Ryegrass is an excellent cover crop to use after harvest. Learn more about how you can use ryegrass in at an urban homestead or in a small scale operation.
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What is ryegrass?
Ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum) is considered an annual cover crop ideal for the time period after fall harvest but can be beneficial throughout the year. Like many cover crops, the goal of planting ryegrass is primarily to help the soil. It is not planted in a fashion that lends itself to harvest for human consumption. However, it can also be beneficial to livestock, even in a small setting.
Cover crop benefits
Different cover crops offer different benefits to the soil. Ryegrass is a cover crop is used primarily by large scale farming operations. Ryegrass helps with soil erosion, drainage and compaction. Other cover crops, such as legumes, are used to help benefit the soil in other ways such as nitrogen fixing.
Most cover crops are also considered “green manure“. This means that at the end of the season, these plants are tilled under or cut to continue providing benefits as they decay. Other winter cover crops include clover, vetch and legumes.
Using annual rye at home
The reason you see annual rye in stores is many people use it as a lawn for the cool seasons. It is very helpful in zones 6 or higher. The rye thrives in the cooler temperatures. Ryegrass provides good coverage for those you would like to enjoy their front/back yards even in the winter.
Annual rye is different from winter rye. Winter rye (Secal cereale) is what you grow for the edible rye grain. Annual (as well as perennial) ryegrass are cool season cover crops. For zones 6 or lower, ryegrass can be used in the fall or spring. In these areas it will likely die back during the harsher winter period, especially with heavy ice and snow coverage.
When to plant ryegrass
I grow annual ryegrass throughout the fall, winter and early spring because I am in zone 8b in Northwest Louisiana. This area rarely sees temperatures below 20 and almost never that low during the day time. I always plant it in the middle of fall. Usually in late October or early November.
Once established, it will grow very long. You can use ryegrass over a large area. I use it over the winter as lawn, cover crop and fodder for chickens The great thing about rye is that it will grow despite the many leaves that blanket the ground from the pecan trees.
Together, my husband and I, worked the soil the first year to provide organic fertilizer and compost to the entire back yard. Completely turning the soil over and amending it. After that initial growing period, I simply plant it every fall as the native weeds and grasses begin to die.
Chickens and ryegrass
Two years ago, I built a mobile chicken coop, also known as a chicken tractor. The chickens have been living in it now for about a year and a half. I move it every 1 to 3 days depending on the location because they completely turn the soil and eat all the vegetation in that spot.
My four pullets were initially put on established ryegrass when they were old enough to be outside. I have four hens and they easily stripped the area of all the ryegrass. The beauty of this process is that they refertilizes the area through their droppings. The manure is never too high since they move frequently.
As they move around the yard eating the ryegrass and fertilizing the soil, by the time the next fall arrives the area is ready for new ryegrass seed. Because the ryegrass dies in the summer anyways, they eat clover and other wild “weeds” during this time which strips the area. If you were to look at my backyard around late September and early October, it looks like a dirt yard. But this is the perfect blank slate for the next round of annual ryegrass and the cycle repeats.
In agriculture, annual rye can be used as fodder for other livestock such as cattle throughout the winter months, especially in the south. The extensive roots and good growth are perfect for this more dormant period of time.
What cover crops do you use? Leave a comment below and let me know!
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