There was great discussion at the first Café Talk of 2020 in Drayton, N.D. Joe Ikley (Extension weed specialist), Brad Brummond (Walsh County Extension) and I were there with the meeting coordinated by Kari Helgoe (Extension agent for Pembina County). There were several farmers who are already in reduced till systems and using cover crops and also those who are just getting started.
Here are some topics discussed:
Annual ryegrass vs. cereal/winter rye: In plenty of soil health meetings, annual ryegrass is talked about as a preferred cover crop because of the root mass and shade tolerance for interseeding. But, there are some negatives which makes it a not-so-good fit for our systems in North Dakota. It does not overwinter like cereal/winter rye. So, in my opinion, that already gives cereal rye a leg up on annual ryegrass. Joe Ikley is concerned about annual ryegrass being resistant to herbicides, for good reason. In addition, annual ryegrass can also be a host for Goss's wilt on "escapes" growing in patches in the years after it was seeded. Keep in mind that Italian ryegrass is closely related to annual ryegrass, so should not be used either. Stick with cereal/winter rye if it fits your on-farm goals.
Cereal/winter rye is an excellent tool for weed control: especially with winter annual weeds. This can also be an effective tool for summer annual weeds, but only in that it suppresses growth of the weeds (does not reduce the number of weeds). So it can buy time by keeping weeds small on fields with cereal/winter rye until spring burndown. Cereal rye is also not as sensitive to herbicide residual as some of the other cover crops.
Speaking of herbicide residual: on page 115 of the 2020 NDSU Weed Control Guide (you can find it online by searching that term in google), there is a cover crop/herbicide residual table. This is helpful as a guide because a cover crop doesn't do any good if it doesn't grow. I will stress, ALWAYS pick your herbicide program first and then fit in your cover crops (I think Joe and other crop consultants would be proud to hear me say that!).
Seed availability and varieties: Steve Zwinger at the Carrington Research Extension Center has developed a new variety of cereal/winter rye called Gardner. This is specifically bred for the cover crop market to grow earlier and be competitive in the spring with weeds — so it's not something you'd take to the elevator, it is a cover crop seed. Jason Goltz of North Dakota State Seed is an excellent resource for keeping us out of trouble with protected varieties when buying and selling bin-run rye. North Dakota State Seed also can test for germination and purity (easy and inexpensive test) to make sure that the cover crops you seed are clean and will grow. This is especially important in times of short seed supply when things get pushed out the door. Also when using millets, there are concerns of Palmer amaranth contamination. The small Palmer seeds are difficult to clean out of the millet seeds, so just keep that in mind and get your cover crop seed tested.
I learn so much from the Café Talks — this should give you an idea of what we talk about at the Café Talks and how anyone can walk away with some tips and ideas that can help. Catch any of the remaining Café Talks — schedule posted online: NDSU.edu/soilhealth.
As a final note, there are lots of livestock focused Café Talks on the schedule. If you're a grain farmer, check these out! What I've learned is that grain farmers without livestock can take away plenty of useful information from the grazing focused Café Talks. The crossover of information in different systems can be a great thing!