Tag Archives: improve water infiltration

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.

How to Pull Nitrogen into Corn with Annual Ryegrass

One of the dozen benefits from planting a cover crop like annual ryegrass is to sequester, or uptake, available nitrogen (N) in the soil. This is accomplished mostly by reducing the amount of N that leaches out of the field over winter and spring.

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Annual ryegrass is among the most popular cover crops for a variety of reasons, including erosion-proofing your crop acres. Before that, it germinates easily and grows well in cool weather, whether planted in the fall after corn harvest or interseeded with corn in the spring. If planted in the fall, it maximizes root growth and N uptake before cold weather limits growth. If interseeded, it establishes among knee-high corn then goes dormant in the shade of a corn canopy, then goes to town after fall harvest.

Perhaps the biggest asset of annual ryegrass is the depth of its roots. In no-tilled fields after a few years to work its wonders, ryegrass roots can be found to depths of 4 and 5 feet, far below other cover crops. But even in new-to-cover-crop acres, ryegrass roots can easily sink to 3 feet over the winter, breaking up compaction on the way to accessing nutrients deeper in the profile.

But further savings can be realized when considering that annual ryegrass (and other cover crops) sequester available N in their leaves and roots. Then, once terminated in the spring (with glysophate), the cover crop residue composts in the field, releasing N just when the corn needs it most, in late spring and early summer. With a cover crop like this, you can reduce your input of N fertilizer by up to  half, depending on other factors.

Learn more about the benefits of annual ryegrass by clicking here.

 

 

 

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.

Cover Crops Bolster the Health of Mycorrhizal Networks – and Why That’s a Good Thing!

The mycelium of a fungus spreading through soil (Credit: Nigel Cattlin / Alamy)

The term mycorrhizae refers to fungi present in the soil and the positive influence it has on the root system of host plants nearby, aiding both to the health of soil biology and soil chemistry. These fungi enhance the uptake of water and nutrients, including carbon and nitrogen. They also contribute to suppression of weeds and pests.

The formation of these beneficial networks can be influenced by factors such as soil fertility, resource availability, types of host plants, tillage and climactic conditions. They form a symbiotic relationship with host plant; the fungi get nutrition from the host plant roots and the host plant gets a healthier soil in which to thrive.

Cover crops are conducive to the development and health of mycorrhizal networks. Once in place, mycorrhizae digest plant material, and produce by-products including polysaccharides. These complex sugars create a kind of aggregation in the soil, small clusters that farmers refer to as crumbs. A well-aggregated or “crumby” soil —not “crummy” soil (depleted) – has more texture, better aeration, better infiltration, better water retention and is less prone to compaction.

Annual ryegrass is among the many cover crops that promote good aggregation. Grasses have a fibrous root system that spreads out from the base of the plant. These roots, in tandem with mycorrhizae, release the polysaccharides that then create the aggregation of soil between the roots. Aggregation is a sign that your soil is in the process of creating more organic matter, though a demonstrable increase (say, from 3 percent to 4 percent organic matter) will take more time. But a thriving mycorrhizal network is an indication that you’re moving in the right direction.

What is probably obvious to you at this point: tilling the soil discourages the development of mycorrhizae and the aggregation of soil, while also adding to the compaction of soil. No-till and cover crops are certainly important aspects of moving towards healthy soil, host to earthworms, microorganisms and mycorrhizae.

National Effort to Expand Use of Cover Crops

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The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research launched a national effort to expand use of cover crops. Called the Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms initiative, the group includes the USDA as well. It is a collaborative, multi-partner research effort to improve soil health in the United States. It continues the effort to encourage adoption of cover crops as well as develop new cover crop varieties with enhanced soil health-promoting traits.

The research expands into states not commonly practicing cover cropping methods, like

  • Maryland,
  • North Carolina,
  • Oklahoma,
  • Nebraska and M
  • issouri. Ideally, the research will begin with

cover crops with the greatest potential to improve soil health in a broad geographic context.  Annual ryegrass, small grains, annual legumes and brassicas will be used to start.

As has been demonstrated throughout the Midwest, northeastern US and southern provinces in Canada, cover crops are valuable for these reasons:

  • Improve soil health.
  • Mitigate erosion.
  • Increase crop yields.
  • Enhance water use efficiency.

For more on the study, here’s a link.

Ryegrass and other Cover Crops – Benefits the Purse and the Earth

You have undoubtedly read, or experienced, the following effects by stopping cultivation, adopting no-till agriculture practices and then planting cover crops, such as annual ryegrass.

  • Saving on fuel costs by reducing the trips over the field
  • Reducing or eliminating soil compaction and fragipan layers
  • Preventing soil erosion
  • Conserving soil moisture
  • Protecting water quality
  • Fixing atmospheric nitrogen while reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizer
  • Reducing the need for herbicides and pesticides
  • Improving organic matter, soil porosity and water infiltration
  • Increasing the population of healthy microorganisms and earthworms
  •  Increasing yields by enhancing soil health

ARG Chris B 45 days 10-15 to 12-30-2005In the last year, another benefit has come to light, based on the collaborative work of two men working on opposite sides of the Atlantic ocean. They claim that cover crops help to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Professor Jason Kaye (Penn. State) and Miguel Quemada (Technical University of Madrid) looked at the following things:

  • Cover crops lower greenhouse gases by increasing soil carbon sequestration and, thus, the use of less fertilizer
  • Cover crop vegetation also lowers the proportion of energy from sunlight that is reflected off farm fields.

This last point, according to Professor Kaye, “may mitigate 12 to 46 grams of carbon per square meter per year over a 100-year time horizon.” Click here to read a longer description of the article. Or, click here for the academic study itself.

 

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.

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Killing Annual Ryegrass Cover Crops Adds to Soil Organic Matter

Cereal rye is a great cover crop. Sometimes, however, the amount of biomass in the spring creates difficulty for drilling corn seed. The excess vegetation can impede proper planting and can also take moisture out of the soil that crops will need this summer.

Annual ryegrass doesn’t create as much biomass,The residual left by the annual ryegrass after burndown quickly decomposes into the no-till soil. It becomes food for soil critters and microorganisms. And the massive root network slowly decomposes too, building organic matter. The channels created by ryegrass roots become channels for corn roots. The combination of root channels and more organic matter allows better infiltration of rain. but it is important to spray the crop out in a timely fashion.

Corn roots in ARG 6-06 Starkey
Annual ryegrass, if let grow too long, can be more difficult to kill. And letting it go to seed is asking for trouble…nobody wants to contend with a cover crop that gets away.

Last week’s blog discusses the proper guidelines for applying herbicide to kill the cover crop. Here’s a linkto the management guide where those instructions are.

 

Annual Ryegrass – At the Root of it All

The Dust Bowl crippled the Great Plains states in the 1930s and 40s because of poor soil management in the decades before that.

The mistakes made were partly because of economics – farmers were rewarded for expanding their acreage in order to satisfy the demand for corn and wheat to supply troops in World War I. But the mistakes were also due to the fact that most farmers did not understand the effect of plowing under the native prairie grasses to make room for cash crops. And, after World War II, the popular thing was to make use of the bountiful supply of anhydrous ammonia (high in nitrogen) for supplying the nutrients lost to oxidation and erosion.

Annual ryegrass is akin to those native prairie grasses in at least one respect: they all have very deep roots. And, as you know, it is the roots that protect the soil surface from erosion. Modern agricultural methods include cover cropping, which prevents nutrients from eroding off the property. No more waste of topsoil; less need for adding nutrient inputs to bolster anemic soil.

Corn roots in ARG 6-06 Starkey

The other key factor with annual ryegrass’ deep roots is that they seek moisture and nutrients in deeper soil. Roots grow to depths of 6 feet in some places. The benefit is that roots from ryegrass create channels for the corn and soybeans to follow. Once the cover crop is killed in the spring, the roots die and add to the organic matter in the soil, in addition to creating pathways for new rooting crops and infiltration of snow melt and rain.

The annual ryegrass website has tons of good information about growing this cover crop. There are videos, too, and you need only click here. Finally, No-Till Farmer magazine has an article that talks more about the benefits of annual ryegrass.

 

Annual Ryegrass – a Christmas Gift that Keeps Giving

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With snow covering a lot of the Midwest this month, cover crops like annual ryegrass have a good chance of wintering over. That means continued activity in the soil, even if the vegetative part of the plant is dormant.

Annual ryegrass roots can dig all winter long, extending to a couple of feet or more by springtime. In the winter, the roots permeate compacted soil and open it up for better water infiltration and biological activity. These are important aspects of soil health and crop production next summer.

Here’s a recent article on annual ryegrass and other cover crops, from the Farm Journal, that outlines some basics in choosing a cover crop, some tips on selecting varieties and a lot of encouragement to try it out…even on a small test plot, until you get the hang of the management changes necessary for adding cover crops on a big time basis.

Here are a couple of other resources about annual ryegrass, how to grow it, where to get it, and how to terminate it in the spring.