Category Archives: Soil Quality

How to Pull Nitrogen into Corn with Annual Ryegrass

One of the dozen benefits from planting a cover crop like annual ryegrass is to sequester, or uptake, available nitrogen (N) in the soil. This is accomplished mostly by reducing the amount of N that leaches out of the field over winter and spring.

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Annual ryegrass is among the most popular cover crops for a variety of reasons, including erosion-proofing your crop acres. Before that, it germinates easily and grows well in cool weather, whether planted in the fall after corn harvest or interseeded with corn in the spring. If planted in the fall, it maximizes root growth and N uptake before cold weather limits growth. If interseeded, it establishes among knee-high corn then goes dormant in the shade of a corn canopy, then goes to town after fall harvest.

Perhaps the biggest asset of annual ryegrass is the depth of its roots. In no-tilled fields after a few years to work its wonders, ryegrass roots can be found to depths of 4 and 5 feet, far below other cover crops. But even in new-to-cover-crop acres, ryegrass roots can easily sink to 3 feet over the winter, breaking up compaction on the way to accessing nutrients deeper in the profile.

But further savings can be realized when considering that annual ryegrass (and other cover crops) sequester available N in their leaves and roots. Then, once terminated in the spring (with glysophate), the cover crop residue composts in the field, releasing N just when the corn needs it most, in late spring and early summer. With a cover crop like this, you can reduce your input of N fertilizer by up to  half, depending on other factors.

Learn more about the benefits of annual ryegrass by clicking here.

 

 

 

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!

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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, Good for a Climate Goin’ Through Some Changes

Science tends to win out over guesswork. Few would disavow centuries of medical experience in favor of hocus-pocus and suspicions. Similarly, those with decades of working the soil tend to heed the sciences pertinent to agriculture, rather than winging it based on something you heard from your brother-in-law.

So, whether the science of climate change is spot on, there’s little question that weather continues to be a major factor in growing healthy crops. Storms may be getting stronger, so it’s crucial to protect your most valued asset: the soil.

Corn Plant on Field

Annual ryegrass protects the soil from erosion throughout the year, because the soil is never fully exposed to the wind and heavy rain. Infiltration of water into the soil is improved, thus increasing the reservoir of moisture for later months. And when flooding does occur, cover crops like annual ryegrass will slow it down, and keep the event from washing out field tiles. Cover crops keep the moisture in the watershed, instead of it washing downstream, carrying  precious nutrients.

No-till and cover crops also provide soil integrity, allowing the roots and other organic matter to create an environment of stable health. As a living entity, the soil environment stays in place better when bad weather occurs if you’ve got it covered with a cover  crop..

When it turns dry, cover crops tend to reduce oxidation of the soil, and to provide a longer period before the soil dries out. Annual ryegrass roots being far deeper than other cover crops, it’s a safe bet that corn will flourish if annual ryegrass has been in the field for even five years as a cover crop.

Genetic engineering has played a significant role in crop durability and production. Coupled with no-till and cover cropping, agriculture in the Midwest is better equipped to withstand the changes brought on by climate variations, whether for the short term or permanently.

What if ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ also Refers to Your Soil?

As human beings, we tend to think narrowly about what, in the book of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” He went on to say that, besides the first commandment (to love God), loving thy neighbor is the second most important commandment.

As you look out your window, past the windrow and the bare trees , over the landscape now almost barren of vegetation, perhaps you can catch a glimpse of your neighbor’s barn and house. Of course, you’ve driven by it hundreds of times every year. Maybe you’ve visited. Maybe you’ve helped out in their need, as they’ve helped out in yours. This is surely what Jesus meant about loving thy neighbor.

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But what about a less conventional idea of neighbor? What if the soil is your neighbor? When you think of what makes up soil, how is it really different than you and me? We are both living, organic systems of life, hosting incalculable other forms of life that we don’t really see as us. We couldn’t exist without bacteria helping to digest food and eliminate waste, for example.

To take this argument a step further, consider this fact: Cells in our body couldn’t reproduce without the existence of mitochondria. These tiny factories inside our cells turn sugars, fats and proteins into energy. They also guard against cells staying around too long and mutating. Without mitochondria, we would not exist.

If you look closely at the hair roots of living plants, mitochondria are there too, just behind the tip of each root hair, helping transform water and soil nutrients into energy that is then transported throughout the plant for growth.

We know from our own health record, how ignoring a balanced life can cause early onset of disease and death. We know, and sometimes forget, that good nutrition, proper rest and plenty of physical work are ways to keep our bodies and minds healthy.

And so it is with the soil. For generations, we thought that deeper plowing and more inputs of fertilizer and pesticides had no consequence. We now know that, like the human body, the soil must have its own form of good nutrition, rest and exercise. Without it, the mitochondria are gone, organic matter is lost and the soil becomes lifeless.

Jesus surely knew the importance of healthy soil, just as much as he preached about a healthy soul. While he was able to make plenty from next to nothing – like the loaves and the fishes, and turning water into wine – we are not Jesus. We cannot wave a magic wand to make our soils healthy once again. But we can do it the old fashioned way, by loving your soil as yourself.

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

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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.

 

Nitrogen and Carbon – Two More Benefits of Annual Ryegrass

In the last blog post, we addressed the myth of annual ryegrass being hard to manage. Follow good control procedures and it is not an issue whatsoever.

Two other assets of annual ryegrass: it creates a savings in expenditures for nitrogen during the season, and it adds considerably to the organic matter in your soil, thus boosts your carbon uptake in the soil as well.

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First thing: nitrogen is a key to production. In years past, when cultivation was more popular, nitrogen was increasingly important and expensive. Now, with annual ryegrass as a cover crop, you can actually plan on reducing your nitrogen input. Why? Because annual ryegrass sequesters available nitrogen in the soil during it’s growth. Then, when it’s terminated in the spring, the residue gives up the stored nitrogen, often just in time for the new crop of corn. In many cases, having annual ryegrass decaying in the field means reducing or eliminating the nitrogen boost in June.

Secondly, as the annual ryegrass roots decay (after the cover crop is terminated in early spring), the result is more organic matter, which means more carbon sequestered in the soil, plus more food for a health soil biology.

Finally, when the roots decay, it leaves the earth more pliable, easier for rain to infiltrate, and easier for corn roots to follow. Because annual ryegrass roots grow to depths of five feet and more, it allows corn roots to access that same depth, beyond compaction and into more nutrients like P and K.

It’s amazing that cover cropping, despite it’s proven benefits, is still practiced so infrequently. While it’s great to learn that in some states, 10 percent or more of farmers are using cover crops, it’s discouraging that upwards of 90 percent are still relying on older ways: deep ripping of depleted soils and adding more fertilizer than would be needed if cover crops were utilized.

National Effort to Expand Use of Cover Crops

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The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research launched a national effort to expand use of cover crops. Called the Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms initiative, the group includes the USDA as well. It is a collaborative, multi-partner research effort to improve soil health in the United States. It continues the effort to encourage adoption of cover crops as well as develop new cover crop varieties with enhanced soil health-promoting traits.

The research expands into states not commonly practicing cover cropping methods, like

  • Maryland,
  • North Carolina,
  • Oklahoma,
  • Nebraska and M
  • issouri. Ideally, the research will begin with

cover crops with the greatest potential to improve soil health in a broad geographic context.  Annual ryegrass, small grains, annual legumes and brassicas will be used to start.

As has been demonstrated throughout the Midwest, northeastern US and southern provinces in Canada, cover crops are valuable for these reasons:

  • Improve soil health.
  • Mitigate erosion.
  • Increase crop yields.
  • Enhance water use efficiency.

For more on the study, here’s a link.

Whipsaw Weather Calls for Prayers…and Cover Crops

The coldest April on record to the hottest May on record…the Midwest can’t catch a break! Now mid-summer, people wonder whether more radical weather or trade and tariff issues will derail the current crops in the field.

Perhaps this is slim solace for those worried about what’s in store from Mother Nature and the Government, but cover crops are one thing that can continue to bring balance and health to farm acreage.

Annual ryegrass, for example, is among the easiest cover crops to establish. Grown in Oregon, in soil known for its wet feet, annual ryegrass is suited to poor soil and poor growing conditions. Likewise, when the weather turns dry, corn roots can access deeper moisture because annual ryegrass has established channels through even hardpan soil.

Thus, to build your soil’s health is the best strategy, so that whatever comes, the productivity and yield on your acreage will be maximized by having a consistent practice of cover cropping.

 

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.

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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.