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Grass is winter cover crop for no-till corn, soy farming

The Associated Press


Ryegrass from Oregon may help Midwest corn and soybean farmers reduce erosion and battle drought by eliminating tilling, growers say.

Annual ryegrass tests have been under way in Illinois and Ohio for eight years, according to Mark Mellbye, Oregon State University Extension Service agent for Linn County.

Mellbye recently spent more than a week in southern Illinois assisting Mike Plumer, a nationally recognized expert in no-till farming. They are joined in a multistate project by Jim Hoorman of Ohio State University.

The annual ryegrass is used as a winter cover crop in no-till farming, using special equipment that allows seeds to be planted within a furrow opened by blades in crop stubble left after harvest.

No-till reduces soil erosion by leaving corn stalks or soybean stubble including the root system to hold the soil during heavy Midwestern rains or spring runoff from snowmelt.

"Once the annual ryegrass gets up, the erosion is over," Mellbye said.

The system also captures nitrogen, and its deep root system provides corn and soybeans with an avenue to water the next summer, he said.

"That's important because some areas of the Midwest have been experiencing drought conditions," Mellbye said.

Mellbye and Willamette Valley grass seed grower Donald Wirth traveled to Illinois two years ago to assist with the project. For the last eight years, trials sponsored by the Oregon Ryegrass Commission have focused on blended grass seed.

This fall, the tests will include several specific varieties, including Gulf and Marshall, which are heavily grown in the mid-valley.

Last fall Bruce Pokarney, communications director for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, wrote in the Agriculture Quarterly that Junior Upton, an Illinois no-till farmer, harvested corn with yields of more than 235 bushels per acre. Many of his neighbors farms, meanwhile, produced just 85 bushels per acre due to drought.

"There are more acres planted to corn and soybeans in southern Illinois than all of the cropland in Oregon," Mellbye said. "It's millions of acres."