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Ryegrass: control weeds, reduce erosion and improve pasture. (Pasture management).


If you want the benefits of an over-seeded cover crop without the risk, try ryegrass. It's one of my favorite cover crops. After just one season, I bet it will be one of yours, too.

With the right timing, this bunch type cool-season grass fills a niche in many farming systems. It makes a reliable, weed-suppressing cover crop when overseeded into corn, soybeans and vegetable crops. Planted alone or mixed with a legume, ryegrass provides high quality pasture for all types of livestock. You can also use it for hay, haylage, silage and conservation plantings.

Its dense root system reduces soil erosion and runoff while increasing water percolation. Ryegrass also acts as a nutrient sponge soaking up excess nitrogen to hold it for subsequent crops. And when you incorporate ryegrass into the soil, you can maintain, or even increase, soil organic matter and water-holding capacity. An added bonus: it keeps you out of the mud at harvest.

Best of all, ryegrass will work just about anywhere. Although it prefers temperate regions, you can grow ryegrass successfully in tropical, subtropical and dryland-irrigated regions. It thrives in well-drained soil, but tolerates wet soils and field traffic better than most grasses. It fares poorly in droughty soils and prolonged excessive heat or cold.

There are two species of ryegrass. Annual ryegrass, also called Italian ryegrass, is an annual with biennial tendencies. Perennial ryegrass is a short-lived perennial, and costs twice as much as its annual counterpart.

Annual ryegrass is best-suited as a living mulch in systems where you'll incorporate it the following spring. Weather influences its hardiness. Extended drought or a hard freeze without protective snow cover can kill the stand.

Perennial ryegrass works best in cropping systems that require a living cover for at least two seasons or in a perennial pasture mix. Perennial ryegrass establishes more slowly, but is more persistent than its annual cousin.

Although it's not difficult to kill, it takes a bit more effort to incorporate. Once you've decided which type to use, broadcast seed at 20 to 25 pounds per acre onto freshly cultivated soil. You can overseed by aerial application, with a broadcast seeder mounted on a tractor, or on small acreage, with a manually operated spin seeder. Make your last plantings at least 40 days before your area's first killing frost date. Do not incorporate the seed. Seed lying on the soil surface will germinate with the first rain shower.

I've evaluated annual ryegrass overseeded into field corn and soybeans at Spring Meadow Research Farm. I've also overseeded annual ryegrass into sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers and snap beans on my farm. In all cases, the ryegrass performed well. Occasionally, it winterkilled, but not before reaching a height of six to eight inches.

One of the biggest things I learned is that you shouldn't overseed ryegrass, or any other cover crop, until you have a well-established cash crop. You could see significant yield reductions due to moisture competition if you overseed too early.

I've found that you should overseed peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and other crops with similar physical characteristics after the early-bloom to full blossom stage. If your lower-growing crops show signs of stress from ryegrass competition, take care of the problem by removing all the sweeps on your cultivator except those nearest the rows. Then cultivate as close to the plants as you can without pruning the roots.

Overseed snap beans at blossom-set, or when beans begin to form. I make a number of successive bean plantings, the earliest followed by fall broccoli or cauliflower. I only overseed the later plantings, which mature in September and early October. Be careful, because you need adequate moisture to produce quality vegetables and sustain a living mulch. If rainfall is limited and you don't have irrigation, follow with a fall cover crop instead of overseeding.

For dense-canopy crops like soybeans, overseed at the leaf-yellowing to early leaf-drop stage. In field and sweet corn, you can overseed immediately after final cultivation, but not before the corn is 15-20 inches tall. I plant sweet corn on five different dates, so there are five separate overseedings. I broadcast the overseeding at final cultivation, when the corn is 15 to 20 inches high, using a seeding rate of 25 pounds per acre. Early overseedings, which are performed in June, may winterkill, but not before they've grown enough to suppress weeds and provide soil protection. Seedings in July and August could go either way, depending on the severity of the winter.

Perennial ryegrass is best suited for rotation. It persists longer than the annual and forms a very thick sod by the end of its first full season. I fallow or hay ryegrass for a season before rotating back to tomatoes.

Avoid planting tomatoes and other crops of the same family in the same field for at least two years. I say that rotation will break up disease and insect cycles, anti help head off other soilborne problems that can reduce yields or cause crop failure. But by using ryegrass in the rotation, I have cut that time in half without incurring any problems.

As for soil erosion, ryegrass has a large but shallow root system which does a great job of holding the soil in place. Our soil tilth has changed, too. It's become quite loamy and easy to work.

Drilling with oats in April, or along in August after oat harvest, has been successful for me. In either case, I use a seeding rate of 2.5 pounds per acre. By the time the cattle are ready to graze it (mid to late September), it's at least 12 inches high.

I have been able to extend my grazing periods by eight to 10 weeks. Thirty acres of annual ryegrass can support 70 cow/calf pairs for up to five weeks. Grazing late-season annual ryegrass can take the pressure off permanent pastures. This allows perennial forages to regrow and store carbohydrates before winter dormancy. Overgrazed perennials can easily winterkill.

There you have it, from corn to cows. I wouldn't dream of growing my vegetables without overseeding ryegrass.
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Author:Miller, Crow
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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