The crops that farmers produce must change as consumer demand and environmental conditions change. That’s not a surprise, but the reactions from readers following last month’s “Farm and Ranch Life” article about alternative crops that agricultural producers are considering was a surprise.

Several farmers and other readers reacted by saying they are interested in additional cropping options. They are uncertain about the prospects of better prices for corn, soybeans, and wheat, in light of the ongoing trade war.

Hybrid rye has possibilities as a profitable and useful crop. It was suggested by Ron Rosmann, an organic farmer and my brother who lives nearby.

I interviewed Ron because he undertakes extensive on-farm research and is recognized as an authority concerning sustainable farming and environmental stewardship. I also reviewed a number of research reports about hybrid rye.

There has been steady use of standard open-pollinated winter rye by the food industry and distillers (think rye whiskey) over the years in the U.S. and in many other countries that produce bourbon and raise the grain for flour and livestock feed. Rye has been used increasingly by American farmers as a fall cover crop and as a source of fresh forage in the spring by the dairy and cattle-feeding industries.

The development of hybrid rye in Europe over the past two decades is introducing important desirable characteristics to rye, and expanding its uses. Its resistance to ergot fungus, its higher fiber content, and higher yields than conventional rye are among its many positive features.

Potential problems with growing rye have been reduced with its successor-hybrid rye varieties. Rye has long been susceptible to ergot. Claus Nymand, an Albert Lea Seed evaluator, and Jochum Wiersma of the University of Minnesota Extension, claim hybrid rye in most cases needs no fungicide.

Nymand also writes that hybrid rye in rotations breaks up weed cycles because it grows fast in the fall and spring after overwintering; it has a strong allelopathic effect against competition, including weeds. Conventional winter rye has long been touted for its capacity to suppress other plants within the soil area where its roots extend, and hybrid rye appears to duplicate this effect.

Hybrid rye also has a good ability to find nitrogen (N) within the soil which its roots penetrate, making it possible to reduce fertilization with N, unless superior yields are being sought. High yields of 130 bushels or more have resulted from supplemental N application.

Additional positive features of hybrid rye include its extensive root formation that not only “finds” nitrogen, but also requires about 20 percent less water. It is also a good fit in the diet for pregnant swine because of its high fiber content, claims Nymand.

Hybrid rye grows several inches shorter than conventional rye and has sturdier stalks, thereby contributing to better capacity to withstand wind and heavy rain with less lodging than its open-pollinated predecessors. The beards on hybrid rye are shorter than on conventional rye, which makes it more suitable for livestock bedding because the beards in the straw are less likely to irritate the skin of the animals that lie on the bedding.

It is being used in Europe in swine and egg laying operations. It may naturally lessen salmonella in the manure and consequently on the egg shell, but much more testing is needed. There are only a few seed dealers in the U.S. who can supply hybrid rye, most of which can be found online.

Many farmers are familiar with conventional rye; I have planted it myself when I was farming. It is widely planted as a fall cover crop after corn, soybeans, and wheat that can be grazed for fall and winter pasture after it sprouts.

Rye grows until both the topsoil and subsoil freeze and is hardy throughout winter during cold temperatures and warm cycles, then grows again as the earth warms up and can be used for spring pasture, or harvested as silage, or as a grain crop in the Midwest where I live. If there is sufficient growing season remaining, another crop, such as corn for silage or short-season soybeans can be a follow-up crop.

A drawback of hybrid rye is that it must be planted from seed that has been crossed. Saving the hybrid seed and replanting it eliminates the benefits of hybrid rye.

It also makes sense to follow hybrid rye with a crop that is not a grass, such as corn or wheat, because the rye has likely utilized much of the available soil nitrogen, unless supplemental N is applied.

Hybrid rye seems like a promising alternative crop in many parts of the U.S. and Canada. I know if I were still farming our tilled acres, I would give it a try. But be aware that its availability is limited and more evaluation is needed.

I especially thank my brother Ron for his inspiration and help with this article.

Pictured above: Claus Nymand project manager for North America KWS, in a field of hybrid rye at Jude Becker’s farm in Dyersville, Iowa, in June 2018. (Photo courtesy of Practical Farmers of Iowa)