Tag Archives: annual ryegrass

Cover Crops Linked to Cleaner Water

” Agricultural land and good water quality usually do not mix.” That’s according to academics and agronomists, who echo what farmers are finding out for themselves. That’s why cover crops are essential.

You’ve learned by now how cover crops keep nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus in the field, instead of rushing off the field in heavy rainfall or spring thaw. Whereas agriculture used to be considered destructive to the environment, with conservation tillage it’s a whole new ballgame. In fact, in the article quoted above, the upper Midwest research indicates that reduction of agricultural runoff is helping to clean up the Great Lakes.

It’s hard to imagine that the Great Lakes contain over 20 percent of the freshwater on the planet! Thus, it’s a major source of drinking water for about 40 million people, it’s crucial that the source remain viable for that purpose, as well as serving as habitat for countless species of wildlife, fish and other forms of life.

Reports from the East and Gulf coasts indicate that cover crops also are having an impact on water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and in the Gulf of Mexico, where algae bloom from excess ag runoff has caused eutrophication and hypoxia. Basically, those words mean death to aquatic life, an important fishing industry and eventually tourism as well.

It’s hard to imagine that you planting annual ryegrass on your acreage would have that kind of effect. But as thousands of farmers each year are finding out, the small improvements made on your property has ripple effects a thousand miles away.

Not only do cover crops make your property (and your bank account) healthier, the effort you make impacts millions of others who depend on a clean environment for their food, health and entertainment.

Transition to Cover Crops – Cornerstone to Sustainable Ag

Check out this video on YouTube – of Rich Clark, Field to Market’s Farmer of the Year in 2019. Rich is a fifth generation Indiana (Williamsport) farmer and his claim to fame is making conservation tillage and cover cropping into a full-time affair. The term for this type of ag – “regenerative”!

He began no-tilling and cover cropping only a decade ago, but said his first year with it (annual ryegrass) convinced him he was on the right track. He said after only one year doing a cover crop in corn, it produced the best average yield of his entire 7000 acre farm!

Since then, Rich has converted his entire acreage to cover crops. He’s gone all NON-GMO seed, which has given other farmers the incentive to try it too. Massive food companies like Dannon and Unilever contract with farmers like him to grow products sought by more and more people seeking food health and safety.

He said, “We have a diverse mix of crops and we have cattle. We are 100% non-GMO on all crops and we don’t use any starter fertilizer, fungicide, seed treatment or insecticide at all.”

One of his key practices is crop rotation, because it (and cover crops) contributes to a natural bonus of nitrogen into the soil. It also reduces weeds, interrupts the life cycle of pests and thus eliminates the need of pesticides. Here, from an article in the Sustainability Alliance website, Rick describes how he manages the rotation. “One-third of our farm is in a three-crop rotation – corn, soybeans and wheat. Another third is in a four-crop rotation – corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa for a nearby dairy. The remaining third is in transition to organic. We have just got approval for our first organic certified acres, which I’m very excited about.”

Among the outcomes of this switch to a Nature-oriented growing is that Rick says he spends LESS per acre than he used to…less on fertilizer and other chemicals, and less on equipment (he doesn’t need as much power so he sold off some of his more powerful tractors in favor of smaller ones, which saved him $35,000 in fuel in the past nine years!)

And the frosting on the cake…his choice to move to regenerative ag has him working with other customers who pay premium for non-GMO, locally raised crops and livestock,

Don’t Adopt – Adapt Instead

The days are long over for merely taking in what some trade show educator tells you and then applying it to your farm! You’ve learned how to take the guess work out of some of the things that used to be stumpers. Even taking your neighbor’s word for it comes with a grain of salt anymore, because the nature and condition of each farm acre is different.

Computers, GPS and soil testing have aided in our understanding of crop behavior, including what’s going on underground. In recent years, knowing the importance of microbiology in crop production has helped to improve soil health while also improving a farm’s balance sheet.

Cover crops provide residue (carbon) on the surface that keeps weeds down, releases stored nitrogen up to the next crop, and prevents soil heating, thus promoting a healthy environment for microbes, bacteria and fungi in the topsoil. The roots of old, terminated cover crops continue to give up food for biological life while adding to the organic matter of the soil.

While there are enough success stories out there to feel confident that cover crops are not a big risk. After all, many thousands have tried annual ryegrass and other cover crops, including cereal rye, and decided after a few years that they were going ALL IN, planting 100 percent of their acres in cover crops.

Regardless of what others did, however, starting out with a cover crop for the first time is a challenge. So, most transitioning to conservation tillage start with a small chunk of land before committing to plant the whole farm that way.

Once you see what changes occur on that test acreage, you’ll find out that managing annual ryegrass and other covers is not exceedingly difficult. You’ll also discover that the benefits, the savings and the profits warrant a bigger commitment.

New Look: Annual Ryegrass Impact on Fragipan

The short part of this long story is about three things:

  • the impact of compacted soil on crop productivity
  • how to break up compacted soil (fragipan, hardpan) with annual ryegrass
  • how annual ryegrass helps to increase yield of corn and soybeans

Twenty years ago, researchers working with farmers in Illinois found that annual ryegrass roots break up fragipan during winter months, when ryegrass roots permeate compaction and change its composition.

A short demonstration of the results of continuous use of annual ryegrass on compacted soil gradually eliminates compaction and allows cash crops much deeper soil, where added nutrients and moisture are found.

Watch this video and see how annual ryegrass can boost productivity and profits on your farm.

Spring Forward with Annual Ryegrass

Spring is, for cover croppers, the time to kill your cover crop before planting cash crops – corn or soybeans. For others, spring is also the time to plant annual ryegrass as a cover crop!

Interseeding is the name for putting out annual ryegrass seed in the spring, when your corn is established but before it reaches knee-high. There are a couple of reasons to consider doing it this way:

  • You avoid having to squeeze in a fall planting of annual ryegrass, when harvest and weather and field conditions can play havoc
  • The annual ryegrass will be well established in the fall when you take off the corn. It will have been sitting nearly dormant all summer – in the shade of the corn foliage – but its root structure will have been expanding, inching its way into the earth. This makes the grass more resilient to colder fall temperatures, and more likely to winter over in the field.
  • You can plant the cover crop with the same equipment used for side dressing the corn, thus creating efficiencies in your operation.

For those interested in interseeding principles and practices, check out this flyer. Below, a cover crop mix of annual ryegrass and clover established in the spring as corn grows to each side.

Annual Ryegrass – Best Friend of Deep Cover Crops

In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, 90 percent of the world’s seed for annual ryegrass is grown. Because the water table is so high, the roots need not go far for moisture. In the Midwest, it’s a different story, and that was the first major “AHA” of its widespread adoption as a cover crop.

Over the winter, annual ryegrass roots can reach to depths of five feet, although the first year will probably not produce that depth. But over a span of five years, the channels built from successive years of annual ryegrass use will provide new access for deeper growth the next year.

For this and other reasons, Indiana farmer Cameron Mills says annual ryegrass is the best cover crop out there. “Annual ryegrass still gets a fair amount of bad-mouthing,” he said at a recent conference in Oregon, where many of the ryegrass seed growers were in the audience. “The important thing is, you have to keep getting good information out there about annual ryegrass to balance the negative. One thing you hear is that it is hard to manage. Well, that’s not true either, but you do have to manage it carefully.”

Annual ryegrass, he continued, solves a lot of problems, such as erosion, depleted organic matter, compaction, annual weeds and soybean nematodes. But to get it to work for you, you must be flexible about when you apply the seed and when you terminate it.

And as for terminating it, you have to be very conscientious that the herbicide used to terminate it doesn’t remain in the soil very long – commonly referred to as herbicide carryover; otherwise, it could inadvertently retard the growth of the next round of cover cropping. See below, two fields planted on the same day, only a mile apart from one another. One field shows healthy growth, and the herbicides were generic Bicep II and Impact. The other field, where Halex GT was used, is almost barren of cover crop. Mills said that there’s nothing wrong with Halex GT…it’s a great herbicide, but you must pay attention that the herbicide used doesn’t carry over into next year’s cover crop season.

Non GMO Seed and Cover Crop Management

Cameron Mills, a grower from Walton, Indiana, spoke a couple months ago at the annual Oregon Seed League conference. Among his surprising messages:

  • Moving away from GMO seed is a sound economic move
  • Glyphosate is under threat from consumers and we’ll have to adapt – but it certainly won’t put an end to use of cover crops
  • Big Ag is moving in the direction that consumers demand – “regenerative” ag
  • Introducing beef into the Midwest mix is very profitable

These days, Mills said, consumers are driving change in ag. “They want to know where products are produced, how healthy they are, and how safe,” he said. And consumers around the world are speaking ever louder that they’ve had enough of GMO.

Mills said that after 23 years of pushing GMO, the tide is moving against it. So instead of fighting the tide, Mills has grabbed onto Non-GMO full time, in a hurry. And, he made a convincing argument that Non GMO is a darn sight less costly than going with the “Magical Seeds.” See below.

He said that with the per/acre savings, there’s a better Return on Investment with Non-GMO. So what difference does it make if the GMO seed outproduces the Non-GMO seed by a few bushels/acre? By the way, he said “magical seed” doesn’t always perform to it’s promise anyway. His farm of almost 4000 acres – corn, soybeans, triticale, wheat and beef cattle – is 100 percent Non-GMO and he’s been in continuous cover crop since 2006.

In terms of cover crop choices, Mills says he likes annual ryegrass a lot, and it has helped him reduce damage on his fields in spring when he wants to get out and start planting, even when it’s still a bit wet.

In the next blog, we’ll talk about other topics he discussed, including how to apply cover crops, how to manage and how to learn to adapt quickly with Plan B, C, and D. Farming on the fly? Not exactly, but flexibility is important…and experience helps grow confidence in being flexible.

Cover Crop Management – Spring 2020

It’s time to think about getting in gear for cover crop season in the Midwest.

If you’re starting out with cover crops for the first time, here’s a handy, comprehensive Management Guide we put together a couple years ago.

If you’re familiar with cover crops, then you’ll know that spring is the time to get rid of the remaining cover crop in preparation for corn or soybean planting.

  • If the cover crop is still alive, glyphosate is the best way to kill it. Follow herbicide instructions to the tee, as you don’t want to come back and kick its butt a second time…because it gets harder.
  • Check out the specifics in our Management Guide.

For added tips, Here’s an article from Successful Farmer, which covers the benefits as well as some advice about types of covers to consider in the future.

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.

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.