Tag Archives: organic matter

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?

 

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.

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.

 

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.

Making a Nitrogen Bank Account with Ryegrass as a Cover Crop

Here’s how Eileen Kladivco put it: Even with well-managed corn and soybean production, there is always some leaching of nitrate that originates either from residual fertilizer N or from the natural decomposition of soil organic matter. Our annual cropping systems are “leaky” because there are long fallow periods between crop maturity in September and the active growth of the next cash crop in May. Most of the net downward flow of water to the drains occurs precisely during this long fallow period, when there is nothing to take up the nitrate. 

IMG_0145 (2)

Eileen is an agronomy department professor at Purdue University, a well-regarded researcher and teacher about soil and making agriculture more profitable. She goes on to say that, Non-legume cover crops will scavenge or “trap” soil nitrate that would otherwise move out of the rootzone into tile drains or groundwater. Cover crops actively take up nitrate during a portion of that fallow season, reducing the losses that occur to tile drains and recycling the nitrogen for later use. To read her Full article – click here.

In another publication, the author talked about the biomass of cover crops. Basically, he said that more biomass generally means more nutrients and organic matter returned to the soil.

The “plant available nitrogen” (PAN) released from a cover crop depends on what cover crop you’re growing and when you terminate the cover crop. As the cover crop plant matures, more nitrogen gets stored in the stems, so in general it’s best to terminate the cover crop before it reaches that stage. With annual ryegrass, terminating it before it reaches 6 or so inches in the spring is important…both to take advantage of the nitrogen available but also to keep the plant from reaching the joint stage.

As soil organisms decompose cover crop residues, part of cover crop is released as carbon dioxide. The rest decomposes and contributes to the soil organic matter…as well as giving up the stored nitrogen for the corn or beans maturing in the same soil.

The high price of nitrogen has growers looking for way to be more efficient. Using annual ryegrass may provide 60-80 lbs of nitrogen per acre. This alone could more than pay for the cost of the seed and planting the cover crop. For more information on annual ryegrass and its capacity as a nitrogen sink, click here.

 

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.

 

Indiana Roots with Annual Ryegrass Cover Crops

Soil and Water  Conservation Districts are getting more and more involved in the promotion of cover crops. The reason is simple: over the past 20 years, it has been shown that cover crops protect the soil in ways that no-till alone cannot.

Farm cover crop workshop turnout pleases organizers

(Photo: Rod Rose, Lebanon Reporter. A Boone County farmer discusses core samples comparing fields where cover crops are planted, compared to samples from fields without. He discussed the benefits of cover crops.)

Here are some of the reasons he mentions:

  • Leaving green in the field year-round prevents soil run-off and loss of precious nutrients.
  • The residue from past crops, including cover crops, becomes important food for the biological diversity of the soil. Likewise, residue begins to build the depleted organic matter and carbon carrying capacity of the soil
  • Deep roots – especially from annual ryegrass – break up compaction. This is so important in soils that prevent corn and soybean roots from going below the fragipan layer. Once broken, the corn roots can grow to depths of 5 feet and access moisture and nutrients…especially important in dry growing years
  • Annual ryegrass is a nitrogen sink, soaking up excess N when growing and giving it back to the soil when the residue decays in early summer, just when the corn needs it most
  • All these reasons add up to more profits – fewer field inputs, better soil health and bonus yields.

Here’s a link to that article, which mentiones annual ryegrass rooting capabilities, and the popularity of cover cropping systems in the Midwest.

Annual Ryegrass Adds Value Topside and Below

In an online article this week, Ag.com outlines the benefits of various cover crops. High on the list is annual ryegrass. Click here for the whole article by Kacey Birchmier.

Here’s the piece about annual ryegrass.
Scientific name: Lolium multiflorum
Those who have goals centered on preventing erosion, improving soil structure, and scavenging nutrients should consider annual ryegrass, recommends Barry Fisher, an Indiana soil health specialist at USDA-NRCS. This thick, quick-growing grass produces significant deep root biomass that builds soil organic matter, accesses nutrients, suppresses weeds, and curbs soil erosion. The root system of annual ryegrass is dense at shallow depths, but also sends roots deep into the subsoil. Ryegrass can also scavenge leftover N, and provide a timed release of stored N for the following crop.

“You can minimize the N tie-up by waiting a few weeks for the cover crop to decompose before planting the following crop,” says Tracy Blackmer, research director at Cover Crop Solutions.

Annual ryegrass can be terminated by mechanical or chemical means as it overwinters. However, spring termination should be executed before the seed sets for a complete kill and to avoid potential chemical resistance. Annual ryegrass is easiest to terminate before the first node appears, says Blackmer.

Annual Ryegrass Helps Soil Microbiology Helps Soil Health

“Many times during a drought, plants are not as much water stressed as they are nutrient stressed,” said USDA soil microbiologist Kris Nichols.

Cover crops feed a whole web of soil organisms…much more than mere crop residue. Those organisms seek carbon and they get it from live plants like corn.

Nichols said that the microbes, in exchange for carbon, give up nutrients and water which they get from the soil.

Mycorrhizal fungi are an example Nichols uses to explain the value added that microbiology brings to crops. The little critters are threadlike, much smaller in width than plant roots, and have more access to more soil than plants.

Cover crops like annual ryegrass are conducive to production of healthy mycorrhizae population and create a symbiotic relationship helping the fungi, the soil and the plants. “Plants growing in soils rich with mycorrhizae take advantage of the fungi to help them obtain nutrients from the soil,” she added.

“They accomplish this using much less water, as well,” Nelson continued. The soil structure, rich with microorganisms, is more conducive to water retention, as she explains, “Organisms help form soil aggregates, which allows for better water absorption because there is more pore space in the soil for water as well as an exchange of gas.”