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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 Helps Weed Control in No-Till Acreage

There are times when evidence from on-farm research, from growers, differs from evidence from university plots. Earlier this year, the long brewing animosity over annual ryegrass emerged again, when Purdue University weed scientist Bill Johnson again claimed that the cover crop is a tough-to-control weed.

Evidence from the field, going back 20 years, suggests otherwise. In a No-Till Farmer article earlier this year, magazine founder and editor Frank Lessiter said that growers tend to follow what works, No-Till Farmer’s benchmark study last year found that 28% of growers seeded annual ryegrass as a cover crop in 2016.

Mike Starkey, former president of the Illinois Soil and Water Conservation District Association, said Purdue has unfairly painted annual ryegrass as a nuisance. In his experience, no-tilling 2,550 acres and using annual ryegrass as a cover crop on all but a sliver of his cover cropped acres, he has found no problem controlling annual ryegrass. In fact, he said that annual ryegrass helps to control other weeds in his fields. “We don’t have many weed concerns, but annual ryegrass suppresses the weeds we do have,” says Starkey. “It also scavenges nitrogen, improves our soil structure and aids in the movement of air and water in the soil.”

Van Tilberg 2011 Hi-Boy Seeder2Dan Towery has promoted annual ryegrass and a host of other cover crops in his decades of work as an agronomist and crop consultant.He said he thinks that Purdue has gone overboard with their objections to annual ryegrass. He maintains some Purdue folks rely too much on what they’ve learned from their own research plots, are not big believers in no-till and have refused opportunities to see how growers are making annual ryegrass work.”

 

Midwest Cover Crop Council Publishes Cover Crop Manual

Producers who want to prevent soil erosion, improve nutrient cycling, sustain their soils, and protect the environment have been returning to a very old practice: planting cover crops.

Although farmers have been using cover crops for centuries, today’s producers are part of a generation that has little experience with them.  As they rediscover the role that cover crops can play in sustainable farming systems, many growers find they lack the experience and information necessary to take advantage of all the potential benefits cover crops can offer.  That inexperience can lead to costly mistakes.

This guide will help you effectively select, grow, and use cover crops in your farming systems.  While this guide isn’t the final word on cover crops, it is meant to be a useful reference.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE AND TO ORDER THE BOOK

http://www.ag.purdue.edu/agry/dtc/Pages/CoverCropsFG.aspx