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Annual Ryegrass – the Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US Part 18

The Next Generation of Innovators in Agriculture

“There is no known abatement of fragipan,” said Dr. Phillips Phillips, a researcher with the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service (ARS) in Ames, Iowa. “Until now, that is,” she added. “Annual ryegrass is a good one, because the chemicals in ryegrass roots break down fragipan.”

Phillips and the congressionally-funded ARS are delving deeper into the mystery of why annual ryegrass has this effect on fragipan. She said there are 50 million acres of agricultural crop land impacted by fragipan in the U.S. alone. “And fragipans are a problem around the globe,” she added.

Phillips and colleagues have proposed work to follow that of Lloyd Murdock, who for the past decade has been documenting and testing the effect of annual ryegrass on fragipan in laboratory settings and in the field. Murdock’s research at the University of Kentucky found that a chemical exudate from ryegrass roots is the reason. Specifically, the chemical excretion from annual ryegrass roots systematically changes the chemistry and make-up of that compacted soil, effectively reducing the presence of fragipan. In the following graph, taken from Murdock’s study, you can see how annual ryegrass reduced the depth of fragipan and increased the depth of healthy soil in five locations in two Midwestern states.

Phillips is leading a five-year study on annual ryegrass’ effects and how to augment them. “A key part of our research will quantify how annual ryegrass, used as a cover crop, affects the amount and availability of water in the field,” she said. “By reducing fragipan, we may be improving drainage and thus expanding the window for planting in the springtime,” Phillips added. “And we think that reducing fragipan will make more soil water available during the summer too, by increasing root depth. We want to measure how much more available soil water is present, and whether the crop can put on more leaf area and experience less water stress.”

John Pike, a former University of Illinois ag research manager, will be monitoring the study in Illinois, funded by the Oregon Ryegrass Seed Growers Commission.

“Mike Plumer and other pioneers showed that annual ryegrass can be really useful in Southern Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky,” Phillips said. “As our weather continues to change, ryegrass could increasingly be seen as a ‘climate adaption tool.’ Specifically,” she explained, “in the Midwest we’re having more rain in the spring, and the rain events are bigger. I hope annual ryegrass’ ability to reduce fragipan will allow more water to be absorbed into the field instead of running off. So, even with more rain, farmers will be able to get into the field in a timely fashion, simply because the water will infiltrate more quickly rather than pooling or creating erosion.”

“Additionally,” Phillips continued, “the month of July in the Midwest is becoming hotter and dryer than in the past. July is when the corn most needs moisture. Annual ryegrass, by helping to create deeper soils may be able to make up for that reduced precipitation.”

Phillips’s colleague, Dr. Dan Olk, will lead complementary studies on how annual ryegrass chemically degrades fragipan. Olk, a biochemist, is an expert on humic products, which are derived from young coal deposits and are thought to enhance plant growth. Hypothetically, humic products used in conjunction with annual ryegrass may have a compounding effect on the decay of fragipan and enhancement of crop health. Phillips and Olk will look at samples of fragipan soil collected from Kentucky and Illinois in different stages of degradation. “We want to find out how the chemistry of fragipan changes at different stages of breaking down, and whether humic products change the rate of fragipan disintegration,” Phillips said.

While Phillips is focused on the science and field work, John Pike will also be sharing the educational aspects of the work with a variety of audience, from field day demonstrations to trade shows. Phillips acknowledged the importance of a team approach to this and other projects. “I’m very thankful to those who are partnering with us in our efforts, like John Pike, the Oregon Ryegrass Commission, and Oregon seed growers, who continue their on the ground support for this work.” She also acknowledged Ryan Hayes, an ARS colleague who works on plant breeding at Oregon State University, where she worked before moving to Iowa in 2020.

Some worry about how the adoption of cover cropping and regenerative agriculture will keep expanding, as a generation of cover crop pioneers like Mike Plumer and Lloyd Murdock retire. It is refreshing to see the next generation of growers and scientists, like Phillips, stepping in to develop the place-specific knowledge necessary to make cover cropping work in a challenging environment where it can have the most benefit.

Annual Ryegrass – the Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 17

 Filling Some Legacy Shoes in Cover Crop Research


As a youngster, John Pike watched Mike Plumer excavate a small pit in a cornfield not far from his own family farm in southern Illinois. Plumer, at the time, was an Extension agent at the University of Illinois.  “He was there to demonstrate how the fragipan soil common to southern Illinois prevents healthy root growth and negatively impacts crop yields,” John said. “The pit clearly showed corn roots hitting the fragipan but not penetrating it.”

At the time, Plumer hadn’t discovered how annual ryegrass, used as a cover crop, gradually breaks down fragipan and allows deeper root growth. “But even then, before he made that connection, his curiosity and deep conviction in conservation tillage made a big impression on me,” John added.

That field day demonstration stuck with John as he later attended college and followed in Plumer’s footsteps at the U of Illinois, becoming an Extension agent and later a research agronomist for the Department of Crop Sciences, in charge of research station operations in the southern part of the state. “It was such a pleasure to have the opportunity to know Mike as a friend and to work with him professionally, before and after his retirement,” he said.

John’s career with the university focused on soil fertility, nutrient management, and water quality. Cover crop research became a significant part of that work. When the university shut down four of its research stations, John started his own ag consultancy as a research agronomist. And that, he said, led to “a more flexible and comprehensive range of work,” a lot of which involves working closely with researchers from other universities.

“Universities have historically been a major source of innovation for the ag industry,” John continued. “But with cover crop discoveries, it was largely the reverse, with innovation coming from the field and gradually informing the universities to backfill with research that quantified the benefits.”

He went on to explain why. “Research involving cover crops is not always best suited to the small plot design used on most university farms. Further, as it relates to cover crop research specifically, the typical 3-year funding cycle common to many research programs is not long enough to capture the cumulative impacts of a cover crop system.  The use of annual ryegrass as a cover crop in fragipan soils is an example. While short-term benefits become evident quickly, like erosion control and nitrogen recycling, the impacts of ryegrass on fragipan soils are realized only over a longer timeframe; the effect of annual ryegrass on fragipan becomes pronounced between the third and fifth years, when corn crops show significant gains in rooting depth and yield.  So, funding a 3-year research program might discount the true potential and lose out on some of the most remarkable impacts.” 

Given that the cover crop revolution didn’t start on university farms, it’s more understandable why some professors and Extension researchers were reluctant to sign on as early cover crop advocates. In fact, some actively campaigned against annual ryegrass because they feared the cover crop would create more headaches than benefits.   

The reticence of university researchers, however, did not deter farmers like Junior Upton (Springerton, Illinois) and independent thinkers like Mike Plumer. Their on-farm discoveries of annual ryegrass’ benefits in the mid-1990s won early support from Oregon ryegrass seed growers as well as their Ryegrass Commission. A decade of replicated field trials helped determine which annual ryegrass varieties were the most winter hardy and which management practices were most effective for control of cover crops with herbicides. The trials also attracted media attention and thus increased university interest.

“Farmers change their crop management practices only when the economic benefits can be demonstrated,” said John, who has continued to farm his own acres as well. “Telling them about soil health is secondary to economics. So, when they hear from their neighbor or find out for themselves that cover crops can save you money or boost your profits, they pay attention. Annual ryegrass does that by reducing erosion and compaction, while boosting yields, improving water infiltration, and many other things.”

So as Mike Plumer retired, and passed away shortly thereafter, John has tried to continue some of Mike’s projects and maintain relationships with many of his long-time farmer/collaborators.  “I like to think I’m helping to keep the ball rolling,” he explained, “but it’ll take many more people like me to move the ball as far down the field as Mike did.  I’m just glad to make sure his efforts and interests are continued, as we shared the same interests.”

The Ryegrass Commission has hired John to further Plumer’s work, with Junior Upton and many of the other growers Plumer attracted to cover crop usage. One of those happy customers, Illinois farmer Marc Bremer,  has been using annual ryegrass in rotation between cash crops and grazing cattle for 15 years. On grazed pastures, he’s seen corn yields increase to 230 bushels/acre and beans to 80 bu/ac. John’s research will create data on the further reduction of fragipan on that farm over the next five years, comparing grazed and un-grazed fields using annual ryegrass to other acreage tilled in the old “conventional” way without cover crops.  

In addition, John will be following up with the University of Kentucky, as researcher Lloyd Murdoch heads into retirement. John will further Murdoch’s work and provide crucial location assistance to Dr. Claire Phillips, a scientist working with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Ames, Iowa. “I’ll be monitoring their test sites in southern Illinois,” John said, “including acreage owned by Junior Upton.” “We’re placing field sensors to track hydrology in soils affected by fragipan and gathering data on soils freed from compaction by using annual ryegrass,” he explained.

“Water management is critical in our region and, really, in most parts of the world as well.  Reducing runoff, soil erosion and related nutrient loss is a major factor in the efficiency of our mostly unirrigated row-cropping systems,” John added. “Employing annual ryegrass as a component of cover crop programs helps to keep soil in place, improve water infiltration rates and significantly increases the rooting depth limited by fragipan soils.  “This USDA-ARS led research has national implications,” he said, “and will help to further quantify the impact of annual ryegrass on fragipan soils and its relationship to the soil’s ability to hold more available moisture.” 

Soil Management Vs. Nutrient Management

You’ve probably seen this motto: “Feed the Soil, Not Just the Plants!” Doing that helps the soil prosper, and then the crop health and grower’s prosperity grow accordingly. This motto may somewhat represent the tilt towards “regenerative” or “sustainable” agriculture globally.

In the old days, feeding the plant necessary nutrients may have been adequate. But doing that disregards the quality of the soil and, in the long run, impacts the growth of crops and the profitability of the farm.

Here’s a rough definition of soil health, taken from a document at Cornell University: …”the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans (NRCS, 2012). Characteristics of a healthy soil include good soil tilth, sufficient rooting depth, good water storage and drainage, rich and diverse soil life, stored carbon and an adequate supply of nutrients.”

There are three overlapping elements involved in assessing soil health: its physical nature as well as its biological and chemical properties. Managing nutrients only amounts to paying attention to just one of the three component parts.

In the above graph (developed by Cornell University) you can see a hypothetical analysis of a farm, wherein the chemical elements are all in the “green” or “ok” realm, but the physical and biological aspects are suffering. This is typical of farm acreage that has been in continuous tillage and mono-cropping for decades. So, even with the chemical aspect getting a passing grade, the overall quality of the farm soil is only “medium.” Medium won’t ever give you the best performance.

As the chart shows, some of the aspects of the soil’s physical health include its water carrying capacity, or “infiltration”. It also looks at compaction at the surface and down to about typical plowing depth.

Among the soil properties under the “Biological” heading, the assessment looks at the amount of organic matter, the “Autoclaved Citrate Extractable (ACE) Protein. which indicates the amount of protein-like substances present in the organic matter, the soil’s respiration and the amount of active carbon.

Though it might occur to you that there would be a lot of expense to assessing your fields’ soil health to this extent, agronomists at Cornell would disagree. “Qualitative, on-farm, in-field assessment of soil health does not need to involve special analyses, only the informed observation and interpretation of soil characteristics. This is usually done by visual assessment, but the smell and feel of soil may also be involved. Field test kits for measuring several indicators are also available (e.g. NRCS soil quality test kit).

The article goes on to say that, “While this approach is more subjective and therefore can reflect user bias, the results can be very informative in making management decisions when detailed guidelines and training have been provided.

Finally, the article says that, “The health of a soil can change over time as a result of use and management, therefore it is crucial to measure soil improvement when implementing new or modifying current management practices. Climate change, particularly the impacts of CO2 and N2 O, can be mitigated through improved soil health management while at the same time building soil resilience.”

Cover crops are an integrated part of the solution, part of moving away from nutrient management to soil health management. See the following management suggestions, again provided by the Ag Sciences folks at Cornell University. For each “constraint” against soil health, there are corresponding short term and long term management suggestions.

For more details on all of these concepts, check out the soil health management manual that Cornell has provided for free.

Cover Crops and Organic Matter

Organic matter, a foundational element of health soil, is the key to plant health and consequently human health. Without organic matter, there would be nothing to feed the myriad forms of life that make up healthy soil.

Cultivation of land leads to extreme loss of organic matter. Midwest crop acreage 150 years ago probably had between 4 and 5 percent organic matter. Some acres today have less than 2 percent. Thankfully, with no-till and cover crops, a healthy percentage of organic matter can be regenerated in a decade of careful application of conservation practices including cover crops.

According to crop scientists like John Biernbaum at Michigan State, there are multiple types of organic matter. First, there is the living part which includes plant roots, earthworms and other insects, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and more, Then there are several “dead” parts of organic matter in various stages of decay. Some forms, like plant leaves, stalks and roots, break down in a matter of weeks to months, while other forms like tree trunks, take decades or longer.

Organic matter, in addition to being the primary source of food for the many forms of life in the soil, is also important for the infiltration and retention of moisture. Researchers tell us that each pound of carbon in the soil can retain up to 40 lbs of water.

Cover crops function in a couple of important ways in this cycle. First, they keep the soil in place, preventing erosion. Next, the roots of cover crops exude sugars that feed life below the surface. Finally, they create channels through which rain and snowmelt get deeper into the soil profile.

For more information about growing cover crops, check out this Management Guide.

The Germ Seed of Cover Cropping in the US – Part 14

The Chemical in Ryegrass that Crumbles Fragipan

The hunch that annual ryegrass use was breaking down the fragipan at Junior Upton’s farm in Illinois was like music to Lloyd Murdock’s ears. The University of Kentucky (UK) research team had begun to experiment with different chemicals in the greenhouse and field where he worked at the University of Kentucky’s Princeton farm and in the lab on the main campus.

While they waited for results on field plots of annual ryegrass they planted that year, the UK research team began working with the plant in controlled lab and greenhouse environments. They created extracts made from annual ryegrass roots, as well as from the foliage. “Naturally cemented fragipan clods were placed in a solution of annual ryegrass extract. Thirty days later the size and distribution of the remaining aggregates were determined. As the binding agent in the fragipan is dissolved by the chemical, the fragipan clod begins to fall apart. The greater the dissolution of the binding agent, the smaller the remaining aggregates.  Ag related chemicals were also tested but it was annual ryegrass that demonstrated the most significant ability to dissolve the cementing agents biding the fragipan particles,” he said.

Lloyd also made numerous trips to visit Junior’s farm in those years, to authenticate what they were experiencing there, and to apply what was being gleaned. “We’ve known, for example, that some plants do not exert much pressure at the root tip. Annual ryegrass roots tips, on the other hand, exert a high amount of pressure,” Lloyd said. “So those roots will seek out a crack or weak spot in the fragipan and break through there. It doesn’t take many roots getting through to make a difference. And when corn roots follow those same channels the following year, they’re getting access to nutrition and moisture below the fragipan,” he added. The combination of plant chemistry and root pressure has a dramatic effect on fragipan.

The UK team did replicated trials in five Kentucky and Indiana sites. Below, Table 1 shows, in controlled studies, annual ryegrass reduced the thickness of fragipan significantly at each site, allowing more soil depth for crops.

Dave Fischer is a beef producer from Indiana, and it is his Debois County farm mentioned in the table above. Fisher has planted annual ryegrass on his farm for the past eight years. “When I visited his farm last year, I found that he had lowered the fragipan depth by 14 inches and had annual ryegrass roots 29 inches deep,” Lloyd said.

“Those results floored me,” said Fisher in a video on the project. “But at the same time, I had noticed that these fields seemed to not dry out as fast compared to what they used to and to neighboring fields. We were hanging in there a lot longer during drought periods,” he said. “I would plant it just because of the forage, but the addition of breaking up the fragipan has just been super.”

“I’m more excited about this research than any other project I’ve worked on in my 45 years at the University of Kentucky,” Lloyd said in a University news article, “because it can help so many people. It is something that farmers can work into their operations now to increase their yields.”

As he prepared to retire once again, Lloyd said he has been grateful for the Oregon Commission, and others, whose support was crucial for the UK team’s work on annual ryegrass research. “And it looks like others who have noticed our work are picking up where we’ve left off,” he said with a smile. “Claire Phillips, who received her PhD from Oregon State University and has been a soil scientist for the USDA in Iowa for six years, as well as Dr. Dan Olk and Dr. Dana Dinnes are interested in continuing the work we began. And, likewise, John Pike, an agronomist at Southern Illinois University, has also expressed interest in helping to further the research of fragipan and to continue promoting the use of annual ryegrass as a cover crop.”

The Germ Seed of Cover Cropping in the US – Part 13

Annual Ryegrass…When “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”

An “aha” moment began this 14-part series, and it’s fitting we end it with another aha moment!

Dr. Lloyd Murdock has spent many of his productive years at the University of Kentucky as a soils and crop specialist. The link in the previous sentence summarizes a decades long effort that has earned Lloyd a well-deserved reputation as one of America’s “pioneers of no-till agriculture.”

“I had retired in 2012,” Lloyd recalled, “but specifically returned part time the following year to focus research on how to eliminate, or at least reduce, a deep layer of cemented soil called fragipan. Of course, during his career, Lloyd was aware of the seemingly intractable fragipan problem. “But with all the other things I was involved with, I didn’t have enough time. So, when I returned in 2013, I involved a soil chemist, soil pedologist and another agronomist and we set about doing lab, greenhouse and field testing on how to break up that cemented layer.” The breakthrough project is described in a lengthy report published last year by the University of Kentucky.

Fragipan soils are present in almost a third of the US, running from east Texas northeast into New York and parts of New England. In Kentucky alone, it hampers agriculture on 2.7 million acres. Fragipan is almost like bedrock in places, beginning anywhere from 18 to 32 inches below the soil surface. The layer becomes cement-like because of an iron-associated aluminosilicate that binds soil together tightly and restricts water penetration and root growth. Crops grown on these soils have limited soil depth, below which crop roots cannot go. Furthermore, in wet weather, fragipan prevents proper drainage. Topsoil gets saturated and squeezes out oxygen, increases the loss of nitrogen, delays planting, and increases the chances of even more soil compaction with any new tractor traffic.

In the 40 years he was researching and teaching the benefits of no-till, Lloyd said he recalled how people were addressing fragipan. “I was involved in early experiments injecting lime or other chemicals into the pan on 30-inch centers, hoping to break it down,” he said. “I was aware of field trials at other universities using deep mechanical rippers to break up the fragipan.  But in a short time, the soil would reconfigure and harden once again. It was quite expensive and none of it proved effective.”

Then in 2014, through the Oregon Ryegrass Commission, Lloyd was introduced to Mike Plumer, another pioneer in conservation agriculture who had been working on contract to the Commission since the early 2000s. It was he who had begun to quantify the value of annual ryegrass as a cover crop. Inadvertently, at Ralph “Junior” Upton’s farm in southern Illinois, they stumbled on the discovery of annual ryegrass’ deep roots. And in the process, they saw how ryegrass roots seemed to be growing into the fragipan on Junior’s compacted acreage.

“Everything happened by accident,” Junior said. “When I started, I only had about 5 inches of topsoil before I would hit the fragipan. I was trying to get through dry weather. I got a grant and started studying no-till and cover crops. Then a representative of Oregon Ryegrass Commission asked me to try annual ryegrass as a cover crop.”

“They’d stumbled onto something really big,” Lloyd said. “Thankfully, Mike and Junior kept good records on their annual ryegrass work. They found that after a few years, the corn production on the acres Junior planted annual ryegrass began to outproduce fields without it. When they started tracking progress on those fields in the early 2000s, he and Mike determined that Junior’s acreage was producing 10 to 20 bushels per acre less than the average in that county. Today, those same acres are producing 40 bushels per acre more than the county average.

The Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 12

Cover Crop Adoption – Expanding Geometrically as Knowledge Expands Exponentially

“Planting annual ryegrass in the fall and seeing nothing come up is greatly disappointing,” said Jamie Scott, a 3rd generation Indiana farmer. “At first, cover crop experts chalked it up to planting too late, for example, or not enough fall rain to germinate the crop, or winterkill – getting frozen out in a harsh winter. That was in the early 2000s,” he added. “That was back when there was still a lot to learn about cover crops. And we’re still learning.”

By 2010, after extensive field trials and research, agronomists discovered that there could be residual herbicide in the field that prevented cover crops from taking root. “We would spray herbicides on fields in the fall to control winter annuals,” said Jamie, now a 20-year veteran of cover crop use. “And by the end of the winter, the effectiveness would have lapsed. But companies have come out with longer lasting herbicides that will keep weeds down for a year,” he added. “That’s great if you want the lasting effect, but it’s a problem if you plan to use a cover crop the following year.”(Check out this flyer)

Jamie is among a growing number of Midwest farmers who have expertise on how to successfully manage cover crops. After their first year, trying it out on three fields, the Scotts went all in, and now no-till and cover crop their entire 2000 acres. He has helped to pioneer aerial application of cover crop seeds, after experiencing how difficult it is to consistently get a cover crop planted after fall harvest.

“In our second year with cover crops, we tried a variety of planting methods. The third year, with a lot of advice from Mike Plumer and Dan Towery, we were putting the seed on with aircraft. We flew it on prior to harvest and thus gained weeks on the planting date. We tried using a helicopter one year, but shortly realized its shortcomings,” he continued. “We were trying to save a few pennies per load and ended up losing dollars on the other end.”

As the years went by, the knowledge about when and how to fly on seed kept growing, and Jamie has presented to national audiences with details needed to get started. As a result, Jamie started a side business – Scott’s Cover Crops LLC – in order to help other growers who now wanted seed applied earlier in the fall. “At the start, it didn’t really interfere too much with our farming operation,” Jamie said, “and my dad handled that for a month while I organized the cover crop application for customers.”

“But now it’s become almost a year-round business,” he explained. “As a turnkey operation, I manage the seed mix purchase and delivery, the aerial application and the termination of it in the spring,” he said, “and among the clients I’ve got in my cell phone, you’re looking at more than 100,000 acres.” That amounts to over 400 farmers in Northern Indiana and Southern Michigan.

Jamie is enthusiastic in terms of describing the changes in the industry in his lifetime. “I compare what happens to an individual who doesn’t care for themselves to that of the ag industry,” he said. “When I get to racing around during a busy time and I don’t eat right, I’m gonna pay for it. If I do that year after year, I run a higher and higher risk for some kind of health scare – heart attack or cancer, for example. Well, the same is true for farming. We’ve run up against a health scare, in which we’ve run down the quality of the soil and polluted the water and air in the process.”

In addition to his work in the field, Jamie has also been active as a cover crop educator, attending trade shows and introducing newcomers to cover crops, just as he was introduced 20 years ago. He is also the Chairman of his county’s Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), as well as being Vice-President of the statewide association of SWCDs. In that work over the past years, he has continued to learn about the partnerships that have formed to better protect the precious resources. Two in particular that he has worked with: Bob Barr, a scientist working for the Center for Earth and Environmental Sciences, and Jennifer Tank, PhD, Director of Notre Dame University’s Environmental Change Initiative. “Those people, and their universities, are helping all of us to understand the value of capturing carbon in the soil, keeping nutrients in the field, and thus improving the quality of watersheds that  eventually feed the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.”

The Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 11

One Helping Hand Deserves Another

Jamie Scott, a 3rd generation Indiana farmer now in his mid-40s, grew up having heard about no-till and cover crops from his dad and grandad. As you may have read in earlier posts, no-till was barely on Midwest farmers’ radar screen in the 1980s, and cover cropping was even more of a rarity.

The Scotts had not adopted the practice vigorously at that time, and conventional tillage still ruled the day on their farm and most others farms as well. Nonetheless, the Scotts were not averse to it, which made a big difference. “My granddad would hand-sow clover or plant cereal rye with a spreader after harvest on certain plots,” Jamie said. “And I remember my dad telling me about his buying the farm next door in 1976. The previous owner, like my grandad, had also used cover crops. My dad was amazed to learn the difference between that neighbor’s fields and some of ours. Where he had consistently used cover crops, the organic matter was at or just above 4.0, compared to tilled acreage like ours which in places was as low as 2.5. That got my dad’s attention!”

It wasn’t until after attending a couple of ag conferences in 2002, though, that Jamie and his dad began to get serious with no-till and cover crops on their 2000 acres northwest of Fort Wayne. He visited the Oregon Ryegrass booth at the National No-Till Conference that year, and the Farm Machinery Show in Louisville, talking with Oregon grass seed growers Larry Venell and Don Wirth. “They were skeptical that I would be able get annual ryegrass to winter over that far north,” Jamie chuckled. “Back then, they thought annual ryegrass wouldn’t stand up to winter weather much north of I-70,” he added, “and we’re 125 miles north of there! One of the things that was helpful at the time was that they didn’t try to cover up what they didn’t know about ryegrass as a cover crop and how to manage it in this environment.”

Jamie Scott, Indiana farmer and cover crop advisor – https://www.no-tillfarmer.com/articles/7463-no-tiller-discusses-rotation-and-cover-crop-strategies

Fast forward to 2021. The entire Scott farm acreage is in no-till and cover crops. Jamie has become a regional expert on cover crops and oversees application and management of cover crop seed on more than 100,000 acres a year in his area. “If it weren’t for the Oregon Commission, and guys like Mike Plumer and Dan Towery to help me out, I probably wouldn’t be working with cover crops at all,” he said. “Their knowledge and willingness to come out to work through it with me was crucial.”

Their first year, after the corn and beans had come off the fields, Jamie and his dad Jim put in about 40 acres of annual ryegrass. “In that first year, the seed had three varieties in the same bag,” he said, “and this was before they had figured out which varieties were the hardiest. So, our results were mixed,” he added. “One corn field looked great, another was so-so, and the bean field we planted too late with annual ryegrass looked like nothing happened at all. But, the next spring, it turned out that even in the bean field, the ryegrass had sent out a lot of roots and we got benefits without much top growth. And in each of those fields, production was improved over fields where no cover crops were planted. We were sold after that,” he said. “In fact, I was driving by the bean field with an agronomist the following year, and he noticed without my saying anything that the beans where annual ryegrass had been planted looked greener and healthier.”

“I’ve come to understand that as stresses increase, like droughts, the greater are the benefits of cover crops,” Jamie added. “Take for example the deep rooting of annual ryegrass. It creates root channels that are used by corn plants to access moisture far deeper than otherwise. In dry years the difference in yield between cover-cropped acres and those in conventional tillage is remarkable.”

“The knowledge we lost in the 20th Century about no-till and cover crops is coming back,” Jamie continued. “After generations of nothing but deeper and deeper tillage, we’re becoming more conservation-minded as an industry. We’ve come to appreciate the connection between cover crops, soil health and crop production. On our property, we’ve gradually built the organic matter back up, and it has more than paid for itself in healthier soil and better production.

Annual Ryegrass – the Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 8

New Equipment to Deliver Seed to the Soil; New Research about Ryegrass as a Cover Crop – Part 2

After meeting, the two university extension agents, Mark Mellbye from Oregon and Mike Plumer from Illinois, established a quick and easy rapport, which was key to the cover crop campaign. On Mark’s first visit, after meeting Mike, they traveled to Junior Upton’s land in hilly, southeastern Illinois. Junior had agreed to be a test farm for annual ryegrass as a cover crop. Both he and Plumer were experienced by then with no-till, and both had been experimenting with cover crops. Plumer had brought his own seed drill to plant annual ryegrass seed on Junior’s place in the fall, after the corn was harvested. Mark had arranged for Oregon seed to be given to Junior for the test plot.

“It took a lot of time to modify equipment for the no-till environment,” Mark said. “It was more than a decade before you would find planter/drills that could clear away excess residue from the row, open and close a slit in the earth for the seed and be able to maintain a uniform seed planting depth. It was a specialty piece of equipment, and while some innovators would modify their existing planters, buying a new one was part of farmers’ resistance to cover cropping.

Two other discoveries helped that issue. First, innovators showed success using planes to broadcast annual ryegrass seed. While it took more seed per acre with broadcasting than a drill, it was quick, it didn’t require a new equipment purchase, and it could be done without tying up a farmer’s time.

A second type of broadcasting seed was also developed, using high-clearance equipment with modified spreaders.

In both cases, a major benefit to aerial or broadcast seeding was that the window for planting a cover crop was opened considerably. Though experimentation, the early adopters found that seed could be sown while the corn or beans were still in the field. Yes, some of it would lodge in foliage and perhaps the coverage was less uniform than with a drill. And, yes, there was less seed-to-soil contact ideal for germination, especially if there wasn’t sufficient rain to establish the cover crop. But compared to the cost of acquiring specialized drill equipment, and the impracticality of planting cover crops after harvest, the cost of buying an extra 10 pounds of seed per acre was insignificant. (see the free management guide)

The second hurdle was to learn enough about the behavior of annual ryegrass as a cover crop to have more confidence talking to potential customers about what to expect and how to manage the crop. This phase was the one where Mark logged the most time. “I made more than 30 trips to the Midwest over a five-year period, during which I worked with Mike and others on gathering data on annual ryegrass research plots in nine different Midwest locations,” Mark said.

The research was in two basic areas: testing different annual ryegrass varieties – some brand new – and then how each variety responded to recommended doses of herbicide. Each of the nine plots was a minimum of five acres, and data was collected on repeated trials over a period of five years. What came out of the research, in addition to which varieties were the hardiest and which the easiest to manage, was the new understanding we have about the potential for herbicide “carryover” from a prior year’s weed control program, which can negatively impact the start of a new cover crop the following year. You can read more about that here. Mark said that Oregon seed growers provided all of the seed for the trials as well.

“During the herbicide trials, we got additional support from industry partners like BASF, Bayer and Monsanto,” Mark added. “And, of course, the contribution of land, time and equipment on the part of the partner farmers in the Midwest was of tremendous value.”

“The final hurdle to overcome was resistance to change,” Mark continued. “And that’s an ongoing effort. What truly helped was getting some research done, getting people like Mike Plumer and Dan Towery involved as educators. Then, beginning in 2010, the Oregon Commission began funding an outreach effort focused on education, not sales. We started with a series of annual ryegrass publications (click here), and because of our widespread research trials, ag media reporters and editors looked at the data and began to profile innovators like Junior Upton, Jamie Scott, Dan DeSutter and others.” These were the early adopters who became champions of no-till, cover crops and annual ryegrass.

“Each year,” Mark added, “me and others from Oregon would also go to the major industry trade shows. Each year, the interest in cover crops grew and the word of mouth provided a big shift in how the public viewed this new crop management practice.”

Likewise, each year, dozens of field day demonstrations would be held, where cover crops were being used and where the grower, and either Plumer or Towery, would give background and details for those with questions.

During the same time period, the Commission also produced a series of instructive videos on various aspects of growing and managing annual ryegrass as a cover crop. You can find those here.

In the next couple of blogs, we’ll introduce Dan Towery, a consultant with an amazing career devoted to conservation agriculture. His contributions, like Plumer’s and Mellbye’s, have helped thousands of growers ease into cover crops, with good advice and hands-on experience.

Annual Ryegrass – the Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 7

Meet Mark Mellbye – Oregon’s ‘Johnny Appleseed’ of Annual Ryegrass – Part 1

As you may have read, Oregon grass seed growers and the state’s Ryegrass Commission were largely responsible for giving the Midwest cover crop initiative a substantial push over the past 25 years, as has been summarized in previous posts.

The growers you’ve read about in this series, namely Don Wirth and Nick Bowers, both named another Oregonian for acknowledgement, who put a considerable imprint on the project’s success. That man is Mark Mellbye.

Mellbye was raised in Oregon and earned two ag-related degrees from the state’s land grant college in Corvallis – Oregon State University (yes, another OSU!). He joined the Peace Corps after his first graduation and spent 18 months in Lesotho, teaching science and math, then another year traveling throughout Africa.

Before taking a position back at his alma mater, in 1986, Mark was an extension agent in Washington State. The nature of his position at OSU, he said, matched the state’s interest in helping to promote Oregon ag products, and that’s why he was able to spend so much time with Midwest cover crops in the past 25 years.

“A large part of my work in Oregon was to respond to local growers’ requests,” Mark said, “to work on projects of use to them.” Before he retired, Mark was the District Agronomist, overseeing OSU Extension projects in three counties, collectively known as “the grass seed capital of he world”. “The other aspect of my job, and the University was very supportive of this, was to help extend the marketplace for Oregon seed. The Midwest cover crop initiative was the focus.”

He added, “Of course, I was only marginally responsible for what happened with annual ryegrass adoption in the Midwest, but it’s impressive to think that when we started in the late ‘90s, there was no annual ryegrass seed sales to the Midwest whatsoever. Today, there’s upwards of 20 million pounds being shipped there for cover crop use annually, out of about 200 million pounds of annual ryegrass seed produced in Oregon.”

Mike Plumer’s name is forever linked with pioneering cover crops in the Midwest. What is less known is that Plumer, the Illinois crop advisor, didn’t consider annual ryegrass as a possible cover crop until he met Mark in 1997 and they began working together. Until then, Mike had been dabbling with cereal rye, winter wheat, hairy vetch and peas as cover crop potentials. And, as those who knew Mike understood, he was very principled and would immediately balk if he sensed he was being used for some commercial purpose, including the sales of annual ryegrass.

For the cover crop project to succeed, it would have to succeed on a number of fronts. After all, change is hard for most people, and new things tend to have bugs to work out before they are widely accepted.

“One hurdle was that the equipment needed to plant any seed into a no-till field – whether you’re talking corn, soybean or cover crop seeds – was in the process of significant upgrade and modification,” Mark said. “Today, machines can consistently plant those seeds into residue and even into green standing cover crops. Another hurdle was that the nature of annual ryegrass growth in cash crops was an unknown, but the notion was already out there that it should not be trusted. There was a suspicion, generated mostly by weed scientists, that annual ryegrass would become uncontrollable if it got loose in Midwest cornfields.”

“We’ve largely cleared those hurdles,” Mark said, “and we’re on our way to clearing the next one, which is largely educational. It may take the next generation of growers to accept the idea that conventional tillage is too expensive, and that despite the learning curve, cover crops are better for the wallet, for the soil and for the environment.”