By Lynn Betts
One of the top seed producers in the world sees a future for hybrid rye as a third crop in Iowa and other Midwest states. It’s not the cereal rye Iowa farmers are familiar with as a cover crop; this winter cereal rye is a high-yielding hybrid from Germany that’s being grown and sold across Europe. Its high dietary fiber content makes it popular there for human consumption and even more as feed for hogs.
The third crop idea fits western Iowa farmers Bryce Irlbeck and his father, Brian, who have been looking to diversify their corn and soybean rotation to add more carbon to their soil. They planted and harvested the hybrid rye on 60 acres two years ago and 74 acres this past year. “We’d plant 300 to 400 acres if we had a market for it,” Bryce says. “Buyers wouldn’t have to be in Iowa; it could be anywhere in the Midwest if the price was right.”
The Irlbecks farm near Manning and have been using cover crops for 10 years, and now use covers on all their crop acres. They’ve been experimenting with letting some of their cereal rye grow longer into the season, harvesting it in August as a third crop and planting multispecies covers soon afterward to build soil faster. “But the cereal rye we were using for cover crops only produced 30 to 40 bushels an acre when we harvested it. We were looking for something with higher yields as a third crop,” says Bryce. He found it online: a hybrid rye from a KWS seed dealer in New York.
High yields with rye hybrids
The KWS Brasetto hybrid rye the Irlbecks planted yielded 80 bushels an acre in 2016 and 90 bushels an acre in 2017. That was with 40 pounds of nitrogen per acre. “You could double that N rate and possibly get more than 100 bushels an acre,” Claus Nymand, hybrid rye product manager for KWS Cereals in the U.S. and Canada, told Bryce in a farm visit last September.
That’s backed up by university trials in Minnesota, New York and Pennsylvania. University of Minnesota winter rye trials at several locations in southern Minnesota show yields of the KWS Brasetto variety ranged from 105 to 143 bushels an acre last year. Earlier trials at Penn State and Cornell Universities showed KWS Brasetto outyielded Aroostook, an older and commonly used rye cultivar, by 44 and 58 bushels per acre, respectively.
Jochum Wiersma, University of Minnesota Extension small-grain specialist, has noted that hybrid rye varieties are far superior in yield and agronomic performance compared to non-hybrids.
Preliminary yield data from the University of Minnesota, which reinstated rye variety performance evaluations in 2014, shows European hybrid cultivars outpace the best North American and Canadian germplasm by a third. “While not all the varieties are commercially available in the U.S., it indicates the potential,” Wiersma says.
Potential great as third crop
“This is a winter crop, that can survive winters in the northern U.S. and Canada,” says Nymand. “You can plant it after corn or soybean harvest, and if correctly established, it won’t winterkill. You’ll harvest it the next July or August as a third crop in your rotation.”
Besides being winter hardy, Nymand says hybrid rye in the rotation breaks up weed cycles. It also has a very strong disease resistance profile, and in most cases needs no fungicides. “Hybrid rye has a big root system that uses 20% less water and 20% less fertilizer than winter wheat planted at the same yield expectation,” Nymand adds. “In Europe, farmers are required to have a winter crop for the environment, to prevent leaching of nutrients and to keep nutrients in the soil. Hybrid rye is being used there as a major practice in the crop rotation to improve the soil. There’s potential in Europe for 200 bushels to the acre yields with the rich soils in Iowa, it can work very well as a third crop.”
Rye offers weed control benefit
The Irlbecks like the role hybrid rye plays in a crop rotation for both soil building and weed control. Their rotation is soybeans with a rye cover crop, then corn, then hybrid rye that’s planted after corn harvest and grows though the winter and is harvested mid-summer the next year. “When you harvest the rye in July, you cut the weeds,” Bryce says. “Then when you follow that with a multispecies cover crop mixture, any weeds that come will never seed out.” That multispecies mix supercharges the soil-building process.
The Irlbecks say they’ll have more oats, wheat and rye on the farm next year than they’ve ever had. Looking to diversify crop rotations, their long-term vision is to plant half of their corn acreage to small grains.
Adding rye as a third crop is a good idea for corn and soybean farmers to help control weeds. With a corn-soybean rotation as the dominant system, you have two summer annuals (corn and soybeans) following each other and have the same weed spectrum in both crops. However, if you introduce a small-grain winter crop or a forage legume into that system, you begin to make it more difficult for summer annual weeds like waterhemp to become dominant.
Marketing dilemma can be solved
While hybrid rye is widely used in both hog and beef rations in Europe, and some larger hog production companies in Canada are including it in hog diets, there is no market in the United States. “Its nutrient value is similar to wheat and barley, with the clear positive exceptions of more dietary fiber, more fructans and high enzyme content,” says KWS rep Jacob Nymand of Denmark. He says University of Illinois Professor Hans Stein, who researches intestinal physiology and evaluates animal feed ingredients, will have initial results from a study early in 2018.
The knock on rye has been concern over ergot alkaloids, which can affect performance of feeder pigs. “KWS has new hybrids with better ergot resistance,” says Nymand, who was meeting with pork producers in the Midwest to discuss rye in the ration. “It’s a good fit in the diet for sows because of its high dietary fiber content. Sows in gestation have been shown to be more satisfied with hybrid rye in the ration; at least one trial showed rye is a good alternative to wheat and barley at up to 30% of the ration, and it costs less. There’s no question that it can be put into the ration, but the supply and demand have to match. There’s a big opportunity for both grain producers and hog producers in the Midwest if they can get together.”
Betts writes from Johnston.