Tag Archives: cover crops

Annual Ryegrass – the Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 6

Learning by Doing; Importance of Innovators and Early Adopters – Part 2

“In the first five years of the annual ryegrass cover crop project in the Midwest, there was a lot of hand-holding going on as we learned what annual ryegrass could do, and most importantly, how to modify agricultural practices to make cover crops successful,” said Nick Bowers, Oregon grass seed grower and cover crop proponent. “Most of those who started trying cover crops early were already practicing no-till, so adding cover crops was an easier lift.”

And when it came to determine who was teaching who the most, it was a back-and-forth thing, for sure. “We had no idea how much we didn’t know about annual ryegrass,” Nick continued, “other than how it worked in Oregon and in the south, where most of our seed had gone for years. In the first decade of the project, we had some spotty successes because of that lack of knowledge. First, the seed we sent back wasn’t always able to withstand tough winter conditions – sub freezing temperatures, wind-chill and no snow, for example. We originally recommended that the annual ryegrass seed be planted in October, after corn harvest. And we wouldn’t figure out for a decade the effect that residual herbicide in a field could have on the next year’s cover crop, whether to diminish or even wipe out the next year’s growth.”

As for the problem of winterkill, Nick and many other Oregon growers worked on research trials in the Midwest and Oregon, trying to build more hardiness into new annual ryegrass varieties. The Commission hired Mike Plumer and Dan Towery to conduct years’ worth of trials, and other university agronomists began to work in tandem.

 It worried some that building a more tolerant annual ryegrass would make it harder to kill in the spring. So, the trials included that piece. If annual ryegrass was to be an accepted new crop in the Corn Belt, it had better grow easily, grow healthy, and die when sprayed with the proper mixture of herbicide. In the past 25 years, we’ve had no reports of annual ryegrass getting out of control, and that says a lot about the amount of education, because if you mismanage cover crops, bad things can happen. As the data grew, the Oregon team would alternate attendance at field day demonstrations and annual trade shows. Pamphlets, research papers, and videos helped to spread the knowledge. The trickle of interest became a torrent. 

Successful management of annual ryegrass depends on paying attention to details. Click here for a management guide to cover crop control.

“When we started,” Nick continued, “we thought the best way to plant annual ryegrass was to drill it after corn harvest in the fall. Since then our cooperating partners began aerial application of seed, flying it on while corn and soybeans were still in the field. That’s now the most popular way to plant. And more recently, people have found increasing benefits from ‘interseeding’ cover crops into the fields in the spring, when corn is basically knee-high.”

“As for the residual herbicide effect, we’re learning alongside those continuing to experiment, including lots of universities, and we share their successes and failures readily.” Check out this flyer we produced about that .

Nick’s work in the Midwest also led to a new business for he and a neighboring farmer, Wayne Kizer, a seed growing/distribution company, KB Seed Solutions, whose sole purpose is to provide high quality seed to those using cover crops.  “We started the company 14 years ago,” Nick said, because it became clear that people wanted to know precisely what was in each bag of seed – that it would do what it was supposed to do. Midwest customers wanted to be sure that what they were planting was designed to work well in that environment.”

Annual Ryegrass – the Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 1

Cover Crop Pioneers Grow in Oregon

Oregon makes a big deal of its history. Among the most acclaimed events is the settlement of that territory by whites coming west on the Oregon Trail from what we now call the Midwest. It was such a big deal, a “reenactment” event celebrating the 150th anniversary of the start of that westward migration was held in the early 1990s. I vividly recall watching covered wagons rickety-wracking over the old dirt ruts in eastern Oregon, as men, women and children dressed in period clothing came trudging on towards their own Promised Land, the dust and grime of the journey clinging and whirling around in their footsteps. Many of them, around the campfire that night, told stories about their perilous journey overland from St. Joe, Missouri, just as their ancestors had done before them.

About the same year, in the mid 1990s, a couple of pioneering grass seed farmers began working on a novel cooperative agriculture project in the Midwest. With encouragement from Mike Plumer, a couple of willing corn and bean growers in Illinois put in some test plots of annual ryegrass seed that fall, after harvest, to see if it might slow down erosion over the winter and into spring.

In the next dozen blog posts, we’ll be looking at some of those grass seed pioneers, who spent a whole lot of time and cash proving that annual ryegrass could change the way agriculture is done in America. It would eventually signal an end to the heavy equipment, the deep ripping of soil and the added expense of chemical inputs. Annual ryegrass and many other varieties of cover crop soon followed: cereal rye, hairy vetch, crimson clover, and others have been revolutionary in showing how to improve yields while also improving soil health.

These Oregon grass seed pioneers had considered annual ryegrass to be a perpetually low-priced commodity plant, most often used in great quantities for roadsides, city parks, sports fields and golf fairways. By developing a new market for the lowly variety, farmers bet that the price might inch upwards for that specialty use, and it has.

But in order to be considered worthy of continued use as a cover crop throughout the Midwest, southern Canada, New England, the Atlantic seaboard and into the south, seed growers would be pushed into developing new varieties that would withstand harsh winters. In other words, they had to be toughened up, so as not to wither and die in sub-freezing weather. But at the same time, they had to build into the equation a vulnerability to herbicides, particularly glyphosate. Because, if annual ryegrass were really tough, it would be hard to eliminate in the springtime and even become a persistent pest weed. Thankfully, they succeeded and annual ryegrass is very easy to manage, as long as you’re particular about the details.

This year and next, we’ll be celebrating the 25th anniversary of those first annual ryegrass field trials in Illinois, with veteran crop educator Mike Plumer at the front of the pack, helping to understand how cover crops could help improve soil health, reduce erosion, improve water and air quality, and still end up profiting those who used it.

Green All Year – The Legacy of Cover Crops

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the results of large scale pivot irrigation from the air. The square miles of patchwork rectangular fields interrupted by amazingly green circles of green.

Cover crops have the potential to turn lots and lots, acres upon acres, into green. And I mean that in more ways than one. And among the most beneficial aspect of planting something like annual ryegrass? It doesn’t need to be irrigated. And, because of its deep rooting nature, irrigation of crops is required less, if at all.

Annual ryegrass roots grow to depths of four, five and even six feet under. The mass of roots, in addition to being a great source of food for microbiology in the soil and a way to increase your organic matter, actually create an environment in which available precipitation is more easily integrated into deeper soil structure. That means your crops will be better able to withstand dry and drought conditions.

With its deep rooting structure, annual ryegrass also “mines” nutrients from deeper soil layers, like P and K. And because annual ryegrass sequesters available nitrogen while alive, that nitrogen is available (through the decay of roots and residue) during the growth season for corn and beans in late spring, after terminating the cover crop.

The final “green” in the equation is profit. With annual ryegrass as a rotation partner, you’re not having to invest in irrigation equipment. You’re spending less on nitrogen and weed control. You’re not having to repair eroded fields or install miles of tile lines.

Then, you find out that your soil’s health is improving with cover crops. You learn that the organic matter is increasing again after a generation of deep tillage. You find that you can graze the cover crop and make extra money with livestock. Then you see that your corn production is increasing with fewer inputs! Your harvests are larger. Your bottom line is bigger.

So when you hear the liberals chanting about a “Green New Deal” you can smile and say “I’ve got my green new deal. It’s called annual ryegrass, and I’m happy as a clam.”

The Paradox of Cover Crop Statistics

A survey of ag lands in the US shows that the Midwest is adopting cover crop usage at a faster rate than the national average.

If you remove from the total farm acreage those acres planted in hay and winter wheat, there is about 230 million acres planted in crops that could benefit from cover crops. Estimates from the survey say that cover crops were planted regularly on almost 15 and a half million acres of cropland in 2017. While that number is still below 10 percent of total cropland committed to cover crops, the good news is that the average increase is about 8 percent a year since 2012.

Better news yet is that the adoption rate in the Midwest far exceeds the national average. Whereas the nation gained just shy of 50 percent in cover crop adoption in those five years, the Midwest was at almost 80 percent increase in that time!

The above table shows that Iowa almost tripled its cover crop acres in fie years while four other Midwestern states more than doubled theirs. Indiana, an early adopter state (partly due to the work of pioneer cover crop advocates like Mike Plumer and Junior Upton) did not double the acreage devoted to cover crop use, although the state continues to lead the nation in the total number of acres planted in cover crops.

At the current rate of increase, the US would could reach 40 million acres in cover crops in this decade. Rob Myers, the regional director of extension programs for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), said that if rate increases elsewhere begin to follow the Midwest states’ trend, the 40 million acre figure might actually be much higher.

Cover Crops and COVID

Change is hard, and COVID shows us again how adapting to a new regimen is necessary for human survival.

Conventional farming is another example. For decades, farms became more productive by adding more acreage, more equipment and more chemistry.

Conservation tillage may be the equivalent of mask-wearing, social distancing and immunization requirements during this pandemic. It’s tough medicine. It’s aggravating and inconvenient. And the older we are, the more reluctant we may be to embrace those new ways.

Walking in the woods, while often relaxing, is also a way to see how change is normal in nature. Fallen timber, once upright and vibrant, are now “nurse logs” for a host of microorganisms, fauna and flora that rely on the decay of carbon in the tree for new life in so many forms.

Cover crops are like nurse logs in that way. When the cover crop is eliminated, the residual top growth and decaying roots become organic matter, the life blood of other forms of life.

When soil becomes naturally healthy again, when no-till and cover cropping allow the myriad life forms to return, the crops grown in that improved soil will pay dividends.

regenerative agriculture | Re-Source

That’s why younger farmers are embracing new methods with gusto. Just as we old timers did in our day, the younger men and women are not afraid of hard work, nor are they afraid of change. They’re in it for the long haul, and they know their investment in cover crops and regenerative agriculture methodology will pay off for them and their children.

The great thing about regenerative ag is that it will also pay off for the rest of us…everybody up and down the food chain.

Transition to Cover Crops – Cornerstone to Sustainable Ag

Check out this video on YouTube – of Rich Clark, Field to Market’s Farmer of the Year in 2019. Rich is a fifth generation Indiana (Williamsport) farmer and his claim to fame is making conservation tillage and cover cropping into a full-time affair. The term for this type of ag – “regenerative”!

He began no-tilling and cover cropping only a decade ago, but said his first year with it (annual ryegrass) convinced him he was on the right track. He said after only one year doing a cover crop in corn, it produced the best average yield of his entire 7000 acre farm!

Since then, Rich has converted his entire acreage to cover crops. He’s gone all NON-GMO seed, which has given other farmers the incentive to try it too. Massive food companies like Dannon and Unilever contract with farmers like him to grow products sought by more and more people seeking food health and safety.

He said, “We have a diverse mix of crops and we have cattle. We are 100% non-GMO on all crops and we don’t use any starter fertilizer, fungicide, seed treatment or insecticide at all.”

One of his key practices is crop rotation, because it (and cover crops) contributes to a natural bonus of nitrogen into the soil. It also reduces weeds, interrupts the life cycle of pests and thus eliminates the need of pesticides. Here, from an article in the Sustainability Alliance website, Rick describes how he manages the rotation. “One-third of our farm is in a three-crop rotation – corn, soybeans and wheat. Another third is in a four-crop rotation – corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa for a nearby dairy. The remaining third is in transition to organic. We have just got approval for our first organic certified acres, which I’m very excited about.”

Among the outcomes of this switch to a Nature-oriented growing is that Rick says he spends LESS per acre than he used to…less on fertilizer and other chemicals, and less on equipment (he doesn’t need as much power so he sold off some of his more powerful tractors in favor of smaller ones, which saved him $35,000 in fuel in the past nine years!)

And the frosting on the cake…his choice to move to regenerative ag has him working with other customers who pay premium for non-GMO, locally raised crops and livestock,

Cover Crops – Part of a Hopeful Future

In the midst of a crisis that few alive have experienced, the future of agriculture is being debated while, on the ground, innovators are populating the debate with examples.

In the midst of a melt-down in commodity pricing, thanks to trade restrictions, historically low fuel prices and the pandemic, the future of the crop monoculture is teetering. Dan Towery, an Indiana crop advisor and soil conservation consultant said this yesterday: “The price paid to corn growers this year is between 25 and 50 cents below what it takes to break even.”

But in the next sentence, Dan said that those who have found their way to growing non-GMO, organic corn are getting a premium price for their product: about $12/bushel versus about $3!”

The era of “regenerative ag” has begun and because everybody says you should “start small”, it’s a model that brings hope: hope for better incomes, hope for a healthier soil, and hope for a loyal, local customer base that demands high quality and rewards it with patronage.

The next couple blog posts will outline some ways to start small, and will also point to those who started a decade ago and are showing how it can be applied equally to large scale farming.

But, at the bottom line, the common denominator is healthy soil, and doing agriculture in concert with nature. Once the tide is turned, away from conventional tillage and towards no-till and cover crops, the next steps will be done in stride with nature’s wishes, not ignoring them. For example, when the soil comes into balance, you need less equipment, fewer passes over the field, less inputs of fertilizer, herbicides and fungicides. With healthier soil, productivity will improve as costs are reduced. With less hours spent trying to break even, more hours can be spent starting new, profitable initiatives, driven more by local demand than by a broker hundreds of miles away.

The switch from conventional monocrop agriculture to something more diverse and more sustainable is not an overnight, “presto-chango” affair. But the nice thing is, the benefits can been seen in just one year, watching how cover crops begin to make a difference in how the soil feels and how the corn and beans respond.

Will Cover Crops Help Post COVID-19?

The impacts of the coronavirus on our physical and financial futures is still washing ashore in our country. While some see sunshine coming from behind the clouds, we will perhaps be ushering in a new era in America, where natural disasters like this periodically disrupt our social and economic equilibrium.

Part of the silver lining, if indeed there is one, could be a massive reset in the way we grow and distribute agricultural products to customers. Some suggest that cover crops – including the grandads of them all: annual ryegrass and cereal rye – will continue to play a major role.

Whether the size of farms continues to grow as a whole, there’s a movement in the country to diversify the growing of our food. An interesting book I read some years ago, about the impact of the collapse of the USSR, suggests that having local food sources helps a lot when the “big” players shrink or disappear. Big government is on the run, and there are consequences of that strategy. Likewise, there are cracks appearing in the “big” industry model too, and the bailouts coming from the Congress and Administration are examples of what we may be headed for. The book: Reinventing Collapse, is written by Dimity Orlov, who holds citizenship in both the US and Russia.

But, back to agriculture. Some younger guys, both farmers and crop advisors, say that this is a good time to think about diversifying what has been a monocrop system. Cover crops are useful in that transition, just as they have been in transitioning from conventional tillage to no-till.

As mentioned in the last post, Cameron Mills (Indiana farmer) has been a pioneer in cover cropping his thousands of acreage. He’s now advocating diversifying crops, and he’s introduced to his operation a small livestock side business that he’s taken over while giving the corn and soybean side of the business increasingly to his adult sons.

Interestingly, much of the innovation is coming from farms themselves. The “big” system of universities has in some cases gotten too hide-bound and ponderous to lead the way to the next generation of farming. The innovation is coming from the farms themselves, and the younger guys and gals are leading the way.

The Impact and Opportunities of Crisis

The COVID-19 virus has kicked America’s economy in the gut. Even with a multi-TRILLION dollar infusion of cash in the next few months, it will be years before we’ll know whether it was enough, or whether it was invested in the proper sectors of society.

The impact on the Midwest is just beginning to be revealed. Will it further depress commodity prices and create a worker shortage? Will dairy and livestock processing grind to a halt because of a trucker shortage? Will deliveries of critical ag-related products slow to a crawl? Will the shrinking and shifting consumer spending pattern create more farm debt?

Dan Perkins, an organic farmer, small business owner and ag consultant from DeMotte, Indiana, is among those families who are already straining because of the pandemic. Perkins Good Earth Farm produces a variety of vegetables for about 150 families, selling direct through a local CSA (Community-supported agriculture.)

“This has had a huge impact on us already,” he said. “Local food sales are through the roof, and vegetable seed supply is really tight, because demand from small scale farmers and home gardeners have skyrocketed.”

“Normally, customers order online and come here to pick up their produce. But the new concerns for safety have pushed us to modify the way we package for pick up. Customers used to bring their own bags and shop farmer’s market style, where everything was displayed in bulk. Now we put everything in two-gallon bags and plastic containers. It’s increased our cost for labor, packaging, logistics and marketing. And at the same time my wife, Julie continues to do marketing and managing the CSA, while caring for our four children, home from school because of the closures.”

“We have four seasonal employees, too, and the social distancing protocols, on top of the added layers of product safety, have slowed all our activities down considerably,” he added. Because he has existing contracts with his customers, and is considerate of their potential hardships, he is not passing any of his new costs along to them.

The virus has also impacted some of his work as a Certified Crop Advisor. Naturally, Dan’s clients want him out in the fields on occasion to see up close what’s going on. And while he has tried to augment his on-farm visits with webinars and online video calls, he also said  “I think agriculture is among the ‘essential businesses’ we need to keep open and fully operating, so farm visits and field work are important.”

He also said that with industry non-essential travel having been restricted until early to mid summer, field day demonstrations have been cancelled or postponed. “This, too, will impact the information needed for good cover crop use in 2020,” he said.

With 20 years of exposure to the ups and downs of agriculture in the Midwest, Dan was upbeat about how times of crisis have always created opportunities for future health and growth in the industry. One of the things he discussed was the value – and the need – for more diversity on Midwest farms.

“I’m getting more and more local calls from farmers who want to add diversity to their farm,” he said. “Some in the last couple years tried growing hemp, and that was a bit of a disappointment. But others, and Cameron Mills (Walton, IN) is a good example, are integrating livestock into their row crops. He’s got a small herd and portable fencing, and he’s selling the cover crop-fed direct to local customers hungry for healthy, locally raised livestock.”

One of the potential challenges he discussed is how to move slowly in the direction of direct sales and away from strictly contract growing corn and soybeans. “It takes people with a desire, ability and a personality for selling direct to the public,” he said. “Many of the older farmers have never done that and don’t really want to start now. So, in some cases the next generation is taking on those responsibilities.”

Cover crops are an example of this new direction. While the science and economics of cover crops have proven out over the past 25 years, the number of acres in the Midwest with cover crops on them is probably not more than 15 percent. “By now, we should have more than 50 percent covered,” Dan said. “But it’s still a new thing for those who’ve been farming the same way for 50 years or more.”

Dan also said that the amount of information available about cover crops and crop diversification is immense, but that change comes principally via word-of-mouth – farmers talking with peers about their successes and failures with new ideas. “Technical support and financial incentives continue to be important, too,” he added, and unfortunately there’s not enough support and too much paperwork associated with it.”

Links to online resources regarding diversifying agriculture in the Midwest

Ryegrass Saves the Gulf of Mexico…well, not quite Yet!

An article in the recent issue of Grist spent a lot of ink reporting on the value of cover crops. They looked specifically at a small Indiana watershed (Tippecanoe) and recorded what happened to the water quality when cover crop adoption approached 100%. Perhaps more accurately, they recorded what DIDN’T happen…the nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers stayed on the property and didn’t end up in the Gulf of Mexico.

In a short video, you can get the gist of what Grist had to say. Here’s that link.

But if you want to read the longer article, it’s worth it. Here’s that link, called Last Ditch Effort. Among those interviewed was Jamie Scott, an entrepreneurial grower in Indiana who has been instrumental for expanding the use of cover crop, particularly annual ryegrass, in the past 10 years.

Here’s a quote from the article, in terms of what they determined, in summary. After 13 years and a million dollars in state, nonprofit, and federal funding, the data show a clear decline in nitrogen and phosphorus flowing out of this watershed during the critical springtime thaw. These two nutrients fertilize crops, but when they wash into the water, they fertilize algae blooms and cause a host of problems. In other words, the chemicals we rely on to grow food often end up poisoning the planet and threatening the lives of many species on it, including ours.

Maybe you caught the editorial slant in the last sentence. Yes, Grist is an environmentalist magazine run by millenials who probably think they can right all the wrongs right away, if all the old folks would just quietly go away and die. But seriously, if a tree-hugging bunch of youngsters think cover cropping is going to save the planet, that’s good news…because cover crops can take care of a bunch of pollution problems, and that’s the truth.