Organic Broadcaster

Farmers, researchers share insights on rolling rye in organic no-till system
By Tony Ends


Versatile rye, hardiest of the small grains, has found feed, forage, and cover crop uses in farming for centuries. Yet rye straw as a rolled-down mulch for no-till drill grain could be its greatest purpose yet. Mechanically suppressing cover crops like winter rye could greatly reduce herbicide use in non-organic systems, and could work well to control weeds in organic systems.

No-till use with non-organic soybeans increased from 34 percent to 44 percent of acreage planted between 2002 and 2006. More recent government surveys indicated 67 percent of corn producers also used no-till or minimum tillage on 90.6 million acres in the 2014 cropping year.

The non-organic no-till system isn’t reducing herbicide use, however. More than 50 million acres of soybeans received glyphosate alone or with one or more other herbicides in 2012. Herbicide use has risen from 61 million pounds in 1996 to 133 million pounds in 2012 (USDA Agriculture Statistics Service).

In the organic no-till alternative, producers roll over their winter rye in spring with a heavy drum configured with blunt metal blades. The blades have been variously and innovatively arranged horizontally, angled or in a spiral pattern. They crimp the cover crop’s stems. This prevents the rye from re-sprouting and slows its decomposition, prolonging its cover.

Rolled rye forms a mat that helps suppress weeds in soybean rows.

Flattened into this dense mulch, the crimped rye suppresses weed growth. Yet it allows drilled cash crops like soybeans to rise up through the mat.

Just this past May, University of Wisconsin-Madison plant pathologist Erin Silva and Iowa State University horticulture professor and researcher Kathleen Delate published “A Decade of Progress in Organic Cover Crop-Based Reduced Tillage Practices in the Upper Midwestern USA” ( With more than 40 references, the document summarizes the research of CCBRT practices with organic corn and soybean production. The current research examines roller crimping rye’s economics, labor, and fuel savings. It also addresses the practice’s challenges in organic rotations, fertility management, and, of particular importance, timing for cash crop planting requirements.

“A decade of CCBRT research,” conclude Silva and Delate, “has demonstrated that CCBRT can provide a strong management tool for organic farmers aiming to improve their weed management practices while minimizing soil erosion risk, building soil organic matter, and incorporating further crop diversity into their rotations.”
Iowa and Wisconsin producers working with Silva and Delate are helping refine roller-crimping cover crops into effective systems and strategies in the field. Together, they hope to widely help other producers cope with today’s increasingly erratic weather, rising production costs, and variable prices.

The farmers themselves have been contributing mightily to developing a body of knowledge and reliable systems for using roller-crimping rye in tandem with drilled grains.

“I mostly have used rye as a cover crop, especially for rolling-crimping before planting soybeans,” said Francis Thicke, who’s been farming with his family near Fairfield, Iowa since 1995. “Several years ago, I started saving some rye acreage for harvest, so I have my own rye seed source. It is a VNS (variety not stated) rye, but it has performed well, and it’s nice to have my own seed source. I plan to try growing some of the earlier-maturing rye varieties in the future,” Thicke added.

Iowans and surrounding states have for years followed progress of the Thicke family’s Radiance Dairy. Primarily running a dairy farm, the Thickes also raise cash crops, including soybeans, corn, wheat, pumpkins, field peas, triticale, and rye. The whole farm is certified organic, and it has grown from 176 acres in 1995 to 736 acres today.
Generations of farmers turned to rye when hilly conditions and thin soils limited production of other crops. Thicke found rye a strong ally in his commitment to restore and reclaim over-worked ground. Much of his land has steep slopes. Much of it has been badly eroded and has low fertility and soil quality from past abuse. Thicke has been applying manure to the land before planting rye.

“I try to plant the rye early in the fall in order to get a high level of rye biomass for rolling down,” he said. “Planting rye early results in more tillering of rye, creating a thicker stand. So, the earlier you plant, the lower the rye seeding rate you need. Conversely, the later in the fall you plant rye, the higher the seeding rate you need.

“I have been using a roller-crimper for three years. My roller is 15.5 feet long, which works well with my 15-ft no-till drill. I have found it important not to roll-crimp the rye too early; it will tend to want to stand back up.

“The recommendation is to roll-crimp rye at anthesis (flowering), but I prefer to wait until rye is in the milk stage. It is more likely then to remain flattened after rolling-crimping. Also, the thicker the rye (more biomass) the more likely the rye will remain flat after rolling-crimping. Thin stands of rye like to pop back up after rolling.”

Thicke drills soybeans into the standing rye with a no-till drill. He rolls and crimps the rye afterward. “I find it easier to see where I am going with the planter if I plant before rolling,” he said. “Also, that allows you to plant earlier than anthesis, and wait until after anthesis to roll/crimp. I have tried rolling both before and after planting soybeans; I do not think it matters which one you do first.

He has planted soybeans into rye for three years. “The first two years, everything seemed to go perfectly. As long as I had enough rye biomass, there were very few weeds,” he explained. This year (my third year) I had to replant the soybeans. It appeared that some worms, possibly army worms, ate the soybean seedlings just as they were emerging from the soil. I am not certain exactly what happened, but only a few soybean plants from the first planting survived. That is something I will watch for more closely in future years.”

Thicke has experimented on a small scale with using the roller-crimper on hairy vetch and planting corn into it. “A couple of years ago, I planted two acres to hairy vetch, with some oats included, in the fall. I intended to plant corn into the hairy vetch the following spring,” he said.

“Over the winter, the field was covered by a sheet of ice. By spring, it appeared that the hairy vetch had been winter-killed, so I decided not to plant the corn. However, in mid-June I drove by the field and saw that on half of it the hairy vetch had not only recovered, but was in full bloom with lots of biomass,” he said.

“I planted corn into the hairy vetch in about the third week of June. The corn in the half of the field with a poor stand of vetch was weedy, stunted, and nitrogen deficient. But the corn on the half of the field that had thick vetch looked good and had very few weeds—that corn did not show signs of nitrogen deficiency. The hairy vetch killed easily with the roller-crimper, probably because I had let it go so far to maturity.”

A friend tried the same experiment on 40 acres and found it nearly impossible to kill the hairy vetch at corn planting time, Thicke added. “Perhaps the difference was that I had planted the corn so late that the vetch was at a much later stage of maturity,” he said. “Actually, the corn planter (it was not a no-till planter) surprised me in that it easily cut through the mature vetch biomass without plugging up.

“Planting through the standing vetch pretty much flattened and killed the vetch. I did roll-crimp the vetch after, but that was probably not necessary. I think that the lesson here is that hairy vetch matures late for planting corn into it. Perhaps an earlier-maturing variety of hairy vetch would work better.”

Thicke believes the practice of rolling-crimping cover crops has tremendous potential for conventional farmers. “Most conventional farmers who use cover crops are quick to kill them with herbicides in the spring,” he said. “It seems to me that they could just as well allow the cover crops to grow much longer, plant into the cover crops, and roll-crimp the cover crops. That would likely require a lot less use of herbicides, but since they are conventional farmers, they could still use herbicides if needed. This would also be a good way for conventional farmers to transition to organic.”

More farmers are becoming interested in using a roller-crimper to plant into cover crops. “The roller-crimper I have was the first one made in a particular machine shop here in Iowa last year,” Thicke said. “I have heard that the same machine shop has filled orders for 12 this year.” Thicke’s farm field day last month drew 70 people, many seeking information on planting into cover crops. Likewise, there was a lot of interest in the workshop and Organic University course he taught with Iowa State’s Delate at this year’s MOSES Organic Farming Conference.

After 10 years of organic no-till research in the Midwest, Delate is still looking at best practices for planting organic soybeans into rolled rye.

“I believe in its promise, but it is still not a perfect system,” she explained. “We have shown higher soil quality in organic no-till systems, as the cover crop adds more carbon and microbial biomass. It should never be compared to conventional no-till, which can have consistent results because of the use of glyphosate to totally kill the cover crop.

“The roller-crimper Rodale has promoted works well on flat ground, pushed in front of the tractor, with a no-till planter pulled behind the tractor in a one-pass operation,” she said, of Rodale’s pioneering roller-crimper design and use.

“In addition to having a good planter, weather is the most critical factor for success,” she added. “If you plant and get no rain, the thick mulch can hurt and slow emergence. Wet weather is no bargain either, as it leads to slow cover crop decomposition. That invites moisture-loving insects, like seed corn maggot and army worms—which several growers had issues with this year. In typical organic tilled conditions, the ground is exposed, dries out somewhat, and is less prone to insect problems,” she said.

Dawn Equipment rollers that Delate has used in research employ individual rollers. They are set up on planter rows so that six rollers are needed for a six-row planter. This implement exerts more downward pressure due to hydraulics, Delate said, unlike the Rodale roller. Its extra weight comes from filling it with water. The Dawn roller is also more flexible for rolling rye on hillier ground, due to its articulated design, Delate said.

“Planter design and set-up is also critical, so having extra down pressure on the planter is helpful in getting good seed-to-soil contact through the rolled mulch,” she explained. “Plant at least 160,000 seeds per acre. If weeds get through the mulch too much, be prepared to cultivate with a high-residue cultivator, such as a Hinniker.

“As one farmer told me, ‘Better to only cultivate once and get that carbon-rich rye crop in your ground, than doing four normal organic tilled weed management tillage operations.’”

Delate said a good planter should have good pressing wheels and steel furrow closing wheels with adjustable down pressure to get the soil firmed after planting and to pull the rye mulch over the row.

“We will be monitoring two organic soybean plantings in rolled rye fields this year: one planted June 1, in a one-pass Dawn roller operation with adequate rain, and one planted June 9, with a two-pass operation, and no rain following planting (beans still not all the way up),” she said.

UW’s Silva has also been investigating roller-crimping rye with no-till grains for a decade. She works in tandem with six Wisconsin organic producers in trials and applied research.

One of those producers is Mark Doudlah, a fourth-generation farmer in a family operation near Evansville, 20 minutes south of Madison. Doudlah farms 1,750 acres organically and is working to complete certification on all his land this year. The farm produces cash grains, seeds, pastured and organically raised poultry, eggs, turkey, and grass-fed pork sold now under a FarmRite Organics trade mark. The farm also sells cover crop seeds.

Doudlah has been employing roller-crimping rye cover crops for 4 years. He believes it is very important to start with a variety that maximizes above ground biomass. For Doudlah, that variety is Aroostook Cereal Rye.

“You have to have enough fall nitrogen to maximize growth and leaf width,” he said. “Crimp at 75 to 100 percent anthesis (flowering). Use the roller-crimper in the fall to level the ground, making for a uniform crimp in spring easier.

“Uncouple the crimper from the planter and plant beans 7 to 10 days prior to crimping. Then crimp when the rye is ready,” he added.

Using Aroostook Cereal Rye will gain another 7 to 10 days of growing season because it reaches anthesis early, he said. “It is possible to gain more than 2 weeks of growing season through the use of Aroostook Cereal Rye and planting ahead of the crimper. It is critical to reach 7,000 to 10,000 pounds of above-ground biomass for satisfactory crimping and weed control.

“Drill or row beans at higher seeding rates to ensure crop competition and canopy closure. We have been unsuccessful using an airplane to aerial seed rye to get the uniformity of the rye for weed control,” he added.

Doudlah uses a 40’ RiteWay Crimper. The roller has 4” angle irons welded on to the drum with the angle iron back exposed to crimp the rye. This unit is 550 pounds per foot, nearly double the Rodale/I&J chevron design, Doudlah said.

“These crimpers both have their unique advantages,” he said. “The I&J has less blade engagement with the ground at any one time compared to the RiteWay. That allows for a lighter machine and very good crimping action.” He added that the RiteWay can be used in place of culti-packer for land rolling seed-to-soil contact and sizing clay soil clods.

“We prefer to seed ahead of crimping to gain growing season and also feel it is easier to get the seed into the soil by not having to cut through that 7,000 to 10,000 pounds of above-ground biomass,” Doudlah said.

Doudlah will host a field day on his farm from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 3 to showcase roller-crimping for dark red kidney beans. UW’s Erin Silva will speak on roller-crimping cereal rye.. Dr. Don Huber of Purdue will discuss herbicide interactions. Joel Gruver of Western Illinois University will speak about diversity of cover crop seeds. Paul Dietmann with Badgerland Financial will talk about finances, marketing and the organic transition years. An organic lunch, ice cream social and networking are part of the field day, which costs $20. For reservations, call 608-490-0925 or 608-490-0926.

Tony Ends is a certified organic farmer and writer who lives near Madison, Wis.

From the July | August 2017 Issue



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