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, NewFarm.org
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
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
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.
“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.
||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:
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
“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
& 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.
Thomas receives prestigious Minnesota ag award
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.