Tag Archives: cover crops break up compaction

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.”