Tag Archives: nitrogen scavenging cover crop

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?

 

Once The Floods Recede!

Geez, Louise! Another crappy winter leading into a way too damn damp Spring!

When the water recedes, many conventional tillers will be faced with another plague: erosion.

All the damage – washouts, drain tiles plugged, and the value of land washing on down the Mississippi!

In addition to damage to homes, barns, roads and bridges (and the extra cost to import and export product via detours!), farmers have to deal with the prospect of a late spring planting.

Image result for image grass in flooded land

Perhaps those who have practiced no-till and cover crops will sigh a bit of relief, if the soil is still on their property when the flood waters drop again. The sight of green grass or legume popping up above the leftover silt and muck will be like a day of sun. Cover crops on the field can be like money in the bank, and erosion protection is just the beginning. Here’s more info on planting annual ryegrass as a cover crop in the spring, if you want to start a new tradition on your land.

Click here for a free booklet on the management of annual ryegrass as a cover crop.

In the next month, those with cover crops will be “managing” their annual ryegrass. Managing, in this sense, means killing it with some form of glyphosate. It’s very important for this step to be done right; if it’s not, it can become a weed and a very robust one at that.

But, take heart, in the 20 plus years of our working with farmers throughout the Midwest, in New England, in the Upper and western Midwest, and in the southern-central provinces of Canada, paying attention to the details of spring cover crop management pays dividends immediately. The residual nitrogen becomes food for the young corn plants, for example. And the rotting annual ryegrass roots make room for corn roots to grow deeper into the soil, adding a layer of protection in the event of a dry summer. Finally, the massive decaying roots of cover crops feed untold gazillions of microbio life forms that contribute to healthier soil.

Best wishes to those of you with water on your property…may the Lord be merciful to you and your families! And when the water drops, consider going down to the Coop and checking out cover crops for protecting your property investment for the next go round. You may decide that trying out a small plot this spring – seeded into knee-high corn (interseeding method) will be this year’s innovation.

 

 

Farmer Success Stories with Annual Ryegrass

Over the past 20 years, tens of thousands of farms across the Midwest have quit tillage practices because they harm the soil. Instead, they’ve gone to no-till and cover crops.

To review reasons to switch to cover crops, click here and get a free detailed guide to the benefits.

ARG Chris B 45 days 10-15 to 12-30-2005

Here are brief summaries of some who have become champions of annual ryegrass as a cover crop, because it makes both agricultural and economic sense.

Loran Steinlage, West Union, Iowa: “I use annual ryegrass in mixes on critical areas like washouts and Highly Erodible Land.”

John Werries, Chapin, Illinois. “I hate erosion. We think annual ryegrass had the best root system of any cover crop. It’s amazing to see the roots that it puts down.”

Donn Branton, Le Roy, New York. “Cereal rye can really get away from you in the spring. There’s less risk of that with annual ryegrass. And ryegrass has good, deep roots. Compared to cereal rye, annual ryegrass has a lower carbon-to-nitrogen ratio.”

Mike Starkey, Brownsburg, Indiana. “I’ve been using annual ryegrass as my cover crop of choice for at least ten years. Annual ryegrass has the biggest root mass of any cover crop. The roots can go down 36 to 48 inches deep. Those annual ryegrass roots scavenge a lot of nitrogen, which gets released later in the growing season.”

Mike Shuter, Frankton, Indiana. “We have a 110-acre field in a wet area of the county that needs drainage. After seeding it to ryegrass in the fall of 2012, we didn’t lose any corn in 2013. But all of the fields around it had spots that drowned out.”

Matt VanTilburg, Celina, Ohio. “We seed 20,000 acres of ryegrass in mixes a year – several thousand of ours and the rest custom.

Dave Wise, Iowa dairy farmer. “I first tried annual ryegrass in 2011, drilling 40 acres. Now, I seed it on continuous corn ground chopped for silage. In 2014, annual ryegrass seeded on bottom ground took off very well and overwintered well, too.”

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.

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

mike-plumer

 

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.

 

Understanding the Nitrogen Advantage of Annual Ryegrass

Let’s review the facts about nitrogen, in the context of growing corn in the Midwest, and the connection to ryegrass as a cover crop.

One, corn needs a lot of nitrogen, and if corn is planted year after year in the same field, you will need to add nitrogen to bring the corn to harvest.

You already know that no-till will help stabilize the soil and help it regain its natural health. However, unless you plant a cover crop, you will continue to have to add a lot of nitrogen to feed the corn.

Secondly, it’s known that annual ryegrass “sequesters” nitrogen. As it grows, annual ryegrass absorbs available nitrogen from the soil and then sequesters, or stores, the nutrient in the foliage. When the cover crop is terminated in the spring, all that residual, stored up nitrogen is released. Annual ryegrass, because of its leaf structure, decays quickly in the spring, thus making its nitrogen available to the new corn as it begins to mature in late spring.

Lots of study has been done in the past 10 years about how much nitrogen is absorbed by annual ryegrass, and how much it can contribute back to the corn plants when the grass decays.

At best, the nitrogen that annual ryegrass adds back to the field substantially reduces the need to supplement  nitrogen during the year. And, at a minimum, annual ryegrass reduces the costs associated with planting and managing a cover crop.

In an experiment studying annual ryegrass, Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie recorded per-acre costs for annual ryegrass and then calculated the value of the residual nitrogen left over in the spring, when corn was planted. the following graphic box indicates the costs/acre for seed, machinery, herbicide and application costs for terminating the ryegrass.

FJ_018_F15019

At the bottom of the graphic box,  Ferrie estimates that the amount of nitrogen added back to the soil from annual ryegrass was $75/acre. That is an average and some will experience less, especially if you are just adding cover crops to your management repertoire. However, some farmers have experienced better than $75/acre return of nitrogen from their annual ryegrass cover crop.

So, according to Ferrie, “after subtracting the value of the nitrogen saved, the total cost of the cover crop was $5.75 per acre.” Not bad, especially when you then factor in the added benefits of cover crops: improved soil structure, increased organic matter, increased water infiltration, controlled erosion and recycling additional nutrients, like Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K). This “recycling” occurs due to annual ryegrass’s deep roots, which helps corn to develop deeper roots to access P and K from deeper soil structure.

Phosphorus is a major component in plant DNA and RNA. Phosphorus is important in root development, crop maturity and seed production. Potassium is required so than more than 80 enzymes in the plant can be activated. K is also important for a plant’s ability to withstand extremes temperatures, drought and pests. Potassium also  increases water use efficiency.

Finally, those who plant cover crops consistently experience higher corn yields, which translates into a profit to the pocket as well as to the continued health of farm acreage.

 

 

Earth Fix Boosts Production and Profit

More than a decade ago, it was becoming clear that runoff from farm acreage was choking fresh water flowing south from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. Satellite images, water testing and production declines in fisheries pointed to a pending disaster if agricultural practices were not modified. At risk, the health of millions who depend on clean water, as well as industries that depend on healthy water.

Cover crops were introduced in a dozen states that border tributaries to the Mississippi, as well as along that great stretch leading into the Gulf. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency produced a report for Congress outlining the “successes” in that gigantic project. Here’s a link to a summary.

Here’s one small result, from efforts in Indiana:

The 2014 fall transect [study] estimated 1 million acres of living plant cover such as cover crops and winter cereal grains were planted on Indiana farms. The report also shows most Indiana farmers left their tillage equipment in the shed in the fall to protect their fields with harvested crop residues. Results for residues and undisturbed soil on harvested acres during the winter months include: 77% of corn acres, 79% of small grain acres, and 82% of soybean acres.

The fall cover crop and tillage transect occurred again in 2015, and according to the data, over 1.1 million acres of cover crops were planted in 2015, which is an increase of nearly 10 percent compared to the previous year and 225 times more coverage over the past decade. The fall tillage and cover crop transect will be conducted again in late 2016.

Related image

In addition to keeping pollution from entering watersheds, the practice of cover cropping also makes a healthier environment for soil to heal. That, in turn, makes corn and soybean production more profitable, even in years when drought or low commodity prices carves into profits.

 

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.