the Midwest. Any questions, give him a call. In Indiana, he’s at 765-490-0197.

 

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.

Image result for image grass in flooded land

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.

 

 

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.

Cover Crops Bolster the Health of Mycorrhizal Networks – and Why That’s a Good Thing!

The mycelium of a fungus spreading through soil (Credit: Nigel Cattlin / Alamy)

The term mycorrhizae refers to fungi present in the soil and the positive influence it has on the root system of host plants nearby, aiding both to the health of soil biology and soil chemistry. These fungi enhance the uptake of water and nutrients, including carbon and nitrogen. They also contribute to suppression of weeds and pests.

The formation of these beneficial networks can be influenced by factors such as soil fertility, resource availability, types of host plants, tillage and climactic conditions. They form a symbiotic relationship with host plant; the fungi get nutrition from the host plant roots and the host plant gets a healthier soil in which to thrive.

Cover crops are conducive to the development and health of mycorrhizal networks. Once in place, mycorrhizae digest plant material, and produce by-products including polysaccharides. These complex sugars create a kind of aggregation in the soil, small clusters that farmers refer to as crumbs. A well-aggregated or “crumby” soil —not “crummy” soil (depleted) – has more texture, better aeration, better infiltration, better water retention and is less prone to compaction.

Annual ryegrass is among the many cover crops that promote good aggregation. Grasses have a fibrous root system that spreads out from the base of the plant. These roots, in tandem with mycorrhizae, release the polysaccharides that then create the aggregation of soil between the roots. Aggregation is a sign that your soil is in the process of creating more organic matter, though a demonstrable increase (say, from 3 percent to 4 percent organic matter) will take more time. But a thriving mycorrhizal network is an indication that you’re moving in the right direction.

What is probably obvious to you at this point: tilling the soil discourages the development of mycorrhizae and the aggregation of soil, while also adding to the compaction of soil. No-till and cover crops are certainly important aspects of moving towards healthy soil, host to earthworms, microorganisms and mycorrhizae.

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.

 

Nitrogen and Carbon – Two More Benefits of Annual Ryegrass

In the last blog post, we addressed the myth of annual ryegrass being hard to manage. Follow good control procedures and it is not an issue whatsoever.

Two other assets of annual ryegrass: it creates a savings in expenditures for nitrogen during the season, and it adds considerably to the organic matter in your soil, thus boosts your carbon uptake in the soil as well.

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First thing: nitrogen is a key to production. In years past, when cultivation was more popular, nitrogen was increasingly important and expensive. Now, with annual ryegrass as a cover crop, you can actually plan on reducing your nitrogen input. Why? Because annual ryegrass sequesters available nitrogen in the soil during it’s growth. Then, when it’s terminated in the spring, the residue gives up the stored nitrogen, often just in time for the new crop of corn. In many cases, having annual ryegrass decaying in the field means reducing or eliminating the nitrogen boost in June.

Secondly, as the annual ryegrass roots decay (after the cover crop is terminated in early spring), the result is more organic matter, which means more carbon sequestered in the soil, plus more food for a health soil biology.

Finally, when the roots decay, it leaves the earth more pliable, easier for rain to infiltrate, and easier for corn roots to follow. Because annual ryegrass roots grow to depths of five feet and more, it allows corn roots to access that same depth, beyond compaction and into more nutrients like P and K.

It’s amazing that cover cropping, despite it’s proven benefits, is still practiced so infrequently. While it’s great to learn that in some states, 10 percent or more of farmers are using cover crops, it’s discouraging that upwards of 90 percent are still relying on older ways: deep ripping of depleted soils and adding more fertilizer than would be needed if cover crops were utilized.