Tag Archives: nitrogen scavenging cover crop

Biomass and Cover Crops

Biomass refers to what’s left over in the fields once your cover crop has been terminated. Biomass is a crucial element in soil chemistry, as well as in the overall health of your land.

There are two basic elements to the biomass equation: the root mass that is produced during the life cycle of the cover crop; and the residue left on the surface of the ground after the cover crop has been terminated in the spring. The surface residue is useful to the new cash crop, whether corn or soybeans, because in decay, it gives back nitrogen to the juvenile cash crop growing there. Use of annual ryegrass as a cover crop can effectively cut the amount of nitrogen you apply to corn in early summer because of the nitrogen it gives back to the soil.

But it is the subsurface biomass of cover crops that are most important to soil health and, ultimately, the productivity of the field. The slow decay of the root structure continues to feed the microorganisms in the soil, and also helps to create a soil structure that let’s corn roots grow deep and water to soak in, rather than running off.

Over a period of years, the University of Nebraska did field studies of different cover crop species in different soil types, to measure the amount of biomass produced. In all cases, it was annual ryegrass that produced the most biomass of all cover crops. They refer to annual ryegrass as “rye” but that is distinctly different than “cereal rye.”

The following two paragraphs from a recent Successful Farming article talk about the value of annual ryegrass compared to other cover crop species.

In eastern and northeast Nebraska, the pre-harvest planting achieved the biomass threshold, producing on average 1,900 to 2,500 lb/A of biomass by late April to early May, whereas the rye planted post-harvest produced approximately half of that amount. Pre-harvest planted cover crops had lower emergence than post-harvest planted cover crops, but had more time to grow and tiller, compensating for low populations. In south-central Nebraska, both planting times reached the threshold, but the post-harvest planting produced more biomass. This site receives less rainfall in the fall, restricting the emergence of pre-harvest cover crops.


Overall, the mix biomass was lower than the rye biomass. The brassicas in the mix winterkilled, and hairy vetch and winter pea produced very little growth. Thus, the mix can be thought of as rye planted at 30 lb/A. Despite this low seeding rate, the mix produced more than the threshold biomass at the south-central sites in both planting times, and at the northeast site in the pre-harvest planting.

The article also distinguished between planting the cover crop before the harvest (broadcast from a high-clearance rig or aerially) or after harvest (seed drill). Generally, the drilled seed has a better record of emergence but, because of being planted later, it still doesn’t produce the biomass of the earlier broadcast seed.

Green under White – The Ideal Winter Color Scheme involves Cover Crops

As winter approaches, the fields now stripped of corn and beans ought to have a cover of green before the snow flies.

Van Tilberg 2011 Hi-Boy Seeder2

First, and foremost, if winter snow comes late or not enough, your soil can be stripped from your property, and you can expect to lose both fertility and productivity as a result. Wind, rain, melt and freeze and run off can be devastating.

A cover crop provides a blanket of protection from the ravages of winter. Annual ryegrass doubles its benefit by protecting the surface while restructuring the soil profile below. It has a massive root system that adds organic matter to the soil. Moreover, it sends roots deep into the soil to 6 feet, through compacted layers, and provides channels for next year’s corn to follow.

With a cover crop in place, even without snow, the greenery will protect the soil from an infestation of annual weeds over the winter, as well as prevent erosion next spring. When you get rid of the cover crop, with glyphosate, the residual biomass left by the annual ryegrass or other cover crop will  continue to decay and feed the corn or beans the stored nitrogen in the residue. That helps to reduce the amount of money you’ll have to spend sidedressing your crop with extra nitrogen in June.

Here’s a link to a number of helpful tips for starting and  managing annual ryegrass as a cover crop. Please contact us if you have questions.

 

Cover Crops – A Living, Healing Insurance Plan

 

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Having a cover crop is the best insurance plan you could have. Consider:

  • It costs very little and insures against a range of disastrous consequences like erosion, compaction, depletion of nutrients and being overrun with weeds
  • Cover crops like annual ryegrass reduce the amount of money you spend on things like superfluous application of nitrogen, and maybe reducing the amount of tiling you need to do in the fields
  • Because of the protective and enhancing effects of cover crops, your soil health improves, the amount of organic matter increases, and there’s an increase in the healthy microbiology…the soil comes to life.
  • All these factors deliver added value in the productivity of crops and the value of the real estate.

Remember, you buy crop insurance in case of a disaster of some sort: bad weather, for example. Cover crops are in a way an insurance policy that is almost assuredly going to improve your profitability the longer you put it into practice.

 

Annual Ryegrass – The Best Defense is a Good Offense

Ok, so the use of this cliche, “the best defense is a good offense” won’t stand up in today’s rough and tumble world of sports. Imagine the Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban or Clemson’s Dabo Swinney trying that strategy in the BCS Championship Bowl!

Image result for image the best offense is a good defense - college football

But, in agriculture, a good defense kind of creates its own offense. Take cover crops, for example, and annual ryegrass specifically.

  • Planting ryegrass in the fall gives the rich topsoil a chance to relax…no worries of some offensive wind and rushing water eroding it away.
  • No worries about compacted soil continuing to starve corn roots opportunity to access deeper nutrient-rich soil beneath the compacted layer.
  • The residue left over when the cover crop is eliminated in the spring (particularly true with annual ryegrass) is food both for the active soil biology, but also feeds the corn next year, because it soaks up excess nitrogen in the soil and gives it back when corn needs it most, next June.
  • The decaying root structure of annual ryegrass also plays an important role in building organic matter in the soil. It feeds the microbes and insects, plus it leaves channels where corn roots can grow deeper the following year
  • AnnuaL ryegrass roots also discourage the overpopulation of soybean cyst nematodes which damage that crop

As the country, and the world continue to grapple with the impact of violent weather, cover crops provide some defense from soil degradation, and contribute to storing more carbon dioxide in the soil instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.

The best of all worlds, cover crops increase farm productivity and profits. And there’ll be no argument about creating a profit while you’re also contributing to the health of our soil, air and water resources.

 

 

Independence Day – for Cover Crops, it’s Inter-dependence Day…every day!

Remember the bumper sticker: “Every day is Earth Day for farmers?”

This Independence Day, think about that bumper sticker. Just because we farm, does it mean we’re in tune with everything Mother Nature brings forth? Does it mean that farming by the book, the way our fathers and grandfathers did, will make a difference for our sons and grandsons? Does Independence Day suggest we’re free, but only in the political sense?

America, Flag, Usa, United, States

When it comes to agriculture, paying attention to interdependence is what makes a good farm great. Cover crops and no-till is a good example.

  • Conventional tillage compacts soil and leaves topsoil free to erode or blow away. Cover crops breaks up compaction and prevents erosion and loss of a farm’s best resource.
  • Mono-cropping strips the soil of important nutrients. Cover crops, especially on no-till acres, builds organic matter that attracts healthy microorganisms, friendly bacteria and earthworms
  • Nitrogen-loving cash crops need added inputs to keep corn thriving. Cover crops sequester or add nitrogen which reduces the need for fertilizer
  • Conventional tillage allows for one harvest a year. With a forage cover crop, you can do all of the above PLUS get a cutting of hay or graze your livestock.

Interdependence means that we can improve our bottom line and increase our farm’s value by working with nature. Working hard comes with the territory. Working smart, in the framework of soil biology, will help everybody up and down the food chain.

A New Kind of Weather, A New Kind of Pioneer

Two hundred tornadoes in two weeks? What next, will we have to have to protect ourselves from frogs falling from the sky?

Image result for images tornadoes

It has always been a challenge to stay flexible to what Mother Nature throws: a deeper, longer, windier winter without enough snow, for example. Or a winter that starts and stops, with freezes and thaws changing places like partners at a high school prom.

Farmers have been a resilient lot since agriculture began in earnest, more than 10,000 years ago. And though not a new invention, cover crops are another indication that adapting to new challenges is part of the landscape.

Consider how cover cropping, combined with no-till, gives you the edge with a tempestuous season. With annual ryegrass on your fields in the spring, excess amounts of water keep the soil in place. Because the soil is more permeable, water can penetrate more quickly instead of running off and causing erosion.Annual ryegrass grows well in wet conditions, too, so a soggy spring may delay corn planting for a bit but the cover crop will protect what’s there.

Cover crops like annual  ryegrass also increase greatly the potential for corn to grow deeper into the soil. Annual ryegrass busts up compaction, down to six feet! That means in dry years, corn can send roots deeper for moisture and important nutrients, like P and K, withstanding drought conditions for much longer. Because annual ryegrass sequesters available N, you don’t have to side dress as much as you did in the old days.

Then, because cover crops improve organic matter and carbon in the soil, there is a healthier microorganism population, the soil is more crumbly and rich with life. The crops are healthier, and the harvest is more robust.

So, yes, we can still bemoan Mother Nature for throwing us curve after curve. We can complain that the co-op prices are too high, commodity prices too low, and the bank is tightening the screws. But with tenacity, and a friend like annual ryegrass, you may again be able to say you rode it out, weathered the storm, and came out on the right side of the ledger.

Is “Good Enough” Good Enough Anymore?

When has “good enough” been your measure for anything? Raising your kids? No! Nothing’s good enough for them, right?

Electing honest leaders? Imagine where America would be if we decided that mediocre was all we could expect from those we elected? The Founding Fathers would be turning in their graves!

And how about farming? Has “good enough” ever satisfied you as the decider-in-chief? How would those who buy your crops react if your corn, beans and livestock were marginal? You’d be outta business pretty quick.

Corn emerging through ARG residue

That’s why putting cover crops on yoyur acreage makes perfect sense. For years, those who believed in deep tillage thought they were doing the best they could…rip deeper, add more fertilizer. But now we understand the complex way in which soil health is maintained, so the old ways are not good enough anymore!

It turns out that taking care of your soil, like being a watchful and loving parent, yields amazing results. With no-till and cover crops like annual ryegrass, micro-nutrients, bacteria, and carbon quickly come back to your anemic soil, even after decades of mediocre care.

  • Annual ryegrass breaks up compaction, so your crops can reach more moisture and nutrients below.
  • Annual ryegrass sequesters nitrogen, so you can save on fertilizer while preventing spring erosion.
  • Deep rooting annual ryegrass allows corn roots to grow much deeper into the soil – up to 6 feet deep – which gives your cash crop resiliency against dry summers.
  • You can graze livestock on cover crops…maybe even twice in one year…which saves you money on feed, while below the surface, the cover crop is delivering organic matter in great quantities, food for earthworms and other micro-flora and fauna.

Finally, in one of the classic “win-win” scenarios, cover crops have proven to boost production. Given how much benefit the soil gets (not to mention the benefits to the watershed and the air!), it’s not hard to imagine that it would benefit the health of the crop too.

So if “good enough” is continuing to be your standard operating procedure, you’re missing out on an opportunity to succeed in a way that benefits your wallet while adding value to your property. And if you’re the one to lead the way in your community, how great is would it be to be acknowledged as a leader, a trend setter, while contributing to your community’s health.

When good enough isn’t good enough, you’ll be raising the bar for the whole darn town, setting a standard for health and prosperity. What a legacy, right? Being known for going the extra mile to benefit others as well as yourself?

 

Once The Floods Recede!

Geez, Louise! Another crappy winter leading into a way too damn damp Spring!

When the water recedes, many conventional tillers will be faced with another plague: erosion.

All the damage – washouts, drain tiles plugged, and the value of land washing on down the Mississippi!

In addition to damage to homes, barns, roads and bridges (and the extra cost to import and export product via detours!), farmers have to deal with the prospect of a late spring planting.

Image result for image grass in flooded land

Perhaps those who have practiced no-till and cover crops will sigh a bit of relief, if the soil is still on their property when the flood waters drop again. The sight of green grass or legume popping up above the leftover silt and muck will be like a day of sun. Cover crops on the field can be like money in the bank, and erosion protection is just the beginning. Here’s more info on planting annual ryegrass as a cover crop in the spring, if you want to start a new tradition on your land.

Click here for a free booklet on the management of annual ryegrass as a cover crop.

In the next month, those with cover crops will be “managing” their annual ryegrass. Managing, in this sense, means killing it with some form of glyphosate. It’s very important for this step to be done right; if it’s not, it can become a weed and a very robust one at that.

But, take heart, in the 20 plus years of our working with farmers throughout the Midwest, in New England, in the Upper and western Midwest, and in the southern-central provinces of Canada, paying attention to the details of spring cover crop management pays dividends immediately. The residual nitrogen becomes food for the young corn plants, for example. And the rotting annual ryegrass roots make room for corn roots to grow deeper into the soil, adding a layer of protection in the event of a dry summer. Finally, the massive decaying roots of cover crops feed untold gazillions of microbio life forms that contribute to healthier soil.

Best wishes to those of you with water on your property…may the Lord be merciful to you and your families! And when the water drops, consider going down to the Coop and checking out cover crops for protecting your property investment for the next go round. You may decide that trying out a small plot this spring – seeded into knee-high corn (interseeding method) will be this year’s innovation.

 

 

Farmer Success Stories with Annual Ryegrass

Over the past 20 years, tens of thousands of farms across the Midwest have quit tillage practices because they harm the soil. Instead, they’ve gone to no-till and cover crops.

To review reasons to switch to cover crops, click here and get a free detailed guide to the benefits.

ARG Chris B 45 days 10-15 to 12-30-2005

Here are brief summaries of some who have become champions of annual ryegrass as a cover crop, because it makes both agricultural and economic sense.

Loran Steinlage, West Union, Iowa: “I use annual ryegrass in mixes on critical areas like washouts and Highly Erodible Land.”

John Werries, Chapin, Illinois. “I hate erosion. We think annual ryegrass had the best root system of any cover crop. It’s amazing to see the roots that it puts down.”

Donn Branton, Le Roy, New York. “Cereal rye can really get away from you in the spring. There’s less risk of that with annual ryegrass. And ryegrass has good, deep roots. Compared to cereal rye, annual ryegrass has a lower carbon-to-nitrogen ratio.”

Mike Starkey, Brownsburg, Indiana. “I’ve been using annual ryegrass as my cover crop of choice for at least ten years. Annual ryegrass has the biggest root mass of any cover crop. The roots can go down 36 to 48 inches deep. Those annual ryegrass roots scavenge a lot of nitrogen, which gets released later in the growing season.”

Mike Shuter, Frankton, Indiana. “We have a 110-acre field in a wet area of the county that needs drainage. After seeding it to ryegrass in the fall of 2012, we didn’t lose any corn in 2013. But all of the fields around it had spots that drowned out.”

Matt VanTilburg, Celina, Ohio. “We seed 20,000 acres of ryegrass in mixes a year – several thousand of ours and the rest custom.

Dave Wise, Iowa dairy farmer. “I first tried annual ryegrass in 2011, drilling 40 acres. Now, I seed it on continuous corn ground chopped for silage. In 2014, annual ryegrass seeded on bottom ground took off very well and overwintered well, too.”

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.