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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.

New Look: Annual Ryegrass Impact on Fragipan

The short part of this long story is about three things:

  • the impact of compacted soil on crop productivity
  • how to break up compacted soil (fragipan, hardpan) with annual ryegrass
  • how annual ryegrass helps to increase yield of corn and soybeans

Twenty years ago, researchers working with farmers in Illinois found that annual ryegrass roots break up fragipan during winter months, when ryegrass roots permeate compaction and change its composition.

A short demonstration of the results of continuous use of annual ryegrass on compacted soil gradually eliminates compaction and allows cash crops much deeper soil, where added nutrients and moisture are found.

Watch this video and see how annual ryegrass can boost productivity and profits on your farm.

A New Kind of Weather, A New Kind of Pioneer

Two hundred tornadoes in two weeks? What next, will we have to have to protect ourselves from frogs falling from the sky?

Image result for images tornadoes

It has always been a challenge to stay flexible to what Mother Nature throws: a deeper, longer, windier winter without enough snow, for example. Or a winter that starts and stops, with freezes and thaws changing places like partners at a high school prom.

Farmers have been a resilient lot since agriculture began in earnest, more than 10,000 years ago. And though not a new invention, cover crops are another indication that adapting to new challenges is part of the landscape.

Consider how cover cropping, combined with no-till, gives you the edge with a tempestuous season. With annual ryegrass on your fields in the spring, excess amounts of water keep the soil in place. Because the soil is more permeable, water can penetrate more quickly instead of running off and causing erosion.Annual ryegrass grows well in wet conditions, too, so a soggy spring may delay corn planting for a bit but the cover crop will protect what’s there.

Cover crops like annual  ryegrass also increase greatly the potential for corn to grow deeper into the soil. Annual ryegrass busts up compaction, down to six feet! That means in dry years, corn can send roots deeper for moisture and important nutrients, like P and K, withstanding drought conditions for much longer. Because annual ryegrass sequesters available N, you don’t have to side dress as much as you did in the old days.

Then, because cover crops improve organic matter and carbon in the soil, there is a healthier microorganism population, the soil is more crumbly and rich with life. The crops are healthier, and the harvest is more robust.

So, yes, we can still bemoan Mother Nature for throwing us curve after curve. We can complain that the co-op prices are too high, commodity prices too low, and the bank is tightening the screws. But with tenacity, and a friend like annual ryegrass, you may again be able to say you rode it out, weathered the storm, and came out on the right side of the ledger.

Annual Ryegrass Eliminates Fragipan Scourge

Fragipan, that compacted soil preventing crop root penetration, covers an estimated 50 million acres of farmland in the eastern US.

Tillage, even deep ripping, didn’t begin to contend with the deeper compaction and layers of fragipan.

Then in the late 1990s, as the idea of no-till agriculture began to gain more attention, an Illinois farmer began to experiment with annual ryegrass to begin to contend with erosion on his hilly acreage.

Junior Upton, Jr. began with a test plot of annual ryegrass. Working with soil agronomist Mike Plumer (U. of Ill. Extension), they believed that annual ryegrass would grow well in low pH soil (like fragipan) and build organic matter because of the vast mat of roots thrown out by annual ryegrass.

He planted the grass seed after harvesting corn and then eliminated the crop a few weeks before planing corn again in the spring.  In a Farm Journal  story a few months ago, by Chris Bennett, he quoted Mike Plumer about that experience with Upton. “In just the first year of use, we saw (annual ryegrass) roots 24″ to 28″,” said Plumer. “The second year was 30″. After four years rooting, (the annual ryegrass root measurement) was at 60″ to 70″,” Plumer added. In normal fragipan, soybean roots often only reach 12″, but after five years of annual ryegrass, Plumer recorded soybean roots at 36”.

The article (click here to read the whole thing) goes on to say that after killing the annual ryegrass, the roots decay and leave a network of channels for corn or soybeans to occupy. With continuous no-till, the channels created by annual ryegrass allow corn and soybean roots to push deeper each year.

Another discovery: As root depth increases, yields also expand, as Plumer explained . “On Junior’s farm, we’ve got some fields 16 years in the making. His corn yields, before we started, were at a five-year average of 85 bu. per acre, but after six (additional) years (with annual ryegrass cover cropping), he was over 150 bu. per acre. After 10 years, he was over 200 bu. per acre, and it is all documented,” Plumer says.

And the miracle of annual ryegrass continued. As the depth of corn and soybean roots grew, Upton and Plumer measured a remarkable increase in soil nutrients being pulled from deeper soil up to service the crop. “The ryegrass went so deep and picked up phosphorus and potassium. We were doubling and tripling the phosphorus and potassium tests without making applications,” Plumer added.

Mike Plumer Gets Acknowledged for His Contribution to Cover Crop Science

At the recent National No-Till Conference in St. Louis, a number of people were acknowledged for their contributions to agriculture. Mike Plumer was among them, and his recognition is well deserved. If there is ever a candidate for the Cover Crop Hall of Fame, Plumer is it.

Mike Plumer

Mike has made a career out of helping others, whether as an Extension Agent, Natural Resources Educator, Agronomist or Crop Consultant. Even during his 34 years working for the University of Illinois, he was also farming his own land, researching and testing ideas on his own crops.

Since leaving the University, he has been at the forefront of cover crop innovation. It was he who managed the early field trials of annual ryegrass, when it astonished growers and academics about annual ryegrass’ deep rooting and compaction busting properties.

He started and continues to work with the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices. He was on the ground floor with the Midwest Cover Crop Council. He has helped thousands of growers learn quickly how to employ cover crops in various states, different climates and with many different soil properties. He has given selflessly to big and small audiences, from the Midwest to both U.S. coasts, and from  Austria to South Africa.

In recent years, as more government agencies and nonprofit environmental organizations began to recognize the value of cover crops, Mike was a consultant and patient guide in their steep learning curve. He has been a tireless advocate and champion of cover crops in whatever setting he finds himself.

With Mike’s consistent effort, the word spread quickly about cover crop benefits. From only hundreds of acres in cover crops during the 1990s when he began his push for use of annual ryegrass as a cover crop, the number of farms using cover crops has grown geometrically. Recent estimates indicate that between 2 and 4 million acres in the Midwest are planted in cover crops each year. The increases, year over year, indicate that the growth curve is not abating. SARE and the CTIC surveyed farmers and they said there was a 37.75 percent increase in cover crop acres from 2012 to 2013 alone.  And according to Practical Farmers of Iowa, the increase in cover crop seed flown onto to farmland grew 200 percent increase between 2010 and 2013.

But Mike has also been a keen observer of best practices and has continued to caution and educate people about making small steps to increase their chances of success. In a quote from a National Wildlife Federation publications on cover crop management, Mike said, “It’s important for farmers to have the right help when they are starting out with cover crops. Because cover crops require a totally different set of management skills to be successful.”

Congratulations, Mike. And thank you.

Kentucky Researchers Praise Annual Ryegrass

Annual Ryegrass Dispatches with Fragipan Problems, They Say.

Midwest  farmers who have been working with annual ryegrass for some years as a cover crop know that annual ryegrass busts up fragipan (and other soil compactions). They have probably seen for themselves how annual ryegrass as a cover crop then allows corn and soybeans roots to access deeper soil moisture and nutrients.That boosts production, as we’ve seen now for about 20 years.

Mike Plumer, a long-time pioneer in no-till ag and cover crop systems, discovered the deep rooting aspects of annual ryegrass back in the 1990s, when he was still working as an agronomist for the Univ. of Illinois Extension. He and his cooperating farmers also discovered that the roots grow right through compacted soils. In subsequent years, they noticed a yield increase in crops in those same fields.

In a recent article in No-Till Magazine, researchers at the University of Kentucky did both laboratory and field trials using annual ryegrass on soils with fragipan. Here are a number of paragraphs from that article.

Soil fragipans exist in 2.7 million acres in Kentucky and in 50 million acres in the U.S. In Kentucky, the average depth of the fragipan layer in the soil is about 20-24 inches. This results in a shallow soil that limits crops’ yield potential due to low water-holding capacity. This is especially true during dry growing seasons or droughts. These same soils are easily saturated with water in the winter, which limits yields on cool-season crops such as wheat.

 Breaking down the fragipan would increase the soil depth and should significantly boost grain yields in the state, similar to the boost farmers received from implementing no-till production.

Four years into the research project, Grove and fellow UK soil scientists Lloyd Murdock, Tasios Karathanasis and Chris Matocha have found that annual ryegrass and some chemical combinations appear to break down the fragipan.

 In the lab, Karathanasis submersed chunks of fragipan in several different solutions, one of which was a ryegrass extract.

“Within 2-4 weeks we began to see the ryegrass extract break down the fragipan,” he said. “Not only does ryegrass have a deep root system that can penetrate the pan, but it also releases a chemical or chemicals that can help break it.”

 UK soil scientists have planted annual ryegrass as a cover crop in grain fields followed by either corn or soybeans for the past three growing seasons with the fourth round now in the ground. The first year when annual ryegrass was followed by corn, there was no yield difference. The second year when it was followed by soybeans, there was a 25% yield increase in the soybeans. The third year, the researchers followed the ryegrass with soybeans again and there was a slight, but not significant, yield increase.

UK researchers traveled to Hamilton County, Illinois, to take soil samples from a field that had been planted in a ryegrass cover crop since 2000 and followed every year with no-till corn. Mike Corn roots in ARG 6-06 StarkeyPlumer had used a part of this field in some of his earlier cover crop studies.

They found the fragipan layer to be much deeper in the soil profile in the fields with ryegrass. More encouraging news came when the farmer told them about his yields.

“When the study started in 2000, the farmer’s yields were 15 bushels an acre below the county average. His fields are now averaging 30 bushels more per acre than the county average,” Murdock said. “We really do not know how well this field represents our situation in Kentucky, but this gives us significant encouragement that we are beginning to prove that annual ryegrass is effective and will give significant results with accumulative years of a ryegrass cover crop.”