Tag Archives: deep rooting cover crop

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

Part 3. From Pedestrian to Princess: Annual Ryegrass in Midwest Cornfields

Annual ryegrass has led a bit of a Cinderella life. Plain and pedestrian for a century or more, it was a go-to seed for jumpstarting green acreage quickly in city parks and ballfields, highway roadsides, golf course fairways and big estates around the world. Among its greatest assets over time: it’s easiness to germinate and affordability.

But then, in the mid 1990s, Oregon seed growers and the Ryegrass Commission gave Junior Upton an opportunity to see what the crop might do to slow the erosion on his thin, hilly acreage east of St. Louis. The old Cinderella seed did its job keeping soil in its place as spring rains tried to pry it loose. But the new Cinderella story, the thing nobody anticipated, was the crop’s deep rooting capability. In a couple of years on his no-till corn and beanfields, annual ryegrass roots were found at depths of four to five feet, having busted through the fragipan layers. The other ‘ah ha’ was that his corn production began to rise. Well, these three things helped add energy and excitement to a fledgling cover crop movement.  It was the first of what has become a long list of benefits, courtesy of annual ryegrass as a cover crop.

Junior and Mike Plumer weren’t shy about the results on Upton’s farm, with his yield on marginal land overtaking that of his neighbor’s acreage, which had historically been superior. But as with any new thing, Upton and Plumer found it challenging to convince others to try annual ryegrass. Farmers are wary of new gimmicks. Generation after generation has come to rely on more power, deeper rippers, and better chemistry to keep field production high. They’d say, “Conventional tillage was good enough for my pop and grandpa, so it’s good enough for me, too!” Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed three stages of truth: at first, most people ridicule it. Then as it gains traction, they vigorously oppose it. Finally, when it has become familiar and others are on board, they accept it and act like they’ve never doubted it in the first place.

Don Wirth said that, at each of those stages, you’ll find a different type of person. Those who see change as their friend and are always looking for a new angle he calls innovators. The next tier are the “early adopters”, who benefit from the innovators and put changes into effect quickly. The final group are those who, like Junior’s neighbors, wait to see how things turn out before getting their feet wet. There’s nothing wrong with any of the three groups, in fact it’s a natural thing. But it shows why it takes so many years to change habitual behavior in human beings.

Thankfully, we were able to find  more than a dozen innovators willing to cooperate with our project in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  What helped the project immensely were these three things:

  • The Oregon Ryegrass Commission commitment to a long term educational and marketing effort, backed by dollars contributed by Oregon seed growers themselves
  • Don Wirth, Nick Bowers, and a few others from the Oregon seed growing industry, continued to be of immense value, for their funding, their seed and their many voluntary trips to the Midwest to witness field trials, work with cooperating growers, go to trade shows and answer questions about annual ryegrass with people interested in cover crops.
  • Hiring Mike Plumer and Dan Towery to network, work with cooperating growers, attend trade shows, become active on regional and national boards related to agriculture, and spending tons of time out in the field, adding quality control to what was one big-ass experiment.

In the next blog, we’ll talk about some of the new benefits discovered in those early years, as well as some of the interesting partnerships formed, including with environmental groups eager to try new ways to clean up polluted Midwest waterways.

Part 2. Deep Rooting Annual Ryegrass Busts Compaction

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

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.