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From Scotland to East Anglia, growers are finding success with hybrid rye, what is it about the crop that captured their

Frustrated by the performance of winter barley and no longer able to grow oilseed rape, Colin Mitchell, farm manager at Meikleour Estate in Perthshire, was searching for a new crop to extend the rotation. Although not the complete answer, hybrid rye is proving to be a rewarding discovery. “Farmers in Scotland need an alternative to wheat,” he says. “It is becoming harder to keep clean of foliar diseases that limit yield, and this is making it expensive to grow. The obvious choices aren’t that attractive.” The Meikleour Estate covers about 800 hectares and its fertile loam soils support a diverse range of crops including potatoes, energy beet and carrots. Cereals perform as a disease break for higher value crops but must still pay their way. Oilseed rape too is no longer a practical option due to severe clubroot problems and a desire to reduce disease risk from sclerotinia in high value root crops.

As with many other farmers in Scotland, Mr Mitchell’s interest in hybrid rye was aroused after he was approached by a neighbour in need of feed stock for an anaerobic digester, but it has since earned its place for other reasons. “We took a conservative approach; our 25 ha was modest in comparison with what some others were putting in. For many, it was the most profitable crop on their farms, and it can be, but you must properly account for the potash removed. This can be as much as 285kg/ha with a 50t/ha (AD) crop,” says Mr Mitchell. This brief experience was enough to capture his interest and he began to investigate other possible markets for the crop. “It grew well, and I was impressed with it, but because we want the straw to cover the carrots, we decided we’d rather grow it for grain. We use about 50t/ha of straw, which equates to about 4000 Hesston bales a year, to protect the carrots against frost. Hybrid rye produces about 25% more straw than winter wheat so there is obvious appeal.”

Variety choice is considerable but a call to Scottish Agronomy ensured he chose the right variety for his farm situation.

“Rye is susceptible to ergot, but the development of PollenPlus varieties, bred and marketed by KWS, has done much to remove this risk. Scottish Agronomy has long-term trials data on a range of varieties at two sites in Scotland so we knew straight away which variety to grow, what seed and nitrogen rates to use and how much growth regulator would be needed.” Growing rye for grain however, meant first finding a buyer for it. “A favourable amino acid profile means it is particularly well suited to pigs so that was our first thought, unfortunately it wasn’t to be. Eventually, we found a market for human consumption through a local merchant.”

As his confidence with the crop has grown, so has the sown area and in 2018-19 covered 110ha.

“In 2016 the crop yielded an average 7.7t/ha though this was on some of the farm’s least productive soils. The bestperforming field managed 8.3t/ha. This made us start to take it seriously as the best crop we’ve ever had in that field previously was spring oats which managed about 6t/ha. In 2017 it achieved the same average but then in 2018 it gave 8t/ha with the best field at 10.48t/ha.”

This compares with a three-year wheat average yield for the same period of 8.3t/ha. In the drought of 2018 wheat at Meikleour managed just 7.54t/ha and cost roughly £100/ha more in variable costs.

“It appears to be the one crop where real progress is being made year-on-year to improve agronomic characteristics, such as disease and lodging resistance. This year I’m growing KWS Edmondo and have entered a field in the ADAS YEN competition.”

“For us, it yields on a par with first wheats, but is cheaper to grow because it needs less nitrogen fertiliser and fungicide. It has already replaced some winter barley and I’m starting to think it could replace second wheat too.”

Eastern promise

Another grower frustrated by the poor performance of everyday cereals was Essex grower David Lord. After deciding to call time on winter malting barley and encouraged by a neighbour he decided to give hybrid rye a go. It’s now four years later and the crop area has expanded to 40 hectares as demand for the grain has increased. It was the low water requirement – at 300 litres per tonne of grain produced its moisture needs are typically 25% lower than that of wheat or barley – and early maturity that appealed in the first instance.

“I was looking for a crop to fit the light land rotation of potatoes, wheat, peas/onions, and wheat. Rye had good drought tolerance and the straw is useful for the cattle enterprise though we are careful to follow it with potatoes to replace the phosphate taken off (with the straw) and control the volunteers. “We budget for yields of about 8.5t/ha, but it often exceeds this. In good years it does 10t/ha or more and as our contract sees us paid the same as feed wheat it often produces a better gross margin because it is cheaper to grow,” he says.

It has since become an established crop and his 350-400 tonnes annual production is sold locally to a specialist food ingredients business. “It does better than wheat on the same ground and is earlier to mature, but later than oilseed rape, so helps ensure a smooth harvest,” he says. Ergot is the curse of rye, but since moving to a fully hybrid variety this has become less of a concern. “We moved to KWS Bono a few years ago partly for the higher yield potential, but also because the higher quantities of pollen these PollenPlus varieties produce means there is a far lower risk of ergot infection occurring,” he says.

“It’s not completely risk-free, but with milling wheat on the farm too we need to be proactive and PollenPlus varieties have helped greatly.” Sowing is much the same as any other cereal and Mr Lord will either drill it conventionally after cultivations or direct into stubble depending on the workload at the time, the field and weed burden to be considered. “It’s certainly easy to grow. We sow it in early October, normally apply two fungicides as mildew and brown rust are the main disease pressures, and a single application of Chlormequat to keep it from lodging. About 150kg N/ha is applied in two splits and that’s it,” he says.

New market opportunities

Just as the arable sector faces its own problems brought on by the loss of certain active ingredients and the need to find a more sustainable rotation, the pig sector has its own challenges. The need to reduce antibiotic use is common to all livestock enterprises, but the high health status of many pig herds makes it more achievable in the short term. Methods that promote gut health have been identified as central to improving overall herd health and thereby reducing the reliance on medication.

Rye has a role to play here as its coarse structure has been found to result in less ulceration in the hind gut compared with pigs fed with a conventional ration based principally on wheat and barley. A second issue is the need to promote general welfare across all production systems with the intention of eliminating tail biting among finishing pigs and reducing the incidence of aggressive behaviour among all pigs. Here rye too can contribute. Its denser structure promotes satiety – the sense of feeling fuller for longer – thereby leading to a feeding regime that sees pigs little and often. This leads to less boredom and less time to exert negative behaviour.

Environmental pressures are also forcing a change in production methods with the need to reduce ammonia emissions promoting interest in other feed sources and the viability of lower protein rations. Rye’s lower nitrogen and water requirement means a crop with a smaller carbon score which has not gone unnoticed by feed manufacturers. UK pig producers wondering how rye will perform in practice need only look to their continental counterparts for positive experience. In Denmark, Germany, Russia, Poland and Spain, rye is an established component of the ration.