Planting soybeans into rye, round two
In northwestern Minnesota, Robin Brekken, Lee and Noreen Thomas and other organic farmers are working to perfect a system for no-till planting soybeans into a standing rye cover. Despite ongoing unpredictable weather, the strategy continues to show promise.

By Deborah A. Hyk

November 23, 2004: Can rye benefit organic crops and soil? A University of Minnesota project is uncovering a complicated answer to that question. The study is researching the practice of planting soybeans into cover crops of winter rye. The rye is intended to keep nutrients in the soil, along with moisture to aid germination. Last year, detailed the experiences of Robin Brekken of Crookston, Minn., who planted soybeans into rye even before he joined the study.

Brekken appreciates the value of flaming to control weeds. Yet he finds that the region’s wet springs coupled with the high labor requirements of flaming make it a difficult weed-suppression technique. With 1,200 of his 3,000 acres in soybeans each year, he was in search of another plan.

Farms at a glance
Robin Brekken

So he turned to rye to minimize weeds. Although this is the second season of the university's rye/soybean study, it’s Brekken's fifth planting his soybeans into rye covers.

He's faced some challenges along the way. The rye itself was the first challenge, because Brekken needed to learn how to manage the residue before he could successfully establish the soybean crop in the same field. In his first year working with the system, tilling out the rye resulted in root clumps that left an undesirable seedbed for the soybeans. Plus, weed control was inconsistent. Yet Brekken has the ability to adapt and to think on his feet. He always finds a way to work with the rye and thus make the rye work for him.

In his second year, he opted to use an SDX Case IH drill to either no-till drill the beans into rye that had been shredded, or drilling into the standing rye and then shredding afterward.

The rye planted for last summer’s soybean crop was broadcast on October 1, 2002, and never emerged till spring due to a cool wet fall. There was a lack of competition in the spring, so weeds emerged with the rye. Obviously, this presented yet another challenge. So Brekken decided to run his heavy Brandt harrow through the fields, which eliminated most of the weeds while leaving the majority of the rye in place.

Cross-seeding to form a solid stand

Brekken knows that the system will continue to require fine tuning. Another technique he's experimented with is cross-seeding, making two passes with the drill at right angles to each other, planting at a rate of 1 ½ bushels/acre on each pass for a total of 3 bu/ac. Through this process he was able to cut up the rye with the drill and eliminate another pass with the shredder, effectively solid seeding the soybeans into the harrowed rye. His yield that year was 29 bu/ac. The yield was reduced somewhat by dry conditions at the end of the season.

“Early September planting is best with the rye,” Brekken notes. Typically he plants the rye with his SDX Case IH drill, unless it gets very late in the year. When that happens, he considers broadcasting the rye using a Terragator a viable option. The Terragator turns a three-day job into a one-day job. Last fall, he was able to plant rye on September 9 and 10. This fall, late September was the soonest rye could be planted. Cool weather delayed the maturity and eventual harvesting of all the crops in the region, and forced Brekken to delay rye planting.

As preparation for the spring of 2004, rye planted in the fall of 2003 was in the ground and well established on time. But new growth in spring 2004 was thin and short, perhaps due to cool and wet weather. Brekken’s hope was to once again cross-plant with the no-till drill. But on June 8, as he was drilling the beans, something unexpected happened.

At that point, things seemed to be going well. But Mother Nature had other plans. Two words are all Brekken needs to describe the rest of the summer: “Too cold.”
“The rye just bent over, and then popped back up,” he says. Brekken knew if the first pass with the drill didn’t lay down the rye, the second pass definitely would not cut it up. So he needed to find another approach. He brought out a 25-foot Alloway stalk shredder. This allowed him to shred the rye and create mulch on the seedbed. He then no-till drilled the soybeans into the rye on a single pass, increasing his rate to 3 bu/ac.

Brekken used Panther, Norpro and Atwood seeds. At that point, things seemed to be going well. But Mother Nature had other plans. Two words are all Brekken needs to describe the rest of the summer: “Too cold.”

Frosts on August 19 and 20 damaged the crops of many farmers in the area. “When I was out in the field not long ago examining the crop, I found a number of plants that had never formed any pods,” Brekken says. He’s lived on this farm his whole life and can't remember another summer so cool. His crop yield of just 6 bu/ac says more about the weather than about the use of rye.

'Like combining on a carpet'

Despite the challenges that have been presented by rye/soy interplanting, Brekken is happy with the results he’s getting. He feels experience is slowly helping him perfecting the system.

“This year, I had the cleanest soybean fields overall since this farm became organic,” he says. The rye also keeps his food-grade soybeans clean during harvest and processing, while the additional material from the rye makes the crop feed into the combine more smoothly. Stained or dirty beans are subject to being downgraded to feed quality, significantly reducing the value of the crop. “It’s like combining on a virtual carpet,” says Brekken. At times it gives his beans the appearance of being polished.

Overall, while managing rye keeps Brekken on his toes, the benefits make it worth the effort.

Another farm, another experience

Lee and Noreen Thomases’ use of rye for weed suppression in soybean fields has also encountered some challenges. So far, weather has been the largest variable. That’s something every farm must deal with, of course, but the last few years have been unusually unpredictable, leaving farmers feeling like they’re riding a roller coaster blindfolded.

The 2003 season began with an unusually wet spring, but ended up being much drier and warmer in the late summer. This year has been unusually cool and wet, with an early frost damaging many soybeans in the area.

The Thomases' rotation is typically wheat, followed by soybeans, corn and finally alfalfa on the 1,200 acres they farm. Some of the land is leased from Lee’s father, who still owns land that Lee's grandparents and great-grandparents once farmed.

The Thomases brought rye into the rotation after learning about it from a University of Minnesota extension agent, Jim Stordahl. Since then, the Thomases were introduced to Paul Porter, a U of M agronomist, who’s examining rye as a tool to address many issues on both conventional and organic farms. The Thomases joined the study, and they’ve been hunting for ways to make the most of the rye and test its usefulness on their farm.

Last year, at the end of the first year of the study, their soybean yield was 25 bu/ac. “We actually did well compared with some of our neighbors,” notes Noreen. Many nearby farms suffered yield losses due to aphid infestation. On the Thomases' farm, the winter rye provided an environment favorable for lacewings, which are known to feast on aphids. This has led to a new on-farm study to try to quantify the rye's effect on beneficial insect populations.

In the fall of 2003, the Thomases planted rye with a John Deere 9350 conventional drill in mid-September. “I think it was an ideal time,” notes Lee. The rye emerged, was well established going into winter, and looked good in the spring as soybean planting time approached.

Tinkering with planting techniques

Farms at a glance
Lee & Noreen Thomas

They did make some adjustments when planting the soybeans this year. Lee felt that the reduced yields of 2003 may have been partly the result of a low seeding rate. So this spring they used solid seeding of the soybeans at a higher rate, into the standing rye in early boot stage, with a John Deere 750 no-till drill rented from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. About three weeks after planting, when the rye had complete anthesis (flowering), they used a John Deere 27 cornstalk chopper to shred the rye. The year before, they had used a John Deere Batwing mower, which “windrowed the stalks of rye,” notes Lee, causing problems with shading and smothering of the soybean seedlings. They also mowed earlier, when the rye was in early anthesis, which resulted in a lot of tillering and regrowth of the rye.

Even with this modification, though, they had some germination problems. The soil was extremely dry as a result of the droughty conditions last summer. One variety, Panther, was particularly poor in germination. Cool weather throughout the spring and summer didn't improve the situation. Like Brekken, the Thomases have seen depressed yields this year.

Despite this, the rye seems to have numerous benefits. It helps keep moisture in the soil for germination, and may even keep soil moisture levels higher throughout the year. It also seems to dramatically reduce weed populations, and it may even provide added warmth for the soybeans in cooler years. “Another benefit is that the soybeans themselves are very clean,” says Lee, who like Brekken sells his food-grade soybeans to Earthwise Processors.

In the balance of their soybean acreage, the Thomases usually make at least one pass each with the harrow, rotary hoe and row crop cultivator. The family then usually walks the field to manually pull any remaining weeds. The rye eliminates the need for this work, and offers a small harvest of its own. Because they market through Earthwise in Moorhead, the Thomases have the opportunity to sort and sell both crops.

As the experiment has progressed, the Thomases feel they’ve grown into a better understanding of working with rye. Though they will continue with the experiment for another year, they haven't yet decided whether to incorporate rye fully into their rotation. There’s a concern about white mold problems, says Noreen, “because of the increased canopy that the rye provides.” On the other hand, this year they got 15 bu/ac soybeans and 2 bu/ac rye on their rye-seeded soybeans, compared to 10 bu/ac soybeans planted in 22-inch rows without rye cover. ("Because of the wet conditions, we kind of mudded them in June 17," Lee says.) The rye-less soybeans also incurred costs of about $65/ac for cultivation. Lee attributes the yield improvement with rye to frost protection from the denser canopy, reduced cultivation losses, and an earlier planting date in a better seed bed.

Another year with less atypical weather may tell them more about how well rye works. Like all farmers, they have to play the hand they’re dealt. With Mother Nature shuffling the deck, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen.

Noreen Thomas receives prestigious Minnesota ag award

Noreen Thomas is honored for her work teaching children about agriculture
Noreen Thomas has been awarded the 2004 Siehl Prize for her extraordinary contribution to agriculture and alleviation of world hunger. The phrase, “Think globally, act locally,” was used to describe her efforts with agriculture and the community as a volunteer educator.

Eldon R. Siehl created the prize, and Thomas is the first woman and first organic farmer to receive it. Three prizes are awarded each year: one in agribusiness, one in research and one in production agriculture. Thomas' work with children to share her knowledge of agriculture, her work incorporating satellite technology (read about more of Noreen's satellite work) and sharing knowledge with the Upper Midwest Aerospace Consortium, and her efforts to understand the benefits of organic farming for environmental quality were all cited as reasons for the award.

Thomas received a sculpture and $50,000.