Tag Archives: Mike Plumer

Annual Ryegrass – the Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 7

Meet Mark Mellbye – Oregon’s ‘Johnny Appleseed’ of Annual Ryegrass – Part 1

As you may have read, Oregon grass seed growers and the state’s Ryegrass Commission were largely responsible for giving the Midwest cover crop initiative a substantial push over the past 25 years, as has been summarized in previous posts.

The growers you’ve read about in this series, namely Don Wirth and Nick Bowers, both named another Oregonian for acknowledgement, who put a considerable imprint on the project’s success. That man is Mark Mellbye.

Mellbye was raised in Oregon and earned two ag-related degrees from the state’s land grant college in Corvallis – Oregon State University (yes, another OSU!). He joined the Peace Corps after his first graduation and spent 18 months in Lesotho, teaching science and math, then another year traveling throughout Africa.

Before taking a position back at his alma mater, in 1986, Mark was an extension agent in Washington State. The nature of his position at OSU, he said, matched the state’s interest in helping to promote Oregon ag products, and that’s why he was able to spend so much time with Midwest cover crops in the past 25 years.

“A large part of my work in Oregon was to respond to local growers’ requests,” Mark said, “to work on projects of use to them.” Before he retired, Mark was the District Agronomist, overseeing OSU Extension projects in three counties, collectively known as “the grass seed capital of he world”. “The other aspect of my job, and the University was very supportive of this, was to help extend the marketplace for Oregon seed. The Midwest cover crop initiative was the focus.”

He added, “Of course, I was only marginally responsible for what happened with annual ryegrass adoption in the Midwest, but it’s impressive to think that when we started in the late ‘90s, there was no annual ryegrass seed sales to the Midwest whatsoever. Today, there’s upwards of 20 million pounds being shipped there for cover crop use annually, out of about 200 million pounds of annual ryegrass seed produced in Oregon.”

Mike Plumer’s name is forever linked with pioneering cover crops in the Midwest. What is less known is that Plumer, the Illinois crop advisor, didn’t consider annual ryegrass as a possible cover crop until he met Mark in 1997 and they began working together. Until then, Mike had been dabbling with cereal rye, winter wheat, hairy vetch and peas as cover crop potentials. And, as those who knew Mike understood, he was very principled and would immediately balk if he sensed he was being used for some commercial purpose, including the sales of annual ryegrass.

For the cover crop project to succeed, it would have to succeed on a number of fronts. After all, change is hard for most people, and new things tend to have bugs to work out before they are widely accepted.

“One hurdle was that the equipment needed to plant any seed into a no-till field – whether you’re talking corn, soybean or cover crop seeds – was in the process of significant upgrade and modification,” Mark said. “Today, machines can consistently plant those seeds into residue and even into green standing cover crops. Another hurdle was that the nature of annual ryegrass growth in cash crops was an unknown, but the notion was already out there that it should not be trusted. There was a suspicion, generated mostly by weed scientists, that annual ryegrass would become uncontrollable if it got loose in Midwest cornfields.”

“We’ve largely cleared those hurdles,” Mark said, “and we’re on our way to clearing the next one, which is largely educational. It may take the next generation of growers to accept the idea that conventional tillage is too expensive, and that despite the learning curve, cover crops are better for the wallet, for the soil and for the environment.”

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!

Dan Perkins – A New Ryegrass Team Member

“Cover Crop Guy” Dan Perkins was still in college when the Oregon Ryegrass Commission began its cover crop initiative in the Midwest. He recently became the newest member of the ryegrass cover crop team, and his youthful exuberance and depth of practical knowledge will be of great use to us and those who wish to know more about cover crops.

Since graduating in 2001 or 02, he’s received a dual Masters degree in Environmental and Political Science. An enduring desire to farm materialized when he and wife, Julie, moved to DeMotte, Indiana with their first son, purchased 20 acres and started Perkins’ Good Earth Farm.

While the organic farm business was growing roots, Dan went to work for Jasper County Soil and Water Conservation District, where he earned a Certified Crop Adviser designation.

After a decade at the SWCD, he decided the family (now with a daughter and three sons) and the business (with a successful Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, client base) needed more of his attention.

Image may contain: 5 people, people smiling, people sitting, hat, child and outdoor

We’re very glad to have Dan join our team as a consultant. The loss of Mike Plumer a couple years ago was hard, and Dan won’t be able to fill his shoes. But, in addition to other team members Dan Towery and Mark Mellbye, Dan brings new perspectives from a different generation of farmers.

Click here to see a website he’s developed with his wife for their farm.

Click here to see an example of a video on one aspect of cover cropping: interseeding.

 

Recalling a Man Who Put Annual Ryegrass on the Cover Crop Map

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Mike Plumer was a guy who made sure he knew what he was talking about before he’d open his mouth. He didn’t tout his academic degrees or his professional experience as much as giving you the benefit of his PERSONAL experience.

When it came to cover crops, Mike was out in front of practically the whole country. With his friend Ralph “Junior” Upton, Mike began to experiment with no-til and cover crops. Junior’s land, hilly with some bottom land and featuring a lot of fragipan layering, was as good a place to start as any.

What Mike and Junior noticed almost right away, back in the early 1990s, was that annual ryegrass was easy to germinate. It tolerates being wet, so the bottom land blossomed. And, though he approached this next step carefully, he saw that annual ryegrass killed easily in the spring, provided you do your homework on killing it properly.

One of the biggest surprises, however, was how deep annual ryegrass roots grow over the winter. Because the seed is raised in Oregon, on wet soils, the roots don’t need to grow deep to flourish. But in the Midwest, the moisture and nutrients are way deep sometimes, and annual ryegrass goes after it.

Thirty years hence, the Midwest continues to adopt cover cropping slowly, but surely. Farmers understand economics, and cover crops make money, in several ways. They improve soil quality, so the harvest is fuller. Annual ryegrass sequesters nitrogen, so you save on fertilizer input. And cover crops store carbon and build organic matter, which makes the land you own that much more valuable when it comes time to sell.

Mike Plumer, may he rest in peace. Who knows, perhaps there’s an Extension Service in heaven, and Mike’s been put to work building healthy futures there, too.

Click here to view a helpful powerpoint presentation Mike put together in his last years.

 

More Buzz about the Value of Cover Crops

“The good news is, soil will improve every year you grow a cover crop,” said Dan Towery, a crop consultant, and owner of Ag Conservation Solutions, living in West Lafayette, Ind.. “How soon you see measurable yield improvement depends on field history and what limiting factors, such as weather, are present in a year. For example, soils that are low in organic matter will benefit faster from cover crops.”

His comments are part of a longer article in the Farm Journal online. Click here to view the whole article.

Carbon sequestration graphicKen Ferrie is also interviewed for the article. Ferrie, Farm Journal’s Field Agronomist said “It might take many years to make big changes in soil health, but in some situations, you might see improvement (earlier than that.). For example, he cited a study in which annual ryegrass as a cover crop improved carbon content, bulk density and water infiltration IN THE FIRST YEAR!.

“As with any new practice, you’ll be eager to determine whether cover crops are having an impact,” Ferrie says. “Your soil physical provides a benchmark so you can follow up later and see if soil health is improving.”

Another farmer and rancher, Gabe Brown, talked about the benefits of cover crops in North Dakota. “You should use covers to address your resource concerns,” advises Brown. For the past two decades, he’s used cover crops to increase diversity, build organic matter, and improve water infiltration and the water-holding capacity of his soils.

“We look at each field separately and determine what the resource concern of each field is,” he says.

But make sure you choose a cover crop with a lot of forethought and advice from others with experience. Otherwise, you may be inviting failure or added problems. “Cover crops take more management, not less,” said Mike Plumer, who died last Christmas after dedicating 50 years to soil health and farmer education. “Farmers have to learn how cover crops react on their own fields.”

Plumer advised producers to start small with cover crops – perhaps a 20 acre plot or so, before “before incorporating on the entire farm.”

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.

Annual Ryegrass Eliminates the Effect of Fragipan

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 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.

 

“Give it to Mikey. Mikey Will Know What to Do!”

No-Till Farmer magazine founder Frank Lessiter said this about Mike Plumer, after hearing about his death late in December, while he was awaiting word on a possible lung transplant.

“Mike was a great friend of No-Till Farmer and a staunch advocate for helping farmers succeed with cover crops.He was a tireless teacher. He would stand in the hallways at our meeting for hours on end taking questions from farmers and helping them find answers to their cover crop challenges.”

No-Till Farmer has also published online a link to the many articles Mike authored or co-authored, as part of his effort to educate farmers about cover crops and the intricacies of managing them.

Mike Plumer, Cover Crop Hero, is Gone, but Not Forgotten

“When we lost Mike, we lost a champion, a champion in innovative agriculture in the U.S., North America and other points of the world, primarily Africa.”

On Christmas Day, Mike Plumer died. The quote above is from a tribute written about him by Bryan Ostlund, administrator of the Oregon Seed Growers Commission.

Here’s a link to the whole article, which will be published this spring in the Oregon Seed magazine. 

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