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

Part 3. From Pedestrian to Princess: Annual Ryegrass in Midwest Cornfields

Annual ryegrass has led a bit of a Cinderella life. Plain and pedestrian for a century or more, it was a go-to seed for jumpstarting green acreage quickly in city parks and ballfields, highway roadsides, golf course fairways and big estates around the world. Among its greatest assets over time: it’s easiness to germinate and affordability.

But then, in the mid 1990s, Oregon seed growers and the Ryegrass Commission gave Junior Upton an opportunity to see what the crop might do to slow the erosion on his thin, hilly acreage east of St. Louis. The old Cinderella seed did its job keeping soil in its place as spring rains tried to pry it loose. But the new Cinderella story, the thing nobody anticipated, was the crop’s deep rooting capability. In a couple of years on his no-till corn and beanfields, annual ryegrass roots were found at depths of four to five feet, having busted through the fragipan layers. The other ‘ah ha’ was that his corn production began to rise. Well, these three things helped add energy and excitement to a fledgling cover crop movement.  It was the first of what has become a long list of benefits, courtesy of annual ryegrass as a cover crop.

Junior and Mike Plumer weren’t shy about the results on Upton’s farm, with his yield on marginal land overtaking that of his neighbor’s acreage, which had historically been superior. But as with any new thing, Upton and Plumer found it challenging to convince others to try annual ryegrass. Farmers are wary of new gimmicks. Generation after generation has come to rely on more power, deeper rippers, and better chemistry to keep field production high. They’d say, “Conventional tillage was good enough for my pop and grandpa, so it’s good enough for me, too!” Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed three stages of truth: at first, most people ridicule it. Then as it gains traction, they vigorously oppose it. Finally, when it has become familiar and others are on board, they accept it and act like they’ve never doubted it in the first place.

Don Wirth said that, at each of those stages, you’ll find a different type of person. Those who see change as their friend and are always looking for a new angle he calls innovators. The next tier are the “early adopters”, who benefit from the innovators and put changes into effect quickly. The final group are those who, like Junior’s neighbors, wait to see how things turn out before getting their feet wet. There’s nothing wrong with any of the three groups, in fact it’s a natural thing. But it shows why it takes so many years to change habitual behavior in human beings.

Thankfully, we were able to find  more than a dozen innovators willing to cooperate with our project in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  What helped the project immensely were these three things:

  • The Oregon Ryegrass Commission commitment to a long term educational and marketing effort, backed by dollars contributed by Oregon seed growers themselves
  • Don Wirth, Nick Bowers, and a few others from the Oregon seed growing industry, continued to be of immense value, for their funding, their seed and their many voluntary trips to the Midwest to witness field trials, work with cooperating growers, go to trade shows and answer questions about annual ryegrass with people interested in cover crops.
  • Hiring Mike Plumer and Dan Towery to network, work with cooperating growers, attend trade shows, become active on regional and national boards related to agriculture, and spending tons of time out in the field, adding quality control to what was one big-ass experiment.

In the next blog, we’ll talk about some of the new benefits discovered in those early years, as well as some of the interesting partnerships formed, including with environmental groups eager to try new ways to clean up polluted Midwest waterways.

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

Note: this is the first in a series of blog posts summarizing the growth of sustainable agriculture in the U.S. Specifically, this series will look at the role of cover crops and how  Oregon seed growers played a crucial role in introducing cover crops to Midwest farms.

  1. Ah-Ha is Shorthand for Innovation

Don Wirth is accustomed to “ah-ha moments” in his life. So, the Oregon grass seed farmer and co-owner of Saddle Butte Ag Inc. wasn’t surprised when the lightbulb went on in his head at the annual Farm Machinery Show in the mid 1990s. He was there representing Oregon grass seed growers, specifically those who grow tall fescue.

“Three farmers from Ohio approached me and asked me what I knew about annual ryegrass. I knew enough to ask them what they knew first,” Don laughed. “Well, they told me they had been rotating annual ryegrass into their corn acreage and using it for grazing and sileage, and that they were getting up to seven tons of ryegrass silage sileage per acre with it.” None of that surprised him, although plenty of questions popped up for him, like what time of year they planted and how they got rid of the ryegrass before planting corn again.  They said they drill the ryegrass into corn stubble and then no till corn into the ryegrass stubble.

When the guys claimed that their corn production had improved in the acres planted with annual ryegrass, Don’s “ah-ha” was the stimulus for what has been a quarter-century of growth in cover cropping and “sustainable agriculture”.

He came back to Oregon that February and shared his news with Nick Bowers, co-owner of another Willamette Valley seed farm and Bryan Ostlund about putting some plots on dairy farms in the Midwest.   The Commission funded the project and plots were established the next year.

At the time, annual ryegrass was a high-volume, low-priced seed used primarily in warmer climates, sprayed liberally on ball fields, parks and highway rights-of-way. The idea that this lowly species might find a niche market, at a higher price, in the corn belt was attractive. At that time, in the mid-1990s, a few innovators had already been expressing delight with the benefits of no-tilling. But cover cropping was almost unheard of.

Fast forward for a moment to 2020. No-tilling and cover crops are household terms in farm country. The reduction of what was called “conventional” tillage is stunning, as farmers adopt management practices that rebuild the soil instead of continually ripping it up every year and seeing much of it wash or blow away during the year’s weather cycles.

The acres committed to no-tilling has risen from about 3 million acres in the mid-1970s (the era that ushered in Earth Day, and the far-reaching Clean Air and Clean Water legislation) to more than 100 million acres. The growth chart suggests that the practice is continuing to climb steeply, as more growers come to understand the benefits, and the savings, available with new management practices.

When Don, Nick and the Commission jumped into promoting annual ryegrass and cover crops, it’s safe to say there were only a handful of highly innovative farms testing cover crops with no-till, which basically amounts to planting a cover crop in the field after corn has been harvested.

Today, the number of acres planted in cover crops is somewhere between 15 and 16 million acres. But, like no-tilling, the rate of adoption is remarkable. For example, in just five years (2012 – 2017) the number of cover crop acres increased by almost 50 percent! And the number of farms using cover crops also increased by 15 percent in that same time.

In the Annual Report 2019 – 2020 Cover Crop Survey published by SARE and the Conservation Tillage Information Center (CTIC), the following paragraph describes what has become an “ah ha” for the agriculture industry.

Growers clearly appreciate the contributions they attribute to cover crops: healthier soils, lower herbicide and fertilizer costs, reduced erosion, and improved weed control. In fact, they appreciate the benefits enough to invest substantially in cover crop seed, and about one in three cover crop users pays for application as well. More than half of the horticulture respondents reported that cover crops increased their profitability.

In the next blog post, you’ll learn more about how the Oregon growers became instrumental in the Midwest adoption of cover crops, through a combination of inspiration, perspiration and innovation and cooperation with Midwest growers, universities and nonprofits.

In the meantime, make note of this FREE educational opportunity, the Fall 2020 national Cover Crop Summit (nov 17 – 18). One of the sponsors is KB Seed Solutions, co-owned by Nick Bowers, one of the Oregon cover crop innovators you’ll learn more about in the next chapter.

Commodity Prices Tied to Cover Crop Usage?

Corn prices having fallen from $8/bu to about $3.50 has impacted farmers use of cover crops, at least some of them, according to Nick Bowers, a grass seed grower in Oregon (http://kbseedsolutions.com/)

Those new to cover crops are the ones taking a second look, he said. Considering all the inputs one must prioritize, cover crop seed might not make the list after fuel, fertilizer and pesticides.

Talking to hundreds of farmers at Midwest farm shows and field days, Bower finds that those who have been planting acreage with cover crops the past five years are not deterred by the drop in corn prices. “They’ve seen the value in cover cropping: improved soil structure and deeper moisture levels, the reduction of nitrogen inputs and the yield bumps they get with corn and beans,” Bowers said.

It takes three to five years planting annual ryegrass or other cover crops to begin to see a consistent benefit that translates into higher yield and profits.

Here’s a recent report from the Conservation Tillage Information Center (CTIC) about the value of cover crops, based on interviews with more than 3000 Midwest farmers. (The specific yield differences are discussed in pages 23 – 27).

Cover Crops Maximize Your ROI on Each Acre

Those with a few years experience with cover crops and no-till agriculture have come to expect there may be an occasional year when the results aren’t as terrific. It’s the long term picture that counts, according to Nick Bowers, a partner in Oregon-based KB Seed Solutions, producer of KB Royal annual ryegrass.

“There are newer guys who are tempted to give up after a disappointing year, where the cover crop stand gets winter-killed,” he said.  “But those who’ve seen years of improved soil conditions and harvest increases are convinced of the value of cover cropping each year.”

Nick said he worked last year with a Minnesota farmer who did a side-by-side comparison: one field with no-till only and the other with no-till and annual ryegrass as a cover crop. “The soil temperature where annual ryegrass grew was an average 7 degrees warmer than soil with none,” he said.

He said the cover crop acreage also provided a better environment for planting into. “The soil was fluffier this spring and that allowed for less down-pressure on the planter. So, it was easier for the tractor to plant corn, and that saves on fuel.”

Some producers will always fight change, Nick added. “But those who pay attention to profit and to changes in management practices will end up better off.”

“You can always get more bushels of corn by adding nitrogen, but at some point there is no positive return on your investment.  Using a cover crop such as annual ryegrass, you can become more efficient with your inputs. The goal should not be to produce as many bushels as possible, but to have the maximum return of investment per acre.”

 

Annual Ryegrass and Cover Crops – No “Bad” Years

Last winter’s cover crop season was disappointing, said Nick Bowers, a pioneer in the cover cropping revolution and a partner in the Oregon-based KB Seed Solutions.

Even though newer varieties of annual ryegrass are hardier in tough weather, the winter of 2013/2014 was “the worst in 25 years,” he said. “When you have winter wheat and cereal rye not surviving a winter, you know it’s been severe, and that’s what we saw last year.”

Nonetheless, his sale of cover crop seed hasn’t been hit too badly. And that’s because of two things:

  • The popularity of cover crops has continued to attract farmers trying cover crops for the first time, even as some disappointed by their first try may decide to step back a year or so before trying it again.
  • The number of seasoned cover crop users has also continued to grow. Even though they may not see 2014 as a good year for their cover crop, they’ve seen plenty of evidence of its cumulative value to push forward…taking 2014 in stride, knowing that cover crops won’t be a winner each and every year.

“Those who’ve been in the cover crop program for more than three years are sold…they’ll never quit,” Nick said, “because they’ve seen the benefits in better crop yields and improved soil conditions.”

His advice to new adopters of cover crops has always been to “be cautious, start simple.” He worries that with new government incentives offered, growers will jump in without enough information or experience. He suggests planting small plots of cover crops and check strips, so as to compare results side by side in a field.

But those farmers with whom Nick has been working now for over seven years all tout the virtues of staying with the cover crop effort. “One guy who had years of erosion problems was saying that the water leaving his fields is now cleaner than when it arrived,” he continued. And that’s only the beginning of the benefits, Nick said.

Cover Crop Veterans Increase Acreage of Annual Ryegrass in Midwest Corn and Beans

Nick Bowers looked at sales of cover crop seed from his Oregon farm this year and declared “we’re up from last year but the growth has leveled off a bit, compared to previous years.”

“The good news of cover crops has encouraged newcomers to try planting them,” he said. “But with adverse weather in the Midwest, corn and beans came off the field 2 – 3 weeks late this year. That means getting a cover crop on before cold weather was more of a risk, and I think that’s what held newcomers off somewhat,” he theorized.

Bowers has witnessed the phenomenal growth in sales of annual ryegrass and other cover crops as an Oregon grower. Before he and his partner began direct sales to the Midwest, he was involved in years of on-farm research as a member of the Oregon Ryegrass Seed Growers Commission. It was the Commission’s early and consistent cover crop education and promotion that helped to launch the current boom in cover crop use, he said. During those years, he and other Oregon grass seed growers donated tons of seed and thousands of hours of their time, working with cooperating farmers in Illinois and Indiana, to find out how cover crops could positively impact corn and bean production there.

“Those more accustomed to planting cover crops weren’t phased by the late harvest this year,” he continued. “They applied the seed – most often by plane – into standing corn and beans, then hoped that rain would take care of the rest.”

Based on contact with his Midwest customers, Bowers said that it appears that annual ryegrass and other cover crops are doing well, even with the weather not being ideal.

He said that while Indiana and Illinois have been leaders in cover crop adoption, other Midwest states are coming along quickly. In January, his partner will be at the Iowa Cover Crop Clinic, in Des Moines, Jan. 27 – 30, in conjunction with the annual Power Show, scheduled for the 28th – 31st.

 

 

Midwest Adoption of Cover Crops Varies From State to State

Incentives, Open Minds and Industry Integrity Are Helping Growth

In states like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Indiana, adoption of cover crops has spread like good news. Nothing beats seeing firsthand how cover crops can cut costs, build soil, reduce pollution and boost production.

“In some states, financial incentives appear to be stimulating adoption,” said Oregon cover crop seed producer, Nick Bowers. “For example, farmers in Indiana are receiving up to $32/acre to plant cover crops,” Bowers said. “Incentives lower the risk, plain and simple.”

But in other states, cover crop adoption is slow, even stunted. “Information – sometimes too little and sometimes misleading – can impede adoption,” Bowers added. Without good information and supportive, experienced crop consultants, the transition to healthy new practices can be prolonged.

Take annual ryegrass for example. In some states, it’s the “go to” cover crop because of its low cost, deep rooting and nitrogen recycling capabilities. In other states, however, annual ryegrass is still confused with cereal rye. Others shy away because of winterkill stories or how easy it is to kill in the spring. “How can annual ryegrass succeed so well over a dozen years in one state and be so easily dismissed in others,” Bowers wondered.

Bowers is among a handful of Oregon seed growers who have committed to educating a farming public eager to learn about cover crops. The Oregon growers also help to fund research and public education. www.ryegrasscovercrop.com .  They’re joined by crop consultants like Dan Towery and Mike Plumer, who have decades of experience as educators and crop consultants in Indiana and Illinois. Likewise, Midwest growers like Jamie Scott (IN) and Terry Taylor (IL) continue to present at conferences and host field days. “These people successfully demonstrate, year after year, that growing annual ryegrass is not difficult, but as with any crop, you have to pay attention to the management details,” Bowers said.

To propagate more use of annual ryegrass in states like Iowa, Ohio and Missouri, Bowers said that they’re working with select farmers who employ cover crops already. “Word of mouth has been the most reliable way to spread the word,” he said, “and nothing sells better than success stories.” From that exposure, certain soil scientists and crop consultants will become champions, and with that comes added encouragement from organizations like NRCS and county Soil and Water Conservation District staff.

Aside from educating the public and developing distribution points for seed in the Midwest, Oregon growers continue to develop hardy varieties of annual ryegrass to withstand harsh winters. “In this respect, we’re also trying to improve the consistent supply of those pure varieties…and not inadvertently have a batch in which less winter hardy seed is mixed.” Vast quantities of annual ryegrass is sent each year to southern states that don’t need winter hardy seed. “So, it’s important to make sure that the newer, hardy varieties aren’t grown in fields where less hardy crops were grown the previous year. In that way, the customer will know that what’s printed on the tag is exactly what they’re getting in the bag,” Bowers said.

“With the increases in cost of fuel and other inputs, cover crops will increasingly become an indispensable tool for profitable agriculture, and for a healthy environment,” Bowers said.

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