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The possibilities of hybrid rye

Heather Smith Thomas for Progressive Forage Published on 31 May 2021
Hybrid rye

There are many forages grown for livestock feed, and today there are some new options.

Herman Wehrle, director of commercialization and market development at FP Genetics, says his job is to bring new crops to the marketplace and recent ones include two hybrid ryes. KWS Progas was designed for forage and Brasetto can be used dual-purpose for forages or grain.

“Flexibility and risk management are cornerstones of forage production. Most farmers have a certain base of perennial forages and fill in with annuals. We see five key benefits of hybrid rye,” he says.

Five key benefits

“First is that hybrid rye is a winter cereal, seeded in the fall and first to grow in the spring. It’s hardier than winter wheat; its robust root system helps overwintering, which allows it to come up quickly in spring.”

Hybrid rye is grazed

Secondly, as the earliest forage available, it can be grazed first. “It’s available about two weeks earlier than winter wheat, about three weeks before perennial forages such as permanent grass pastures, and about a month earlier than spring crops,” says Wehrle. This spreads workload and weather risk, with different timing for planting, growing and harvest.

Third, being a hybrid, it has high yield potential. “Hybrid vigor really kicks in to increase yields. A grower can expect, on average, about a 15 to 20 percent increase in dry matter yield over a spring cereal. We’ve seen yields as high as 18 metric tons per acre on irrigated land. You might not get this on dryland, but it has that potential if weather is favorable or you have irrigation,” he says. In general, yields are 8-12 metric tons on dryland.

Fourth is forage quality. Research shows excellent digestibility, which is key for cattle performance. “At boot stage, the leaf portion has digestibility at more than 90 percent, with protein levels above 16 percent,” he says. This makes an ideal silage for dairy or grazing youngstock – with good feed conversion and ability to produce more beef per acre.

“Fifth is the opportunity for double cropping. If planted late summer, you can harvest for forage in mid-to-late June the following year. This gives time, in many regions, for hybrid fall rye to be followed with an annual forage like oats or barley for a second crop. You can also use the double crop for grazing. If you plant an annual cereal and take it off mid-July, you could replant that field to hybrid rye the end of July, have it establish in late summer/early fall and graze in October. Then you can let it overwinter and take it for forage the following spring,” he explains.

Cereal history

Becca Brattain is the country manager at KWS Cereals, the plant-breeding company behind hybrid forage genetics. This family-owned company has been in business for 165 years and is the fourth-largest plant-breeding company in the world. Originally based in Germany, the cereal side was introduced into the U.S. more than 10 years ago, starting with wheat. Hybrid rye varieties were introduced five years ago.

“We started breeding hybrid rye in the 1980s, and the first successful varieties came out about 20 years ago in Europe. Now most of the rye grown in Europe is a hybrid,” she explains.

Hybrid advantages

There are many advantages with a hybrid, including quality, yield and hardiness. “There are many things we can select for, and standability has been a big one. Rye typically gets very tall and tends to fall over or lodge, making it difficult to harvest. All the hybrids have been bred for better standability; they are a little shorter and sturdier – as well as bred for improved digestibility,” Brattain says.

Rye is ready for chopping at the milky head stage

“High yield is important but also quality. Rye has traditionally had a lot of lignin in the stem, which decreases digestibility. Lignin is a form of fiber impossible to digest (like wood in a tree). One of the things the breeding team really focused on in hybrid rye was how to make a plant that doesn’t fall down and is still very digestible,” she says.

“This is not your grandfather’s rye; it’s truly a new crop. Even though it is high-yielding and often tops the yield trials, it’s been bred to be a little shorter in height, which helps prevent lodging. We look for dense biomass, not vertical biomass. We don’t want it to grow tall and fall over,” she explains. This is sometimes confusing because people think taller means more forage. The hybrids tend to be a little shorter but are dense across the field and have a lot of biomass.

Digestibility and nutrient quality is usually what attracts producers to try these hybrids. “We focus on high yield, but it takes good management practices. With the old varieties of rye, many people just scattered seed in the field and hoped for the best. With the hybrids, we recommend certain seeding rates. These seeds are sold in units, like corn and beans. One unit is a million viable seeds. We’re not selling by bushel weight.

“These plants have hybrid vigor and not as many seeds are needed. Research shows that if you overpopulate the number of seeds, you actually suppress their ability to grow, due to space limitation,” she explains.

Variety options

The company has three varieties available in the U.S. – KWS Progas, KWS Propower and KWS Problend. “KWS Progas is great for the dairy industry; it has the highest quality and highest yield for an early cut. It also works for people who want to double crop. It maintains quality through that early cut,” she says.

“KWS Propower is what we typically recommend to beef producers, like feedlots that want maximum tonnage. It tends to top the yield trials, though it may give up a little quality. For feedlot guys who are mainly looking at how many tons they can get for their money, this fits well,” she explains.

“KWS Problend is a combination of those two varieties. Progas helps maintain quality and Propower helps crank out more yield if they harvest a bit later. It is the happy medium for farmers who may need both directions,” she says.

A fence separated the rye that has been grazed and the rye that has not been grazed

Some people get the most from these hybrids by grazing briefly in the fall, again in the spring, then letting it regrow for later harvest. “We’re doing some research to see just how much we can get out of one of these hybrid crops, looking at fall grazing, spring grazing and still getting substantial yield later for silage,” Brattain says.

A few producers are doing early planting – in May or June – after the last freeze, for summer forage. “The nice thing is that it tends to still grow through summer. Rye is so water-efficient that it can provide a high-quality forage in the drier months of August [and] September when many other forages are knocked by drought,” she says.

This is an incredibly diverse and resilient crop. “We’re still learning how it can fit into our U.S. system, depending on location, climate, production goals, etc. Some farmers’ first priority is to get their corn and beans harvested (that they plant every year), so they are looking at double cropping. They plant hybrid rye late in the fall and try to take an early cut of spring silage to have another crop.”

Hybrid rye doesn’t do well in the South if there is not enough winter for it to vernalize (going through winter hibernation). “If it doesn’t vernalize, you won’t get maximum yields and growth in the spring,” she explains.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Advantages with a hybrid include quality, yield and hardiness. Photo by Becca Brattain.

PHOTO 2: Hybrid rye is grazed for its excellent digestibility and improved forage quality. Photo by Becca Brattain.

PHOTO 3: Rye is ready for chopping at the milky head stage. Photo provided by Herman Wehrle.

PHOTO 4: A fence separates the rye that has recently been grazed from the rye that has not been grazed. Photo provided by Herman Wehrle.

Heather Thomas is a freelance writer based in Idaho.