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Rye Covers Nab Nitrates, Capture Carbon

While a winter rye cover crop protects the soil from wind and rain, the benefits don’t stop there. In fact, a series of ongoing USDA studies started in 2015 suggest that seeding cereal rye cover crop between corn and soybeans can reduce nitrate losses, sequester carbon and provide a source of renewable natural gas.

Most Popular Cover Crop

Data from the No-Till Farmer 2023 No-Till Operational Benchmark study shows cereal rye was the most popular cover crop species with use by 78% of growers (p. 11).

Robert Malone, an ag engineer with the USDA National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa, and a team of 15 researchers studied rotations of corn and soybean with or without winter rye cover crops. Studies done at 40 sites across the North Central U. S. show the following:

  1. Establishing a winter rye cover crop between corn and soybeans in tile-drained fields reduced nitrate levels in drainage water by more than 45%.
  2. Seeding rye cover crops on tile-drained fields translated to a 27% reduction in nitrate loads entering the Gulf of Mexico.
  3. “The use of cover crops such as winter rye in corn-soybean rotations is one of the most promising conservation strategies for reducing nitrate loads to streams and rivers that discharge into the Mississippi River,” according to Malone.
  4. Seeding a winter rye cover crop in corn-soybean rotations across the North Central U.S. could produce the energy content of 2.3 billion gallons of ethanol if converted into biomethane gas using anaerobic digesters.
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Lessiter frank

Frank Lessiter

Frank Lessiter has served as editor of No-Till Farmer since the publication was launched in November of 1972. Raised on a six-generation Michigan Centennial Farm, he has spent his entire career in agricultural journalism. Lessiter is a dairy science graduate from Michigan State University.

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