Tag Archives: build soil

Ryegrass and other Cover Crops – Benefits the Purse and the Earth

You have undoubtedly read, or experienced, the following effects by stopping cultivation, adopting no-till agriculture practices and then planting cover crops, such as annual ryegrass.

  • Saving on fuel costs by reducing the trips over the field
  • Reducing or eliminating soil compaction and fragipan layers
  • Preventing soil erosion
  • Conserving soil moisture
  • Protecting water quality
  • Fixing atmospheric nitrogen while reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizer
  • Reducing the need for herbicides and pesticides
  • Improving organic matter, soil porosity and water infiltration
  • Increasing the population of healthy microorganisms and earthworms
  •  Increasing yields by enhancing soil health

ARG Chris B 45 days 10-15 to 12-30-2005In the last year, another benefit has come to light, based on the collaborative work of two men working on opposite sides of the Atlantic ocean. They claim that cover crops help to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Professor Jason Kaye (Penn. State) and Miguel Quemada (Technical University of Madrid) looked at the following things:

  • Cover crops lower greenhouse gases by increasing soil carbon sequestration and, thus, the use of less fertilizer
  • Cover crop vegetation also lowers the proportion of energy from sunlight that is reflected off farm fields.

This last point, according to Professor Kaye, “may mitigate 12 to 46 grams of carbon per square meter per year over a 100-year time horizon.” Click here to read a longer description of the article. Or, click here for the academic study itself.


Annual Ryegrass Plugging Through another Winter

While the temperatures plunge and the snow whirls, annual ryegrass top growth has been dormant for months. But under the freeze, the annual ryegrass roots continue to flourish, adding depth, girth and mass to a system that builds healthy soil in numerous ways.

Corn roots in ARG 6-06 Starkey

The depth of rooting alone is a benefit, because it opens channels in the soil profile. Those channels, next spring and summer, will allow corn roots to seek deeper veins of nutrition and moisture. Even in a dry year, corn that goes deep will continue to thrive. And, with any normal precipitation, those root channels will help the soil absorb the rainfall rather than allowing it to run off.

Annual ryegrass has an appetite for nitrogen, too, so it becomes a storehouse of nitrogen when it grows. Then, in the spring, after it is killed with herbicide (before planting corn or beans), the nitrogen stored in the residue becomes a fertilizer for the hungry corn plants. And the massive root structure of annual ryegrass, when it is killed, that mass degrades and decomposes, increasing the carbon content and organic matter in the soil, giving worms and microbiological organisms a food source.

Because of annual ryegrass’ nature to sequester nitrogen, it’s place in the crop rotation allows you to lighten up considerably on nitrogen inputs.

For more information about annual ryegrass, why it’s beneficial and how to manage it successfully as a cover crop, you can check out this free four-page management guide. Or you can click here to view a series of YouTube videos on the subject.

Cover Crops – Production Boost is Only the Start

CTIC logoThe Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) has been a champion of cover crops for many years, and the Oregon Ryegrass Growers Commission takes a  wee bit of credit for that being the case.

Since the early 1990s, Oregon’s annual ryegrass growers have worked with Midwest farmers to prove the value of ryegrass for cover crops. Gradually, universities and nonprofits began to take notice. Cover crops were, until then, seen as a threat to crop production.

Now it appears – given proper management of cover crops – that there’s practically no end to the benefits to planting cover crops. And yet, less than 10% of farms use the practice. Sure, it took a century of tillage to prove the damage of that system; it will take a few more decades before cover crops are uniformly adopted.

Take a look at this article, that quantifies the monetary value of cover crops. You’ll be amazed, and perhaps inspired to try cover crops yourself.

And, if you want to learn more, check out this brochure from the folks that started the cover crop phenomenon – the Oregon annual ryegrass folks.

Carbon Sequestration and Annual Ryegrass Cover Crop Acreage

Conservation tillage, in the best sense, includes cover crops. In addition to enriching the soil, cover crops literally inhale carbon dioxide from the air and use it for plant growth. What isn’t used for growth is eventually released back into the soil.

According to the Conservation Technology Information Center (and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization). upwards of ONE THIRD of the carbon emitted in our world (from power plants and internal combustion engines) could be offset if farmers worldwide would all make use of conservation tillage, including cover crops.

Carbon sequestration graphic

Annual ryegrass, as a cover crop, is adept at absorbing carbon and storing it in its massive network of roots. When killed in the spring, the annual ryegrass residue (including the roots) releases its sequestered nitrogen to help fertilize the new corn and beans in the field. At the same time, the carbon in the cover crop is released into the soil, improving the ratio of organic matter and adding to the food source for soil microbiology.




Indiana Roots with Annual Ryegrass Cover Crops

Soil and Water  Conservation Districts are getting more and more involved in the promotion of cover crops. The reason is simple: over the past 20 years, it has been shown that cover crops protect the soil in ways that no-till alone cannot.

Farm cover crop workshop turnout pleases organizers

(Photo: Rod Rose, Lebanon Reporter. A Boone County farmer discusses core samples comparing fields where cover crops are planted, compared to samples from fields without. He discussed the benefits of cover crops.)

Here are some of the reasons he mentions:

  • Leaving green in the field year-round prevents soil run-off and loss of precious nutrients.
  • The residue from past crops, including cover crops, becomes important food for the biological diversity of the soil. Likewise, residue begins to build the depleted organic matter and carbon carrying capacity of the soil
  • Deep roots – especially from annual ryegrass – break up compaction. This is so important in soils that prevent corn and soybean roots from going below the fragipan layer. Once broken, the corn roots can grow to depths of 5 feet and access moisture and nutrients…especially important in dry growing years
  • Annual ryegrass is a nitrogen sink, soaking up excess N when growing and giving it back to the soil when the residue decays in early summer, just when the corn needs it most
  • All these reasons add up to more profits – fewer field inputs, better soil health and bonus yields.

Here’s a link to that article, which mentiones annual ryegrass rooting capabilities, and the popularity of cover cropping systems in the Midwest.

Annual Ryegrass – When to Plant and How Much is Enough?

If you use a no-till drill to plant annual ryegrass, you get better seed to soil contact, but the timing becomes crucial because of crop harvest variability. In the past few years, corn and bean harvests have been later and, in some cases, too late to plant annual ryegrass.

Planting with aerial seeding – plane or high-clearance equipment – can be done while corn and beans are still in the field. The seed lies dormant until sufficient rain germinates the cover crop. But because you’re seeding into standing corn or beans, you must use more seed.

The range of effective seeding rates is from about 12 lb/ac to about double that, if you’re broadcasting the seed. Some worry that applying too much seed will make it more difficult planting corn or beans into the cover crop residue the next spring. Thus, those people favor a lighter seeding rate. Even if the annual ryegrass looks thin in its top growth, the deep mat of roots are still doing their job in the soil, they say.

Others say that a heavier seeding rate is good insurance against harsher winters. Those with interest in using annual rygrass for forage will certainly want to plant at the upper rate of application.

In either case, annual ryegrass is among the least costly and most effective of cover crops. The cost for seed and application can easily be made up in the gains in soil health and increased crop production.

For more information about timing and rates of seed application, click here for a comprehensive brochure.

Annual Ryegrass Helps Soil Microbiology Helps Soil Health

“Many times during a drought, plants are not as much water stressed as they are nutrient stressed,” said USDA soil microbiologist Kris Nichols.

Cover crops feed a whole web of soil organisms…much more than mere crop residue. Those organisms seek carbon and they get it from live plants like corn.

Nichols said that the microbes, in exchange for carbon, give up nutrients and water which they get from the soil.

Mycorrhizal fungi are an example Nichols uses to explain the value added that microbiology brings to crops. The little critters are threadlike, much smaller in width than plant roots, and have more access to more soil than plants.

Cover crops like annual ryegrass are conducive to production of healthy mycorrhizae population and create a symbiotic relationship helping the fungi, the soil and the plants. “Plants growing in soils rich with mycorrhizae take advantage of the fungi to help them obtain nutrients from the soil,” she added.

“They accomplish this using much less water, as well,” Nelson continued. The soil structure, rich with microorganisms, is more conducive to water retention, as she explains, “Organisms help form soil aggregates, which allows for better water absorption because there is more pore space in the soil for water as well as an exchange of gas.”






Annual Ryegrass Cover Crops in Iowa – Field Day on March 30th



March 30TH – 10 a.m.

Steve Berger Farm, 1267 Elm Ave., Wellman, IA

Field  plot site is one-half mile North at Elm Ave & 120th St.

Topics:  Benefits of Cover Crops – Reduce erosion – Nitrogen credit for next crop – Build organic matter              

Iowa Grower Builds Soil, Stabilizes Organic Matter Losses with Cover Crops

Iowa Grower Builds Soil, Stabilizes Organic Matter Losses with Cover Crops

Going to No-till in the late ’70 helped reduce loss of organic matter,” said Iowa grower Steve Berger, “but adding cover crops in the past decade has really made a difference. “The organic matter present in the fence rows is between 5% and 6% but less than 4% in the fields. With cover crops, we have stabilized the losses we continued to see in our soybean rotation.”

Boosting organic matter is important, but Berger says these other things are more easily accomplished and witnessed:

  • Better, “mellower”, soil structure
  • increased microbial action
  • more root channels for corn roots to follow
  • the soil’s “bulk density” is down
  • infiltration rate of precipitation is up
  • soil erosion on his rolling, terraced fields is reduced

Berger has used cereal rye as a cover crop pretty consistently but tried annual ryegrass about five years ago because of its deeper rooting and its ability to soak up and store nitrogen for use during the next crop season. “That’s important, especially in wet years,” he said, “because annual ryegrass will cycle nutrients and keep them from being flushed out of the field through the tiles.”