Tag Archives: Junior Upton

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.

Annual Ryegrass – A Quarter Century of Cover Crop Growth

Mike Plumer was still alive when the cover crop experiment began in the Midwest. An innovator from the get-go, Mike was doing his own farming while also on the faculty of the U. of Illinois, researching and helping area farmers become more successful.

In the mid 1990s, Plumer and Ralph “Junior” Upton got together and the revolution got a new boost. Upton had already been experimenting with cover crops on his Springerton, Illinois acreage. The year Plumer and he first planted annual ryegrass made their eyes practically bug out. Here’s how Junior describes it, in a recent SARE article:

Upton recalls introducing ryegrass into his system and seeing roots 48 inches deep, growing through the fragipan, even though above-ground biomass was less than five inches tall. Being vulnerable to droughts was an ongoing concern in the past, but now cover crops have helped to alleviate some of that worry by improving both the water-holding capacity of his soil and the rooting depth of his corn and soybeans. “Dry weather killed me in the past due to a fragipan,” Upton explains. “I had been farming the top five inches of soil, where now I use four feet of soil.”

Since then, the number of farms employing cover crops has increased dramatically, partly because of the educational work of Plumer and Upton. Until his death in 2017, Plumer was a tireless champion, and Upton continues his efforts that, he said, have been in the direction of conservation tillage since 1970.

In celebration of the quarter century of work that has gone into cover crop market development and usage, we’ll do some interviews with growers from Oregon who funded a lot of the research and development of winter hardy species of annual ryegrass and other cover crops. We’ll also interview some of the early adopters in the Midwest, and the innovators who came up with more efficient ways to plant cover crops and even how to interseed cover crops with standing corn.

While the adoption rate to cover crops has still been a drop in the bucket (a bit less than 10% of all farm acres in the Midwest are in cover crops), the rate of acceptance has continued to rise. At the current rate of new acres being planted, it’s estimated that we could double in the next 10 years what has been planted in cover crops in the past 25 years!

Pioneer of Cover Crops and Annual Ryegrass Talks Dry Year Benefits

Ralph “Junior” Upton (Springerton, IL) began using cover crops (buckwheat and hairy vetch) in the 1980s, mainly to reduce erosion on his hilly acres. In the 90s, he began looking for a cover crop to break up the hardpan soil just below plow depth. “I haven’t got the best soil, so I’ve always been tinkering with how to improve my yield, especially in dry years,” he said.

Working closely with Mike Plumer (a farmer and Univ. IL Extension educator at the time), Upton was among a half dozen Midwest producers who tried annual ryegrass on small plots, planted in the fall after harvest. “I rely on Mike for knowing what to look for in the soil. When I called him out that next April, we were all surprised to find ryegrass roots to 72 inches, with a top growth of only 4 inches,” Upton said. “I had always thought that you only get an inch of roots for every inch of top growth.”

Later that summer, after having killed the ryegrass and then planted corn, he went back to the same field location to see whether the deep ryegrass roots might have impacted the growth of corn roots. “The annual ryegrass opened up small channels that corn roots used to access deeper soil and moisture,” Upton said. Deep rooting has allowed his corn and bean crops to do better in dry years, because the cover crop also took care of the hardpan soil. “There was no longer any restriction to growth,” he added.

This year, having gotten only one rainfall when the corn was knee high, his crop was not as productive as in normal years. Still, with some farmers in his area mowing down their entire acreage, Upton was happy getting an average of 70 bu/ac. and a high of about 130 bu/ac. With temperatures above 100 degrees for weeks, many saw their corn fail to pollinate. Upton wonders whether pollination, in addition to deeper rooting (soil was bone dry to 3 feet), could be impacted by the presence of annual ryegrass.