Category Archives: ARG Blog

Ryegrass Saves the Gulf of Mexico…well, not quite Yet!

An article in the recent issue of Grist spent a lot of ink reporting on the value of cover crops. They looked specifically at a small Indiana watershed (Tippecanoe) and recorded what happened to the water quality when cover crop adoption approached 100%. Perhaps more accurately, they recorded what DIDN’T happen…the nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers stayed on the property and didn’t end up in the Gulf of Mexico.

In a short video, you can get the gist of what Grist had to say. Here’s that link.

But if you want to read the longer article, it’s worth it. Here’s that link, called Last Ditch Effort. Among those interviewed was Jamie Scott, an entrepreneurial grower in Indiana who has been instrumental for expanding the use of cover crop, particularly annual ryegrass, in the past 10 years.

Here’s a quote from the article, in terms of what they determined, in summary. After 13 years and a million dollars in state, nonprofit, and federal funding, the data show a clear decline in nitrogen and phosphorus flowing out of this watershed during the critical springtime thaw. These two nutrients fertilize crops, but when they wash into the water, they fertilize algae blooms and cause a host of problems. In other words, the chemicals we rely on to grow food often end up poisoning the planet and threatening the lives of many species on it, including ours.

Maybe you caught the editorial slant in the last sentence. Yes, Grist is an environmentalist magazine run by millenials who probably think they can right all the wrongs right away, if all the old folks would just quietly go away and die. But seriously, if a tree-hugging bunch of youngsters think cover cropping is going to save the planet, that’s good news…because cover crops can take care of a bunch of pollution problems, and that’s the truth.

Covering Cover Crops – Democratic Candidates Converge in Iowa – Get An Earful About “Regenerative Agriculture”

A story in the New Yorker magazine today is raising the national visibility about “regenerative agriculture”. https://www.newyorker.com/news/campaign-chronicles/how-an-iowa-farmer-used-the-campaign-stop-economy-to-push-climate-action-on-2020-democrats

In a nutshell, Lacona, Iowa farmer Matt Russell managed to attract a half-dozen of the 2020 Democratic contenders for president to his farm. His pitch…climate change is real and regenerative ag practices can do a bunch of things to mitigate some of the issues. No-till, and cover crops are part of the solution, and he said farmers need the federal government to invest in that future.

Cover Crop Adoption Steady for 20 Plus Years

Back in the 1990s, nobody but a few cranks and academics were playing around with no-till and cover crops. Then Mike Plumer started researching and testing the hypothesis that both practices would benefit farm profits and soil health.

Fast forward a quarter century, and take a look at the rate of adoption of cover crops in the Midwest.

The good news, over the past 12 years, more than 15 million acres of precious farm acreage have been planted in cover crops regularly, and are now building value and productive qualities. The first 10 years of Plumer’s and Dan Towery’s work to educate growers produced negligible results of cover crop acres. But by 2006, adoption began to gather momentum and the growth since then has been impressive.

The bad news, only about 5 percent of the acres planted for agriculture in the slightly expanded Midwest map are currently planting cover crops.

The good news: Three states (Pennsylvania, Indiana and Michigan) have about twice that average, with Pennsylvania topping the list at 12.9 percent of farm acreage in cover crops. (Michigan and Indiana are just behind, with 8.5 percent each). Further, both Michigan and Indiana have made better than 50 percent increases in just the last five years.

The bad news: if the growth rate continues at current rates, only about 14 million acres of the most productive farmland in the Midwest will be in cover crops by the year 2025. Presumably, the rest – more than 100 million acres – will still be in convenventional tillage.

Annual Ryegrass – Turning The Big Ship of Agriculture Around

In December, cover crop guru Dan Towery came to Oregon to address a conference of growers and suppliers about the history of annual ryegrass in the renaissance of cover crop use in the Midwest.

His message had one of those “good news/bad news” stories. The good news: the number of acres planted in cover crops has grown steadily since the introduction of annual ryegrass in the late 1990s. In fact, the annual rate of increase has reached as high as 15 percent.

The bad news: the overall percentage of ag acres committed to no-till and cover crops is still very low, compared to the number of acres planted. See the graphic below.

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.