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 glance
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.
“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: “Too cold.”
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:
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
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
Tinkering with planting techniques
|Farms at a glance
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 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.