Indiana farmers should be commended for planting nearly a million acres of cover crops each year since 2015. For perspective, the last time wheat harvest exceeded one million acres in Indiana was 1984.
These cover crop acres were planted to a variety of species. Each must be managed differently. It is particularly important to know the difference between cereal rye and annual ryegrass.
Cereal rye is a cereal grain, like wheat. Annual ryegrass is an annual forage grass, able to build deep roots over one winter. Always call cereal rye “cereal rye” and ARG “annual ryegrass.” To avoid confusion, neither should be referred to as “annual rye” or “ryegrass.”
ARG isn’t recommended if you’re new to cover crops. It is also important to pay attention to ARG species. Italian Ryegrass is not ARG. It’s a biennial and should not be used as a cover crop.
Ease of establishment and termination turned cereal rye into an early selection for erosion control. Specialty crop growers often use it to protect sensitive crops from wind erosion. More recently, it has been utilized for its ability to improve soils by adding biomass with long-lasting residue, scavenging nutrients left over after the cash crop and suppressing certain weeds under the right conditions. Earlier establishment or allowing it to grow longer in the spring will help provide its intended benefits.
Termination of cereal rye starts with seed selection. Not all varieties are created equal. “Variety not stated” seed will complicate termination in the spring. VNS seed will likely have several species exhibiting different growth patterns, which can make termination challenging with height or maturity differences.
Pay attention to the little details when terminating cereal rye. One key step to successful termination is the acidity and hardness of the spray water. Both can impact the effectiveness of some herbicides. You will probably need to add an acid product to reduce the pH of the water, along with checking on the hardness or calcium level.
Contact your local ag retailer for products to treat your spray water if you do your own cover crop termination. It is vital to add the amendments and complete proper agitation prior to adding herbicides. Check labels when mixing multiple herbicides for compatibility to avoid antagonism.
Prepare in case you’re unable to terminate cereal rye when planned and it’s now as tall as your truck. Consult with someone who has dealt with this before. In many cases, planting soybeans directly into the growing cereal rye works best. Be aware of drill or planter parts and pieces because tall plant material will wrap. Terminate the cereal rye after planting.
Do your homework on species selection, establishment and termination for all cover crops. Utilize cover crops for their many beneficial attributes. Don’t let the differences of cereal rye and ARG confuse you. Knowing these differences will reduce potential frustrations.
Our goals are for long-term adoption and to build resilient cropping systems. We don’t want frustrated, one-and-done cover croppers.
Bailey is the NRCS state conservation agronomist. He writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.