Tag Archives: NRCS

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!

Image result for dust storms midwest US 2018

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.

New Midwest Incentives for Cover Crops

Among other things, Dan Towery manages the Indiana part of the Soil Health Partnership, a network of innovative farmers in eight Midwest states. Dan has been a consultant for the Oregon Grass Seed Growers Commission that promotes use of annual ryegrass as a cover crop for more than a decade. He has been a steady voice for conservation agriculture since he graduated from Western Illinois University.

Dan was a staff agronomist for the Conservation Technology Information Center and was state agronomist in Indiana before joining the staff of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In recent years, Dan’s been tireless making connections – both one on one with Midwest growers – as well as nationally and in other countries, with leaders of industry, policy and conservation. That work created a natural space for him on the board of the International Soil & Water Conservation Society board for 6 years. He was selected as its president in 2012 and 2013.

This past growing season, the Soil Health Partnership conducted more than 40 field days in eight states, attended by more than 1500 farmers, eager to learn from each other the details of managing cover crops. The field days covered subjects like cover crops and other soil improvement methods, as well as equipment, nutrient management and other topics. The initiative, sponsored by the National Corn Growers Association has also gained tremendous support of a dazzling variety of groups including Monsanto, NRCS, the United Soybean Board, the Walton Family Foundation, the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy.

In September, largely because of its effective promotion of conservation tillage in the Midwest, the Soil Health Partnership learned that it won a $1 million Conservation Innovation Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The grant funding will help to quantify the gains being made by farmers using cover crops and other conservation strategies, according to a news release from the organization.

Farmers enrolled in the SHP program will be invited to participate in the carbon reduction incentive system, in which growers are paid by corporations to sequester carbon in their soil, according to the article.

“This is a great opportunity for farmers to continue being a part of the solution to carbon sequestration, and gain financial incentives for carbon-smart ag practices like growing cover crops and using minimum tillage,” said Nick Goeser, NCGA director of soil health and sustainability and director of the SHP. “We hope to provide businesses with a quantifiable method to reduce their carbon footprint by increasing these on-the-ground conservation practices.”

Mike Plumer – Granddaddy of Modern-day Cover Crop Advocacy

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before we had met Mike Plumer, he already had more than a decade of advocacy and research into no-till farming and cover crops, especially annual ryegrass. At the time, Mike was an Extension Educator with the University of Illinois, a post he held for 34 years..

We, in Oregon, where 90 percent of the world’s ryegrass seed is grown, had no idea that Mike Plumer was about to give the industry of agriculture an immeasurable gift, while giving the annual ryegrass seed growers a new reason to get up in the morning.

Plumer, working with an innovative Hamilton County, Illinois farmer named Ralph “Junior” Upton, helped quantify the benefits of annual ryegrass in “siltpan” (Bluford) soil. Upton was concerned about the productivity on parts of his 1800 acre farm, where the compacted soil restricted the root growth of corn and soybeans. He wondered if going no-till and adding cover crops might improve productivity.

Plumer began testing on Upton’s farm and quickly discovered what we in Oregon didn’t know – that annual ryegrass roots grow through and permeate compacted soil. Better than that, the roots then extend downwards to a much as five feet, creating new pathways to moisture and nutrients for corn and bean crops to follow.

Since 2004, Upton has seen dramatic changes in his corn yields., according to a USDA profile on him. He says no-till saves him around $15 an acre. Using cover crops costs $8-$20 dollars an acre but it is well worth it. The amount of organic matter in Upton’s soils started at less than 1 percent (.81). That level is now up to 3 or 4 percent. “And that’s exactly what I needed for my soils on those fields,” Upton said.

Since then, Plumer has experimented all over the Midwest (as well as contributing to agriculture internationally) and become the best known cover crop advisor in the country. Below are a couple of very informative power point presentations developed by Plumer, which outline both the benefits and the precautions of annual ryegrass and other cover cropping system. Visit the annual ryegrass by clicking here.

Managing Annual Ryegrass 

Cover Crops in Illinois: Why Use Them?

Illinois Makes Strides in Conservation Tillage and Cover Crops

The American Farmland Trust says this about the Midwest’s heritage in agriculture:

With flat prairies, plentiful water, and rich, deep soils, the Midwest is one of the most intensely farmed regions in the world. We depend on it for many of our grocery staples – from corn and soybeans to wheat and meat.

But the Midwest’s abundance of fertile farmland has sometimes led us to take it for granted. We’re rapidly paving over some of the most productive soils and farmland in the world.

At the same time, tons of prime topsoil washes away – and we can’t afford to lose it. In the Midwest, we need to save the land – not just by the acre but also by the inch.

Illinois, 2nd in the nation in production of corn and soybeans, has been somewhat late to the table on soil conservation methods. Cover crop pioneer Mike Plumer worked for decades for Illinois’ major ag university as an Extension educator and agronomist. Despite his untiring advocacy for no-till and cover crops, his university seemed indifferent and even adversarial to his claim that conservation practices were the future of agriculture. Adverse to change, some believe that quality soil will continue without fail, and what dips in productivity one experiences, you can augment with chemistry.

Another Midwest pioneer in cover crop practices, Dan Towery, hails from Indiana, but his work has taken him far afield, and also in close-by partnership with Plumer. His current involvement in a NRCS and SERE project in Illinois, however, spells good news for the day when Illinois will hit its stride with its neighbors, advocating soil conservation, better soil management and improved water quality..

A sign of things on the move in Illinois is the information available from the NRCS office. CLICK here for a look.

And, through NRCS and EQIP, funding is available this year for Illinois growers interested in doing more to save the quality of their soil through conservation measures, like cover crops. CLICK here for an application, courtesy of the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices.

 

NRCS Funds Expanded Use of Cover Crops

From No-Till Magazine’s managing editor this week, an article about expanded use of federal taxpayer funds for establishing agricultural conservation measures. Click here for the whole article. Below, a portion of that article.

It’s becoming ever more clear that the NRCS believes no-tilling, cover crops and more precise grazing methods will be crucial to shoring up the declining Ogallala aquifer.

And it’s also clear farmers in the southern Plains will continue to feel pressure to reduce or eliminate their dependence on irrigation, or adopt more efficient technology.

The NRCS announced this month that it will invest $8 million in the ongoing Ogallala Aquifer Initiative (OEI) in 2016 to help farmers and ranchers conserve water in the Ogallala’s footprint. This is up from $6.5 million that was spent for 2015.

The NRCS is also adding two new management areas for the OEI:

  • Middle Republican Natural Resource District: The project in southwestern Nebraska addresses groundwater quantity and quality concerns, and will enable participants to voluntarily implement practices to conserve irrigation water and improve groundwater quality.
  • Oklahoma Ogallala Aquifer Initiative: Among other things, this project will help landowners implement conservation practices — including crop residue and tillage management — that decrease water use. One goal is helping farmers convert from irrigated to dryland farming.

The NRCS already has focus areas in Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, Kansas and Colorado, which you can read more about by clicking here.

The NRCS says it’s continuing to address problems with the aquifer by working with farmers to build soil health through seeding cover crops and implementing no-till practices, which will improve water-holding capacity and buffer roots from higher temperatures.

Annual Ryegrass Adds Value Topside and Below

In an online article this week, Ag.com outlines the benefits of various cover crops. High on the list is annual ryegrass. Click here for the whole article by Kacey Birchmier.

Here’s the piece about annual ryegrass.
Scientific name: Lolium multiflorum
Those who have goals centered on preventing erosion, improving soil structure, and scavenging nutrients should consider annual ryegrass, recommends Barry Fisher, an Indiana soil health specialist at USDA-NRCS. This thick, quick-growing grass produces significant deep root biomass that builds soil organic matter, accesses nutrients, suppresses weeds, and curbs soil erosion. The root system of annual ryegrass is dense at shallow depths, but also sends roots deep into the subsoil. Ryegrass can also scavenge leftover N, and provide a timed release of stored N for the following crop.

“You can minimize the N tie-up by waiting a few weeks for the cover crop to decompose before planting the following crop,” says Tracy Blackmer, research director at Cover Crop Solutions.

Annual ryegrass can be terminated by mechanical or chemical means as it overwinters. However, spring termination should be executed before the seed sets for a complete kill and to avoid potential chemical resistance. Annual ryegrass is easiest to terminate before the first node appears, says Blackmer.

Soil and Water Improvements with No-Till and Cover Crops

From No-Till Farmer online, an article about the reduction of nutrients in Chesapeake Bay with conservation ag practices. Note, at the bottom, the finding about cover crop adoption being able to make significant additional contributions.

USDA-NRCS released an assessment of the effects of conservation practices on cultivated cropland in the Chesapeake Bay Region.

The findings of the report were encouraging – with cash incentives, farmers volunteered to protect nearly half of cropland acres with buffers or terraces, while no-tillage was used on 48% and reduced tillage on 40% of cropland.

The adoption of conservation practices resulted in 55% reduction in edge-of field sediment loss, 42% reduction in surface nitrogen losses, 31% reduction of subsurface losses of nitrogen, and 41% reduction in phosphorus losses (both sediment-bound and soluble).

Implementation of the BMPs reduced total loads from all sources (including urban, hay and pasture, urban land) delivered to the Chesapeake Bay by 10% for sediment, 14% for phosphorus and 14% for nitrogen.

The report also recognized there was potential for further improvement, especially on 19% of cropland which was in need of further conservation treatment. The report recommended targeting these areas of highest need, and to help land users implement comprehensive conservation plans which cover soil erosion control and comprehensive nutrient management (including rate, form, timing and method of nutrient application).

The report estimated that only 4% of cropped acres used cover crops in the period of assessment (2003-06). It was estimated that adoption of cover crops on all cropped acres could reduce sediment loss further by 59%, nitrogen loss by 19% (subsurface loss by 31%), and phosphorus loss by 32%.

Annual Ryegrass – A Key Part of the Cover Crop Revolution

Odd as it may sound, agriculture’s future in the US depends increasingly on seed grown in the Willamette Valley. Annual ryegrass and crimson clover seed are two mainstays in the cover crop revolution, wherein fallow winter acres in the Midwest are being repaired instead of ravaged.

The revolution began as a casual, tradeshow conversation between two farmers 15 years ago, one an Oregon grass seed grower and the other a dairyman from Ohio. The dairyman said: “That annual ryegrass is something else. You guys ought to market it better in the Midwest.” The Oregonian, who was promoting tall fescue seed at the Kentucky tradeshow took note and began digging into the idea. Until then, annual ryegrass was worth very little per pound, added into blends strewn onto parklands and roadsides in the south to prevent soil runoff in the winter.

Now, with drought and hypoxia common in our vernacular, cover crops have become a cause célèbre in the agriculture industry. Regulations now require cover crops in some places…to keep soil nutrients from leaching into lakes, rivers, bays and the Gulf of Mexico. Federal agencies pay farmers up to $100/acre for planting cover crops. The practice is uniformly heralded by an unlikely coalition including the USDA, the EPA, Ducks Unlimited, the Environmental Defense Fund and Monsanto corporation! The acreage planted in cover crops continues to double and triple each year (an estimated 1 million cover crop acres planted in just the past 5 years); meanwhile, growers in the Willamette Valley have seen the price of this “commodity” crop double in the past couple of years as surplus has turned to scarcity.

THIS THURSDAY: Ohio Field Day to Feature Cover Crop Planting Advice and Tips

Ohio No-Till Field Day

September 11, 2012 By Leave a Comment

The 2012 Ohio No-Till Field Day is going to be held Thursday, September 13 with demonstrations on planter and drill setups, a firsthand look at cover crop plots and discussions on cover crop choices included in the day long program.

“Dave Brandt is hosting it and he’s getting quite a reputation nationally for his work with cover crops and no-till and the success of it,” said Randall Reeder, retired Extension ag engineer at Ohio State. “I think a key thing with it this year, with the drought, cover crops that were properly managed with continuous no-till are increasing yields.”

Speakers at the No-Till Field Day include, Gabe Brown of North Dakota, Bill Lehmkuhl and Ray Archuleta, a soil scientist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The event is from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the David Brandt Farm, 6100 Basil Western Road, Carroll, Ohio.

Iowa NRCS Profiles Annual Ryegrass Cover Crop Innovator

Cover Crop Club Learning to Manage Practice Together

by Laura Greiner, State Public Affairs Specialist, USDA/NRCS – Iowa

Trying something new and innovative is always easier when you can learn from someone else’s experience. For a small group of innovative Pottawattamie County farmers experimenting with cover crops, that someone else is Pete Hobson.

Hobson, a 20-year no-till veteran, said he turned to cover crops as a tool to build more organic matter after test results showed his organic matter had plateaued. “Ideally I would like to increase organic matter one percent every 10 years. I went with rye grass because it will root much deeper than wheat or cereal rye and is a better organic matter builder,” he said.

He aerial seeded his rye at the end of this August at a rate of 25 pounds per acre. “I was surprised with how little rain we had in September that it even germed,” Hobson said.

Looking at a mat of green under his corn stalk residue he asked, “ If we can do this well in a dry year, how well can we do in a normal year?”

Click here for full article.