Tag Archives: improve organic matter in soil

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.

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.

Is “Good Enough” Good Enough Anymore?

When has “good enough” been your measure for anything? Raising your kids? No! Nothing’s good enough for them, right?

Electing honest leaders? Imagine where America would be if we decided that mediocre was all we could expect from those we elected? The Founding Fathers would be turning in their graves!

And how about farming? Has “good enough” ever satisfied you as the decider-in-chief? How would those who buy your crops react if your corn, beans and livestock were marginal? You’d be outta business pretty quick.

Corn emerging through ARG residue

That’s why putting cover crops on yoyur acreage makes perfect sense. For years, those who believed in deep tillage thought they were doing the best they could…rip deeper, add more fertilizer. But now we understand the complex way in which soil health is maintained, so the old ways are not good enough anymore!

It turns out that taking care of your soil, like being a watchful and loving parent, yields amazing results. With no-till and cover crops like annual ryegrass, micro-nutrients, bacteria, and carbon quickly come back to your anemic soil, even after decades of mediocre care.

  • Annual ryegrass breaks up compaction, so your crops can reach more moisture and nutrients below.
  • Annual ryegrass sequesters nitrogen, so you can save on fertilizer while preventing spring erosion.
  • Deep rooting annual ryegrass allows corn roots to grow much deeper into the soil – up to 6 feet deep – which gives your cash crop resiliency against dry summers.
  • You can graze livestock on cover crops…maybe even twice in one year…which saves you money on feed, while below the surface, the cover crop is delivering organic matter in great quantities, food for earthworms and other micro-flora and fauna.

Finally, in one of the classic “win-win” scenarios, cover crops have proven to boost production. Given how much benefit the soil gets (not to mention the benefits to the watershed and the air!), it’s not hard to imagine that it would benefit the health of the crop too.

So if “good enough” is continuing to be your standard operating procedure, you’re missing out on an opportunity to succeed in a way that benefits your wallet while adding value to your property. And if you’re the one to lead the way in your community, how great is would it be to be acknowledged as a leader, a trend setter, while contributing to your community’s health.

When good enough isn’t good enough, you’ll be raising the bar for the whole darn town, setting a standard for health and prosperity. What a legacy, right? Being known for going the extra mile to benefit others as well as yourself?

 

Earth Day – A Tribute to No Till and Cover Crops

Perhaps the hoopla about climate change and global warming is yielding some new converts to no-till and cover cropping.

Not to say whether “man caused” or “cyclical trends” is the primary factor for the increased severe weather in the Midwest. Suffice it to say that, no-till and cover crops can help mitigate some of the weather-related damage.

Tillage is almost as old as human agriculture, a sure way to reduce weeds in cropland. No-till is also an ancient practice, but in the US, it wasn’t until the 1970s that it began to make headway in modern farming.

Cover crops are also historically significant. In ancient Rome and throughout Asia, farmers have long known the value of adding natural nutrients back into crop rotations to sustain soil fertility and health. Use of a type of Vetch, for example, rejuvenated rice paddies and, just before a new planting, the vetch was removed and composted. Leaving it for too long, they learned, could rob the soil of nitrogen.

In the US, George Washington was an advocate for cover crops and extended rotations. Just before he took office as our first president, he wrote a letter about his quest for barley seed, as well as clover to be used as a cover crop.

In more recent times, the Oregon Ryegrass Commission developed a partnership with university agronomists and farmers to launch what has become a very profitable addition to agriculture. Profitable, yes, for those growing and selling of seed. But even more profitable for those planting cover crops, because of its immense value at reducing costs while increasing soil health, diversity and productivity.

Whether it’s used primarily to reduce compacted soil, to reduce erosion, reduce weeds or reduce the amount of extra nitrogen in the field, cover crops like annual ryegrass are proving their value. Whether you’re looking to increase organic matter, deepen the soil profile accessed by corn plants, improve water infiltration into the soil or increase crop yields, cover crops deliver on those promises.

So as Earth Day rolls on by, give a shout out to those innovators who continue to advocate for farming practices that save the air, the water and the earth…while adding to your bottom line.

 

Erosion Control – Listen to Cover Crop Innovator Steve Groff

It’s hard to believe that no-till and cover crops are still a strange concept to farmers, even after all the positive news there has been about it. Even after 30 years of increased popularity, less than 10 percent of Midwest farmers are active users of this revolutionary practice.

Steve Groff, a Pennsylvania farmer since the 1970s, said he first looked into no-till in the early 1980s, trying to slow down the erosion on his acreage. He said in a recent interview  that the practice did slow down erosion, especially after he began using cover crops.After three years,  he also noticed that the soil began to “mellow out,” meaning the infiltration of rain water increased, the organic matter was more evident and the microbiology in the soil improved.

In 1995, when cover crops first began to emerge, thanks in part to the Oregon ryegrass seed growers (and Mike Plumer at the Univ. of Illinois Extension), Groff began working with Dr. Ray Weil, a Univ. of Maryland professor of agriculture and natural resources. Groff and Weil partnered on research on cover crops. In the fourth year, Pennsylvania experienced a drought and Groff noticed that corn yield on acres planted in cover crops got 28 bushels more than adjacent fields with no cover crops. That was what convinced him…the boost in yield because of healthier soil.

“You couldn’t pay me to NOT plant cover crops,” Groff said.

But, to go back to erosion for a moment. In the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast, with John Kempf,  the host described just how devastating erosion is for healthy crops. NRCS calculated that, on average, farmland in Iowa loses two pounds of topsoil every year for every pound of grain harvested!

Put another way, Groff said, every 1/4 pound hamburger represents four pounds of of topsoil lost to erosion!

Image result for dust storms midwest US 2018

Dust storms in Midwest, in addition to stripping topsoil from productive agricultural acreage, also causes fatalities due to poor visibility on roads.

Later in the podcast, Groff said that when he thinks about soil health, it’s not so much about a problem with erosion but a problem with infiltration. In other words, cover crops dramatically increase the soil’s ability to absorb water instead of it washing off the surface and removing topsoil with it.

He also said that soil health is not so much an issue with fertility as with microbial health. He said that if you have something growing in the field all year, with cover crops in the wintertime, the bacterial and microorganisms that rely on stable soil (untilled) with lots of organic matter. So, if the microbial health is there, the soil quality will be there as well.

Nitrogen and Carbon – Two More Benefits of Annual Ryegrass

In the last blog post, we addressed the myth of annual ryegrass being hard to manage. Follow good control procedures and it is not an issue whatsoever.

Two other assets of annual ryegrass: it creates a savings in expenditures for nitrogen during the season, and it adds considerably to the organic matter in your soil, thus boosts your carbon uptake in the soil as well.

soil pit2

First thing: nitrogen is a key to production. In years past, when cultivation was more popular, nitrogen was increasingly important and expensive. Now, with annual ryegrass as a cover crop, you can actually plan on reducing your nitrogen input. Why? Because annual ryegrass sequesters available nitrogen in the soil during it’s growth. Then, when it’s terminated in the spring, the residue gives up the stored nitrogen, often just in time for the new crop of corn. In many cases, having annual ryegrass decaying in the field means reducing or eliminating the nitrogen boost in June.

Secondly, as the annual ryegrass roots decay (after the cover crop is terminated in early spring), the result is more organic matter, which means more carbon sequestered in the soil, plus more food for a health soil biology.

Finally, when the roots decay, it leaves the earth more pliable, easier for rain to infiltrate, and easier for corn roots to follow. Because annual ryegrass roots grow to depths of five feet and more, it allows corn roots to access that same depth, beyond compaction and into more nutrients like P and K.

It’s amazing that cover cropping, despite it’s proven benefits, is still practiced so infrequently. While it’s great to learn that in some states, 10 percent or more of farmers are using cover crops, it’s discouraging that upwards of 90 percent are still relying on older ways: deep ripping of depleted soils and adding more fertilizer than would be needed if cover crops were utilized.

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.

Carbon Sequestration and Annual Ryegrass Cover Crop Acreage


Conservation tillage, in the best sense, includes cover crops. In addition to enriching the soil, cover crops literally inhale carbon dioxide from the air and use it for plant growth. What isn’t used for growth is eventually released back into the soil.

According to the Conservation Technology Information Center (and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization). upwards of ONE THIRD of the carbon emitted in our world (from power plants and internal combustion engines) could be offset if farmers worldwide would all make use of conservation tillage, including cover crops.

Carbon sequestration graphic

Annual ryegrass, as a cover crop, is adept at absorbing carbon and storing it in its massive network of roots. When killed in the spring, the annual ryegrass residue (including the roots) releases its sequestered nitrogen to help fertilize the new corn and beans in the field. At the same time, the carbon in the cover crop is released into the soil, improving the ratio of organic matter and adding to the food source for soil microbiology.

 

 

 

Increase Your ROI 266% with Cover Crops

Some say that in a down economy, planting annual ryegrass or another cover crop is too expensive. The managing editor of No Till Farming magazine just published an article that shows otherwise.

Based on data from Ken Rulon, who farms more than 3000 acres in Arcadia, Indiana, you can’t afford not to plant cover crops. Not only  does it protect and build healthy soil, prevent erosion, reduce compaction, increase infiltration of rain and snow melt, boost organic matter and microbial activity….it also boosts profits!

Read the article here, by managing editor Laura Barrera, posted earlier this month.

varner arg michigan 4-08 (2)

 

Satellite Imagery Helping Cover Crop Productivity

GPS and satellite technology have given agriculture a big gift, one that keeps on giving. With precision farming, growers now plant and fertilize based on field data and guidance systems calibrated to deliver the right input to the right locations. Productivity increases faster than costs, or at least that’s the goal.

Even a decade ago, there were only so many satellites and they were expensive to access the data for personal use. But now, nanosatellites scarcely bigger than a lunch pail provide far greater coverage at a fraction of the cost. Their low orbits and high resolution cameras give accurate, full time coverage. More importantly, the type of data available allows for greater application of data synthesized from aerial and ground sources.

satellite image cropland

Remote sensing is able to detect variability in soil and crop conditions.High-resolution, “multi-spectral” photos help understand what’s going on in the fields, and help reduce crop inputs. Pest and weed control are easier and less expensive. Imagery and field data help growers schedule harvest to maximize yields.

The latest in a new array of these tools is a collaborative effort called OpTIS (Operational Tillage Information System). Combining satellite and various on-the-ground data gathering methods, growers can now access information that allows field-specific tracking of crop residue management, types of tillage and cover crop use and value.

OpTIS uses multi-spectral satellite imagery to measure wintertime vegetation on agricultural fields and combines this information with site-specific knowledge of crop rotations and cover crop management practices. Images taken throughout the year are converted to show estimated cover crop coverage, the amount of cover crop residue, the type or classification of tillage practice, monitoring seasonal changes in cover crop residue and compiling all this with data from the field, the watershed and the wider county level.

According to a presentation by Applied GeoSolutions, LLC, about the OpTIS system, “Proximal sensors and on-farm sampling are used to calibrate imagery interpretation, and hyper-spectral, biophysical models are used to understand the impact of various components of ground cover (vegetation, soils, crop residue, and shadow) on field reflectance.  Using these methods, USGS researchers can map cover crop performance at the watershed scale and improve the understanding of conservation outcomes associated with various cover crop management strategies. This information is used by farmers and conservation agencies to promote adaptive management of winter cover crop programs to maximize environmental benefits.”

In a pilot program last year, OpTIS was used in a small number of Indiana watersheds. Based on initial feedback, the program will broaden this season to more sites in that state as well as other sites in Ohio, Illinois, and Iowa, according to Dan Towery, whose work with the Indiana Soil Health Management project intersects with the OrTIS project.

Towery also said that the data available will help growers understand more about their varied soil types, help them gauge the impact of cover crops on building organic matter in the soil, and even better understand how to adjust management practices more accurately based on annual precipitation.