Lake Wilson farmer uses cereal rye to reduce erosion and improve soil health

Eight or nine years ago, Lake Wilson farmer Bryan Biegler began planting cereal rye in his corn fields each summer while the corn is still growing there.

“Either I’ll run it through with a high clearance seeder or have an airplane fly it on, and hopefully we get a rain after that and get it established,” he said.

It’s an odd idea to those unfamiliar with cover crops, but this is exactly what’s encouraged by groups like University of Minnesota Extension and the Midwest Cover Crops Council. The rye begins to grow during the late summer and fall, but is still only 3 to 4 inches high, typically, when he harvests his corn.

“So, it doesn’t bother anything,” Biegler said.

Biegler’s farm was established in 1886, by his mother’s side of the family. He is the fourth generation of his family to operate it. He mainly grows corn and soybeans, but in the last couple of years he has added some cereal rye that goes to market, in addition to the conservation rye.

While growing rye for conservation purposes, Biegler has participated in the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), through the Murray Soil and Water Conservation District in Slayton.

He has tried other cover crops for conservation, such as a smaller annual rye plants, or turnips, radishes and clover. But these either did not establish themselves well in the field, didn’t come through the winter well, or were too expensive. If he’s going to spend the money to plant a cover crop, he wants to know it will provide reliable benefits to his fields.

“The rye is a very hardy crop so even if it doesn’t get established in that August, September time frame where I’m hoping it will, that seed is laying there and it will start growing next spring, also. It’s an over-wintering crop,” he said.

In the spring, the rye continues to grow until he is ready to plant soybeans in the field. Just before or just after planting his soybeans, he will terminate the rye — kill it off with an herbicide — to create room for the beans.

“If you have a wet spring, you want to leave it grow because it leaves a good soil structure to drive on,” Biegler explained. “Rye likes to soak up a lot of water,” he said. “But that also means, if you have a dry spring, you’re probably going to want to terminate it earlier, so it’s not using up any excess water that you have. So, you’ve got to be able to adapt on it and evaluate your situation at the time.”

The soybeans grow up through the rye, which remains in the field. Biegler said having the rye in the field when he goes to plant beans creates a nice, firm field that is easier to drive his machinery on.

“The first couple times I did, it seemed pretty weird, but I’ve got to where I enjoy planting where the rye is still growing, planting my soybeans into the rye. The ground is so nice and mellow and everything, and it plants really nice,” he said.

He does leave one field of rye to continue growing to full maturity, then harvests that to gather seed for the next year.

Biegler started with one field and has been expanding his use of rye since then. Now, he typically plants it in 700 to 1000 acres, depending on the year.

The benefits include keeping the topsoil and its nutrients in the fields, because the rye makes it much less susceptible to erosion from wind and water. It also helps to break up compaction in the soil, and water infiltration rates are better, Biegler said, adding that it’s good to have something growing in the fields for as much of the year as possible.

“It helps pull some of the nutrients up, that are in the soil, and kind of stores them so they don’t leach away or anything,” he said. “And then, the biggest thing is just the (protection from) soil runoff. I’ve just seen a lot of good benefits from it.”