Tag Archives: erosion control

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, and Purdue University ag scientists, a some test plots of annual ryegrass seed were planted in the fall, after harvest, to see what benefit it might have on erosion control over the winter and into spring.

In the next few 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 paying attention to detail.

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.”

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.

Green under White – The Ideal Winter Color Scheme involves Cover Crops

As winter approaches, the fields now stripped of corn and beans ought to have a cover of green before the snow flies.

Van Tilberg 2011 Hi-Boy Seeder2

First, and foremost, if winter snow comes late or not enough, your soil can be stripped from your property, and you can expect to lose both fertility and productivity as a result. Wind, rain, melt and freeze and run off can be devastating.

A cover crop provides a blanket of protection from the ravages of winter. Annual ryegrass doubles its benefit by protecting the surface while restructuring the soil profile below. It has a massive root system that adds organic matter to the soil. Moreover, it sends roots deep into the soil to 6 feet, through compacted layers, and provides channels for next year’s corn to follow.

With a cover crop in place, even without snow, the greenery will protect the soil from an infestation of annual weeds over the winter, as well as prevent erosion next spring. When you get rid of the cover crop, with glyphosate, the residual biomass left by the annual ryegrass or other cover crop will  continue to decay and feed the corn or beans the stored nitrogen in the residue. That helps to reduce the amount of money you’ll have to spend sidedressing your crop with extra nitrogen in June.

Here’s a link to a number of helpful tips for starting and  managing annual ryegrass as a cover crop. Please contact us if you have questions.

 

Cover Crops – A Living, Healing Insurance Plan

 

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Having a cover crop is the best insurance plan you could have. Consider:

  • It costs very little and insures against a range of disastrous consequences like erosion, compaction, depletion of nutrients and being overrun with weeds
  • Cover crops like annual ryegrass reduce the amount of money you spend on things like superfluous application of nitrogen, and maybe reducing the amount of tiling you need to do in the fields
  • Because of the protective and enhancing effects of cover crops, your soil health improves, the amount of organic matter increases, and there’s an increase in the healthy microbiology…the soil comes to life.
  • All these factors deliver added value in the productivity of crops and the value of the real estate.

Remember, you buy crop insurance in case of a disaster of some sort: bad weather, for example. Cover crops are in a way an insurance policy that is almost assuredly going to improve your profitability the longer you put it into practice.

 

Annual Ryegrass in Cover Crop News

Annual ryegrass has been part of a revolution in American agriculture for the past 25 years. Farmers found that no-till is kinder to the soil and that cover crops make soil richer and more productive.

ARG Chris B 45 days 10-15 to 12-30-2005

In the past two decades, innovative farmers, research agronomists and Oregon seed growers have worked to improve the ryegrass seed so that it is more reliable, easier to grow and easier to manage. New varieties developed in Oregon now withstand tough winters as well as drought conditions. And, as you’ll see in these attached articles, the innovation continues to thrive.

The Capital Press recently reported about “interseeding” annual ryegrass into spring corn. Click here to read what they’ve discovered.

Click here for a general overview of planting and managing annual ryegrass.

Click here to look at how to integrate annual ryegrass into a forage operation, seeding the cover crop while applying nitrogen-rich manure.

And for those new to planting annual ryegrass as a cover crop, take a look at this site, brought to you by the Oregon Annual Ryegrass state commission, run by those who grow and sell the seed that is helping to transform farm soil in the Midwest, New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, as well as farms in southern Canadian provinces.

Annual Ryegrass – The Best Defense is a Good Offense

Ok, so the use of this cliche, “the best defense is a good offense” won’t stand up in today’s rough and tumble world of sports. Imagine the Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban or Clemson’s Dabo Swinney trying that strategy in the BCS Championship Bowl!

Image result for image the best offense is a good defense - college football

But, in agriculture, a good defense kind of creates its own offense. Take cover crops, for example, and annual ryegrass specifically.

  • Planting ryegrass in the fall gives the rich topsoil a chance to relax…no worries of some offensive wind and rushing water eroding it away.
  • No worries about compacted soil continuing to starve corn roots opportunity to access deeper nutrient-rich soil beneath the compacted layer.
  • The residue left over when the cover crop is eliminated in the spring (particularly true with annual ryegrass) is food both for the active soil biology, but also feeds the corn next year, because it soaks up excess nitrogen in the soil and gives it back when corn needs it most, next June.
  • The decaying root structure of annual ryegrass also plays an important role in building organic matter in the soil. It feeds the microbes and insects, plus it leaves channels where corn roots can grow deeper the following year
  • AnnuaL ryegrass roots also discourage the overpopulation of soybean cyst nematodes which damage that crop

As the country, and the world continue to grapple with the impact of violent weather, cover crops provide some defense from soil degradation, and contribute to storing more carbon dioxide in the soil instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.

The best of all worlds, cover crops increase farm productivity and profits. And there’ll be no argument about creating a profit while you’re also contributing to the health of our soil, air and water resources.

 

 

Independence Day – for Cover Crops, it’s Inter-dependence Day…every day!

Remember the bumper sticker: “Every day is Earth Day for farmers?”

This Independence Day, think about that bumper sticker. Just because we farm, does it mean we’re in tune with everything Mother Nature brings forth? Does it mean that farming by the book, the way our fathers and grandfathers did, will make a difference for our sons and grandsons? Does Independence Day suggest we’re free, but only in the political sense?

America, Flag, Usa, United, States

When it comes to agriculture, paying attention to interdependence is what makes a good farm great. Cover crops and no-till is a good example.

  • Conventional tillage compacts soil and leaves topsoil free to erode or blow away. Cover crops breaks up compaction and prevents erosion and loss of a farm’s best resource.
  • Mono-cropping strips the soil of important nutrients. Cover crops, especially on no-till acres, builds organic matter that attracts healthy microorganisms, friendly bacteria and earthworms
  • Nitrogen-loving cash crops need added inputs to keep corn thriving. Cover crops sequester or add nitrogen which reduces the need for fertilizer
  • Conventional tillage allows for one harvest a year. With a forage cover crop, you can do all of the above PLUS get a cutting of hay or graze your livestock.

Interdependence means that we can improve our bottom line and increase our farm’s value by working with nature. Working hard comes with the territory. Working smart, in the framework of soil biology, will help everybody up and down the food chain.

Videos – Comparison of Cover Crops courtesy of Clemson, Ohio State

Check out these videos if you want to see a wide variety of cover crop types. Two well known universities – Clemson University and Ohio State did small plot demos on a lot of traditional as well as new entries in the cover crop family. The videos were shot in April and May of 2018.

Annual ryegrasses features prominently, with some new varieties, including “Frostproof”, “Kodiak” and “Winter Hawk”, as well as “LowBoy”. The value of the first of these new varieties might be winter hardiness. In the second instance, interestingly, LowBoy has less top growth but the root structure is similar in mass to taller varieties. this might be of value for farmers not interested in grazing the annual ryegrass,but wanting the cover crop’s deep rooting and other virtues (breaking compaction, nitrogen uptake, erosion and weed control).

Some other cover crops they examine include different varieties of vetch, clover, peas, triticale, and oats.

The value of university research in agriculture is inestimable, because their funding allows new developments for improving industry standards and growth. But aside from that, the students coming through those programs will be among the new leaders in finding ways to increase production while also conserving resources.

While you’re in the video mood, perhaps you’d like to check out the videos available on the benefits of ryegrass. You can find them by clicking here.Video frame - Annual Ryegrass

 

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?

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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.