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Cover crops are a bigger part of farming and provide numerous advantages to fruit and vegetable growers. At Iowa State, they’re looking at cereal rye.

Vegetable Extension Specialist Dr. Ajay Nair says, “They hold on to the soil, so less soil erosion, they are an excellent habitat for beneficial insects. They also provide benefits to soil biology. So there are a lot of microbes that feed on the roots of the rye and they also sequester the nitrogen that is left at the end of the fall in the soil.”

Cereal rye is seeded in the fall, goes dormant in winter then comes back in the spring. But since farmers want to plant in the spring they have to find a way to get rid of it.

Nair says, “You can either till it under, disk it, or you can roller crimp it. So, what the roller crimper does is it crimps the rye. It just pushes the rye down and crimps it at two or three locations, so that the rye dies a very slow death.”

The metal roller is filled with water and weighs about 2,000 pounds as it squishes the rye.

The leftover mulch will end up helping crops planted later, “But with this rye residue in the mulch sitting there, weeds cannot come out of that residue and so it’s very difficult for them to grow because they have no light and that helps us because we don’t have to apply any herbicide to manage those weeds. The rye is a biological herbicide for us in that case.”

In order to get the crop through the mulch, Nair will wait three days after crimping, then strip till an eight to ten inch band into the field. That’s where they’ll plant.

“So, using cover crops and terminating it using roller crimper and strip-tilling our vegetables is an excellent way of managing our soil by less tillage, no need to till more,” Nair says, “Less herbicides because the rye acts as a great mulch to suppress weeds, and also to promote the biology in the soil.”

The rye mulch could also help with food safety. The field Nair is working on has harmless bacteria that moves like more dangerous pathogens.

Nair thinks the mulch will protect a crop of cantaloupe he’s planting, “When the melons grow, the melons sit, not on the soil, but on this mulch and what it brings to the table is the melon is less contaminated, because it’s not in the soil, less dirt on it and there is a possibility that there’ll be less food-bourne pathogens on the melon”

Nair says the cereal rye cover crop costs about $30-40 acre and the roller crimper costs about $2,000.