Tag Archives: Don Wirth

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.

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

Note: this is the first in a series of blog posts summarizing the growth of sustainable agriculture in the U.S. Specifically, this series will look at the role of cover crops and how  Oregon seed growers played a crucial role in introducing cover crops to Midwest farms.

  1. Ah-Ha is Shorthand for Innovation

Don Wirth is accustomed to “ah-ha moments” in his life. So, the Oregon grass seed farmer and co-owner of Saddle Butte Ag Inc. wasn’t surprised when the lightbulb went on in his head at the annual Farm Machinery Show in the mid 1990s. He was there representing Oregon grass seed growers, specifically those who grow tall fescue.

“Three farmers from Ohio approached me and asked me what I knew about annual ryegrass. I knew enough to ask them what they knew first,” Don laughed. “Well, they told me they had been rotating annual ryegrass into their corn acreage and using it for grazing and sileage, and that they were getting up to seven tons of ryegrass silage sileage per acre with it.” None of that surprised him, although plenty of questions popped up for him, like what time of year they planted and how they got rid of the ryegrass before planting corn again.  They said they drill the ryegrass into corn stubble and then no till corn into the ryegrass stubble.

When the guys claimed that their corn production had improved in the acres planted with annual ryegrass, Don’s “ah-ha” was the stimulus for what has been a quarter-century of growth in cover cropping and “sustainable agriculture”.

He came back to Oregon that February and shared his news with Nick Bowers, co-owner of another Willamette Valley seed farm and Bryan Ostlund about putting some plots on dairy farms in the Midwest.   The Commission funded the project and plots were established the next year.

At the time, annual ryegrass was a high-volume, low-priced seed used primarily in warmer climates, sprayed liberally on ball fields, parks and highway rights-of-way. The idea that this lowly species might find a niche market, at a higher price, in the corn belt was attractive. At that time, in the mid-1990s, a few innovators had already been expressing delight with the benefits of no-tilling. But cover cropping was almost unheard of.

Fast forward for a moment to 2020. No-tilling and cover crops are household terms in farm country. The reduction of what was called “conventional” tillage is stunning, as farmers adopt management practices that rebuild the soil instead of continually ripping it up every year and seeing much of it wash or blow away during the year’s weather cycles.

The acres committed to no-tilling has risen from about 3 million acres in the mid-1970s (the era that ushered in Earth Day, and the far-reaching Clean Air and Clean Water legislation) to more than 100 million acres. The growth chart suggests that the practice is continuing to climb steeply, as more growers come to understand the benefits, and the savings, available with new management practices.

When Don, Nick and the Commission jumped into promoting annual ryegrass and cover crops, it’s safe to say there were only a handful of highly innovative farms testing cover crops with no-till, which basically amounts to planting a cover crop in the field after corn has been harvested.

Today, the number of acres planted in cover crops is somewhere between 15 and 16 million acres. But, like no-tilling, the rate of adoption is remarkable. For example, in just five years (2012 – 2017) the number of cover crop acres increased by almost 50 percent! And the number of farms using cover crops also increased by 15 percent in that same time.

In the Annual Report 2019 – 2020 Cover Crop Survey published by SARE and the Conservation Tillage Information Center (CTIC), the following paragraph describes what has become an “ah ha” for the agriculture industry.

Growers clearly appreciate the contributions they attribute to cover crops: healthier soils, lower herbicide and fertilizer costs, reduced erosion, and improved weed control. In fact, they appreciate the benefits enough to invest substantially in cover crop seed, and about one in three cover crop users pays for application as well. More than half of the horticulture respondents reported that cover crops increased their profitability.

In the next blog post, you’ll learn more about how the Oregon growers became instrumental in the Midwest adoption of cover crops, through a combination of inspiration, perspiration and innovation and cooperation with Midwest growers, universities and nonprofits.

In the meantime, make note of this FREE educational opportunity, the Fall 2020 national Cover Crop Summit (nov 17 – 18). One of the sponsors is KB Seed Solutions, co-owned by Nick Bowers, one of the Oregon cover crop innovators you’ll learn more about in the next chapter.

Annual Ryegrass Cover Crop – Inexpensive and Effective at Eliminating Nutrient Runoff

Des Moines, Iowa, City Council is poised to file a federal lawsuit against several watershed councils in order that the level of nitrates be reduced in city drinking water. (Click here or above to see the news article) Even though Iowa is one of only two states in the Mississippi River Basin to have a nutrient reduction plan in effect, the effort has not diminished the nitrate levels in the Raccoon River flowing through downtown Des Moines. The river is a source of drinking water for the city.

There are a couple of ways to reduce runoff. One is mechanical, the other is vegetative. Installing monitoring stations at the edge of fields does a good job telling regulators how much nutrient is leaving. The cost to install even low-cost equipment gets expensive if you’re required to install hundreds on a farm of a couple thousand acres. And, monitoring the field, while useful, doesn’t reduce runoff.

The Environmental Protection Agency is among the regulatory agencies stepping up pressure on farmers to cut runoff of nitrates, coming from animal waste and fertilizers. The EPA says that other measures are effective of reducing or eliminating that runoff…cover crops are among the least expensive. Here are their suggestions:

  • Cover crops: Planting certain grasses, grains or clovers can help keep nutrients out of the water by recycling excess nitrogen and reducing soil erosion.
  • Buffers: Planting trees, shrubs and grass around fields, especially those that border water bodies, can help by absorbing or filtering out nutrients before they reach a water body.
  • Conservation tillage: Reducing how often fields are tilled reduces erosion and soil compaction, builds soil organic matter, and reduces runoff.

Don Wirth, a grass seed grower from Oregon, has been working with corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest for more than a decade. He said that it’s sad that the farming industry could not accomplish the task of reducing runoff without government intervention. He is optimistic, however, that the popularity of cover crops will constitute an effective and less expensive method of reducing nutrient runoff.

 

Annual Ryegrass Roots…”Go Dig!”

“My cover crop wasn’t green this spring!” Don Wirth’s answer to what sounded to him like a complaint was, “Go dig!”

His point: when annual ryegrass is established in the fall, it quickly sends roots down below a foot, even in fields that haven’t had a cover crop before. (In successive years, annual ryegrass roots can send roots to deeper than 40 inches, even when there’s only a couple of inches of top growth!) It is those roots that help prevent erosion. But that’s only the beginning. Deep rooting breaks up compaction, improves permeability. That’s still only the beginning. The biggest benefit is that cover crops improve soil biology, including a healthy population of earthworms and microorganisms. When that happens, crops thrive, production increases and costs for inputs go down.

A few years ago, he visited a Midwest farm in the spring, where no cover crop was evident on the surface. And yet, walking across the field, Don was able to point out where the annual ryegrass had grown the year before. It was as if a line had been drawn on the land. Cover crops had already begun to change the biology of the soil beneath. “I’m guessing that the field had very low organic matter content, so the addition of even a year’s worth of cover crop will make a significant difference in how the soil looks and feels,” he said.

Wirth, an Oregon grass seed farmer said there is a lot of reliable information now about the value of cover crops. But he heartily suggests that farmers be more informed about the health of their soil. He recommends reading Gary Zimmer’s book Biological Farmer, written in 2000. Here’s a short excerpt from the book’s description:

Biological farming does not mean less production; it means eliminating obstacles to healthy, efficient production. It is a safe and sustainable system designed to keep production up.
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Wirth also suggests becoming more in touch with improving your soil’s health. He said starting with an inexpensive Solvita test (about $150) will give you some basics.

The test uses a couple of soil probes loaded with a certain kind of gel that reacts to soil chemistry. Among other things, the Solvita measures carbon dioxide emissions…mostly due to microbial respiration. The level of microbial activity indicates the amount of active organic matter that is being broken down and the amount of nutrients being released.

Measuring year after year will give you a chart of the growth in soil biology and organic matter. Overlay that on a record of crop yields and you’d have pretty convincing evidence about the connection between cover crops,
soil health and profits.