Tag Archives: burndown of cover crops

Green under White – The Ideal Winter Color Scheme involves Cover Crops

As winter approaches, the fields now stripped of corn and beans ought to have a cover of green before the snow flies.

Van Tilberg 2011 Hi-Boy Seeder2

First, and foremost, if winter snow comes late or not enough, your soil can be stripped from your property, and you can expect to lose both fertility and productivity as a result. Wind, rain, melt and freeze and run off can be devastating.

A cover crop provides a blanket of protection from the ravages of winter. Annual ryegrass doubles its benefit by protecting the surface while restructuring the soil profile below. It has a massive root system that adds organic matter to the soil. Moreover, it sends roots deep into the soil to 6 feet, through compacted layers, and provides channels for next year’s corn to follow.

With a cover crop in place, even without snow, the greenery will protect the soil from an infestation of annual weeds over the winter, as well as prevent erosion next spring. When you get rid of the cover crop, with glyphosate, the residual biomass left by the annual ryegrass or other cover crop will  continue to decay and feed the corn or beans the stored nitrogen in the residue. That helps to reduce the amount of money you’ll have to spend sidedressing your crop with extra nitrogen in June.

Here’s a link to a number of helpful tips for starting and  managing annual ryegrass as a cover crop. Please contact us if you have questions.

 

Annual Ryegrass – The Best Defense is a Good Offense

Ok, so the use of this cliche, “the best defense is a good offense” won’t stand up in today’s rough and tumble world of sports. Imagine the Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban or Clemson’s Dabo Swinney trying that strategy in the BCS Championship Bowl!

Image result for image the best offense is a good defense - college football

But, in agriculture, a good defense kind of creates its own offense. Take cover crops, for example, and annual ryegrass specifically.

  • Planting ryegrass in the fall gives the rich topsoil a chance to relax…no worries of some offensive wind and rushing water eroding it away.
  • No worries about compacted soil continuing to starve corn roots opportunity to access deeper nutrient-rich soil beneath the compacted layer.
  • The residue left over when the cover crop is eliminated in the spring (particularly true with annual ryegrass) is food both for the active soil biology, but also feeds the corn next year, because it soaks up excess nitrogen in the soil and gives it back when corn needs it most, next June.
  • The decaying root structure of annual ryegrass also plays an important role in building organic matter in the soil. It feeds the microbes and insects, plus it leaves channels where corn roots can grow deeper the following year
  • AnnuaL ryegrass roots also discourage the overpopulation of soybean cyst nematodes which damage that crop

As the country, and the world continue to grapple with the impact of violent weather, cover crops provide some defense from soil degradation, and contribute to storing more carbon dioxide in the soil instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.

The best of all worlds, cover crops increase farm productivity and profits. And there’ll be no argument about creating a profit while you’re also contributing to the health of our soil, air and water resources.

 

 

The Glyphosate Issue Continues to Heat Up

It was generally thought that glyphosate was safe for use around humans and animals. Scientists generally agreed that it was not carcinogenic, largely because the molecule is not soluble in fat and thus cannot be stored.

Nonetheless, several juries have awarded tens of millions of dollars in damages to plaintiffs who claimed Roundup caused their cancer (non-Hodgkin lymphoma). They based their case on a World Health Organization (WHO) study.

Other recent studies have found indications that long term exposure to application and use of glyphosate (perhaps in combination with other agents found in Roundup, Touchdown, or other proprietary brands of herbicides) could provide a weak link to a type of leukemia, although another study countered an earlier finding that glyphosate has a weak link to lymphoma (the WHO study.)

RoundUp logo

At issue, among other things, is whether it is the glyphosate itself, or glyphosate in combination with other active  (non-toxic) chemicals that creates toxicity. A recent article in The Scientist magazine sheds considerable light on the subject, although conclusions are still scarce.  Vanessa Fitsanakis, an 8th generation farmer herself, as well as a neurotoxicologist at Northeast Ohio Medical University, has met and discussed the matter extensively with scientists who defend the safety of glyphosate. Here’s a quote from the article: “Fitsanakis says that while presenting her work publicly, scientists from Monsanto or Syngenta will occasionally show up and politely challenge her research. ‘The scientists that I have spoken to from Monsanto and Syngenta are very convinced that the glyphosate by itself is nontoxic. I agree with them on that. Where I disagree . . . is that you can have an active ingredient that is nontoxic, but that does not mean that the commercial formulation is also nontoxic.’”

She goes on to say that exposure to glyphosate-based compounds may not cause diseases including cancer or Parkinson’s. But, she added, “They may be one of many risk factors that predispose people to developing sporadic forms of Parkinson’s disease in later life. And when that person with [a] genetic risk factor encounters something in the environment, like a pesticide that inhibits mitochondria, then those things together [can start] a neurodegenerative process.”

The public pressure may eventually mean a switch to other forms of weed control. Here’s an article, from North Carolina State Extension, that lists some other products – not as inexpensive nor always as effective as Roundup – but ones that may be waiting for use if and when Roundup and other glyphosate products become more difficult or illegal to apply.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

soil pit2

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.

The Myth of Annual Ryegrass as a Cover Crop

They say, “It’s hard to control annual ryegrass”. As myths go, it’s tame. They used to say that “stepping on a crack would break your grandma’s back.” They used to think that spiders were bad luck.

For 20 years now, farmers in the Midwest have been planting annual ryegrass every year and there hasn’t been one example of it “getting away.” There have even been cases where the management guidelines have been ignored, but a second application of herbicide took care of that mistake.

ARG burndown

Why do myths persist long after their cautionary value has been used up? Maybe two reasons. First, it takes a long time to turn customs around. Humans have a suspicious streak that dates back to when Saber Toothed Tigers were stalking us for food.

As far as annual ryegrass is concerned, you can believe your neighbor or the old fashioned academic…or you can try it yourself and find out that with modern science, you can dispel this old myth. Annual ryegrass is not hard to control. Click here for more info.  2016 ARG as a Cover Crop – 4 page.

Despite all the success of cover crops, despite endless good media and countless field days, the penetration of cover crops is still less than 10 percent of Midwest farm acreage. Why? Because, as hard as a myth is to dispel, it’s even harder to change  habits. And when it comes to tilling the soil, it’s a habit born of generational work in the field and the efforts of corporate chemical companies to continue selling fertilizer.

Understanding the Nitrogen Advantage of Annual Ryegrass

Let’s review the facts about nitrogen, in the context of growing corn in the Midwest, and the connection to ryegrass as a cover crop.

One, corn needs a lot of nitrogen, and if corn is planted year after year in the same field, you will need to add nitrogen to bring the corn to harvest.

You already know that no-till will help stabilize the soil and help it regain its natural health. However, unless you plant a cover crop, you will continue to have to add a lot of nitrogen to feed the corn.

Secondly, it’s known that annual ryegrass “sequesters” nitrogen. As it grows, annual ryegrass absorbs available nitrogen from the soil and then sequesters, or stores, the nutrient in the foliage. When the cover crop is terminated in the spring, all that residual, stored up nitrogen is released. Annual ryegrass, because of its leaf structure, decays quickly in the spring, thus making its nitrogen available to the new corn as it begins to mature in late spring.

Lots of study has been done in the past 10 years about how much nitrogen is absorbed by annual ryegrass, and how much it can contribute back to the corn plants when the grass decays.

At best, the nitrogen that annual ryegrass adds back to the field substantially reduces the need to supplement  nitrogen during the year. And, at a minimum, annual ryegrass reduces the costs associated with planting and managing a cover crop.

In an experiment studying annual ryegrass, Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie recorded per-acre costs for annual ryegrass and then calculated the value of the residual nitrogen left over in the spring, when corn was planted. the following graphic box indicates the costs/acre for seed, machinery, herbicide and application costs for terminating the ryegrass.

FJ_018_F15019

At the bottom of the graphic box,  Ferrie estimates that the amount of nitrogen added back to the soil from annual ryegrass was $75/acre. That is an average and some will experience less, especially if you are just adding cover crops to your management repertoire. However, some farmers have experienced better than $75/acre return of nitrogen from their annual ryegrass cover crop.

So, according to Ferrie, “after subtracting the value of the nitrogen saved, the total cost of the cover crop was $5.75 per acre.” Not bad, especially when you then factor in the added benefits of cover crops: improved soil structure, increased organic matter, increased water infiltration, controlled erosion and recycling additional nutrients, like Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K). This “recycling” occurs due to annual ryegrass’s deep roots, which helps corn to develop deeper roots to access P and K from deeper soil structure.

Phosphorus is a major component in plant DNA and RNA. Phosphorus is important in root development, crop maturity and seed production. Potassium is required so than more than 80 enzymes in the plant can be activated. K is also important for a plant’s ability to withstand extremes temperatures, drought and pests. Potassium also  increases water use efficiency.

Finally, those who plant cover crops consistently experience higher corn yields, which translates into a profit to the pocket as well as to the continued health of farm acreage.