Cereal Rye is More Than a Cover Crop

By Jared Goplen, Extension Educator

December 2019

Winter wheat and cereal rye

Winter wheat (left) and cereal rye (right)

Nearly a century ago cereal rye was one of the 5 most common crops grown in Minnesota, behind corn, spring wheat, and hay crops. A lot has changed in Minnesota agriculture since then, and Rye production has become incredibly rare. With the recent cover crop boom there has become a greater interest in growing cereal rye as a cover crop or green manure crop to help combat soil erosion and enhance soil health. Rye has been adopted as a cover crop for a number of reasons—the seed is easy to find and is reasonably priced, and it establishes almost without fail, growing well in late fall and early spring. Rye can even provide weed control benefits by smothering weeds and producing allelopathic chemicals that suppress emergence of weeds like waterhemp. 

Although rye has gotten to be a common cover crop, there has also been an increasing interest in growing rye as a grain crop in Minnesota once again. With the expansion of the craft brewing and craft distilling industries in the state, there is renewed interest in growing cereal gains like rye more locally. There is also interest from hog producers to include rye in the feed ration for pigs. With a market, rye can provide the environmental benefits of cover crops while also providing an income stream to farmers. An added benefit of winter cereal crops like Rye is that harvesting mid-summer means farmers are able to plant a forage cover crop following rye harvest. With several months for cover crops to establish and grow, these cover crops can produce a substantial amount of forage.

Rye has historically had problems with diseases, however, and plant breeding efforts on winter cereal rye has slowed in recent history. Ergot has been one of the most problematic diseases with rye. Ergot is a fungus that infects the head of the plant, producing what looks like rat droppings that cannot easily be separated from the grain. Ergot has a toxin in it that is dangerous for animal consumption, as it causes several health and psychological issues, including hallucinations and convulsions. The hallucinogenic properties of this toxin are thought to have been a large factor behind the Salem witch trials, as ergot-contaminated rye flour caused these hallucinations and other convulsive behaviors. 

There has been a renewed interest in Rye breeding in recent decades, and 'hybrid' varieties of rye are now available and have been tested in UMN trials the last several years. The ‘hybrid’ varieties are yielding substantially better than older, open-pollinated varieties and have better agronomic characteristics, including better resistance to ergot infection. These hybrid varieties could make rye a more competitive crop option for Minnesota farmers. Currently it can be difficult to find markets, but with rising interest from craft breweries and distilleries, and interest from pig-farmers to have an alternative feed source to corn, there could be several market outlets for rye in the near future. 

With new market opportunities and enhanced rye varieties, it is time to think of cereal rye as more than just a cover crop in Minnesota. If you are interested in learning more about agronomics and management of cereal rye and other small grains, University of Minnesota Extension will be holding small grain workshops throughout southern Minnesota in January and February, 2020 to discuss all aspects of small grain production. Stay tuned to the UMN Extension Crops calendar for more information. 

Visit Cereal Rye, including variety trial results, for more information.

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