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Rye's resurgence as a cover crop driven by weather, desire for soil health and goof-proof planting

A new appreciation has developed for rye, a winter-hardy grain that develops a deep root system. Growing rye is seen as beneficial to soil health, is a strong competitor to weeds, and helps reduce erosion from water and wind. It can be a companion crop to soybeans, edible beans and sugarbeets to cut down on wind damage as plants emerge. In areas with livestock, producers can graze it or harvest it for forage.

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Randy Melvin walks through a field of rye that was ready to harvest on Aug. 8, 2022, north of Buffalo, North Dakota. Melvin has seen positive effects from growing rye on soil health.
Jeff Beach / Agweek
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With the ground not yet completely thawed in the spring of 2022, a heavy rain settled in over parts of southeast Minnesota.

Mike Zabel of Plainview, Minnesota, said some farmers saw deep gullies carved in their fields as topsoil washed away while other fields with a stand of rye or another cover crop told a different story.

“People that didn’t have cover crop, they saw where the cover crops were at,” Zabel said. “And they also saw that the soil stayed in place. They didn’t have the big ruts in their field like other people that didn’t have cover crop.”

And Zabel said some of those farmers came into his seed business, Zabel Seeds, and told him, “I gotta do something different.”

Zabel says it's been those kinds of realizations that kept the momentum going for cover crop planting, in particular for rye.

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Zabel grows and sells cover crop seed as part of his business. “Fifteen years ago, our business was mostly over at the end of May,” Zabel said.

But with the resurgence of winter rye, late summer through fall is much busier than it used to be with seed sales and custom planting.

A new appreciation has developed for rye, a winter-hardy grain that develops a deep root system. Growing rye is seen as beneficial to soil health, is a strong competitor to weeds, and helps reduce erosion from water and wind. It can be a companion crop to soybeans, edible beans and sugarbeets to cut down on wind damage as plants emerge. In areas with livestock, producers can graze it or harvest it for forage.

Prevented planting spurs interest

Zabel said it was 2013 when prevented planting was widespread that helped make rye seem practical to a wider group of growers.

It was a few years later that Mother Nature pushed Randy Melvin into planting rye.

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Randy Melvin examines rye kernels in a field north of Buffalo, North Dakota, on Aug. 8, 2022. Melvin has been growing 50 to 100 acres of rye for the past few years, mostly to use as cover crop seed.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

“The reason we started with rye was the prevented plant of 2019, looking for a cover crop,” Melvin said.

Randy Melvin is a fourth generation farmer, operating in conjunction with his brother, John, and father, Gerald. Randy Melvin said it was the first time that Melvin Farms of Buffalo, North Dakota, had planted rye since 1962.

Since then, he said he likes the benefits he has seen so far.

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“Especially with the wind we had this spring, the field that had the cover crop on it, we didn’t see that soil moving,” Melvin said.

Melvin grows corn and soybeans as well as edible beans and a little wheat. He said rye helps keep down the weed pressure.

“Choke out some of those tougher weeds, especially in edible beans where we don’t have the same tools in the toolbox like we do in soybeans,” Melvin said, adding that it saves money on tillage costs.

“As these weeds are getting tougher and tougher to control, I think it’s a big benefit to have the rye a cover crop, at least in our soils, in our location,” Melvin said.

But he also said that incorporating rye is not “pressing the easy button” and different years bring different challenges.

Rye can help absorb excess moisture and prevent soil erosion in a wet spring like 2022. But Melvin said that this year it also grew so quickly that its shade later kept fields from drying out and warming up and forced him to do some tillage he didn’t want to do.

Like many farms, he sprays a herbicide to kill off the rye cover crop but he says finding the right timing of when to do that is tricky.

Growing cover crop seed

But Melvin doesn’t kill off all his rye. He plants 50 to 100 acres to use as cover crop seed. He swathed a field of rye in the first week of August and planned to harvest it the next week. Most of it will go to seed cover crop in August and September.

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Nationally, the number of rye acres have increased. Farmers produced a total of 9.8 million bushels of rye on 294,000 U.S. acres in 2021, according to National Agricultural Statistics Service. North Dakota's acreage was 36,000 and Minnesota's 11,000 that year, and production was 1.15 million bushels and 484,000 bushels, respectively, NASS said.

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Steve Zwinger, North Dakota State University research specialist, at the Carrington (North Dakota) Research Extension Center in 2017.
Nick Nelson / Agweek file photo

“It’s just kind of exploding,” said Steve Zwinger, North Dakota State University Carrington Research Extension Center agronomist.

When Melvin started growing rye, he procured a “common” seed and said he has the seed he harvests cleaned and tested.

Melvin likes to plant the rye for seed on one of his tougher fields. “It handles the higher salts, the higher pHs a little bit better than some of the other crops,” Melvin said and will benefit the next crop in the rotation.

When growing rye, producers need to keep in mind seed laws when obtaining seed and harvesting cover crops. Just because it may not be harvested for grain, laws applying to certified seed still need to be followed.

“I think what the farmers are doing is, they are selling a lot of cover crop seed. You really can’t get a handle on that amount because it doesn’t go through the certification process," Zwinger said. “I think they tend to use the cheapest seed possible.”

Know the seed laws

Ken Bertsch from North Dakota State Seed enforces those seed laws. “People tend to either not know or ignore,” the rules when it comes to cover crops, he said.

Sharing cover crop seed with neighbors can violate those laws.

Rye in a wind-row near more standing rye.
A field of rye in north-central North Dakota was just beginning to be swathed on July 27, 2022. Rye has been growing in popularity as a cover crop.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

He added that seed that isn’t certified or doesn't come from a reputable source has the “distinct possibility” of containing noxious weed seed, which will contribute to a problem instead of reduce it.

He said his office will investigate tips of seed law violations that could result in a $10,000 fine per violation.

Fawad Shah of the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association emphasized that even if there is no financial or barter transaction, there may be a violation, and if the seed crosses state lines, even a federal offense.

Whatever entity that developed the certified or protected seed variety, likely a university, would be considered to be damaged.

New varieties

As the number of farmers planting rye increases, the amount of seed available has decreased.

The combination of the resurgence in rye acres and the lack of winter rye varieties was the impetus for Zwinger to release in 2016 the first new one NDSU has developed in more than two decades. The rye variety “Dylan" is tall with good straw strength, medium-to late maturity, high yielding and winter hardy.

The perception is that it’s cheaper to plant rye seed of unknown origin, but Zwinger believes that the varieties developed by NDSU have superior qualities to the uncertified seed farmers buy from one another.

“Farther south, they like our varieties from the north because they are hardier,” Zwinger said. “A couple of different seed growers buy rye from farmers, clean it and ship it out as cover crop seed to other parts of the country.”

In 2019, Zwinger released "Gardner," another rye variety that he and other North Dakota Extension researchers had been working on between 2007 and 2018. The hardy, tall, early maturing variety has early season vigor and is suited for cover crop and forage.

Carrington Research Extension Center has continued to grow foundation seed for the NDSU Foundation Seedstocks program since the release of the two rye varieties. The production of enough foundation seed is an important step in providing varieties with improved varieties from NDSU, according to an NDSU news release.

“I do expect we’ll see more growth in our rye testing program,” Zwinger said, noting that seed companies are interested in new varieties.

Goof proof

While there are other cover crop options and mixes available, Melvin said he preferred to keep things simple and he hoped more predictable by using just rye.

Zabel said a cover crop such as radishes with a big root has some some appeal but he said he sees “rye continuing to be the dominant cover crop.”

In part, that is because it is so easy to grow. It can be flown on, perhaps incorporated with some light tillage, or those in small grains territory may have access to grain drill for planting.

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Rye that was swathed in early August lays in a windrow north of Buffalo, North Dakota, on Aug. 8, 2022. Randy Melvin intends to use the rye for cover crop seed.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Zabel said some growers are converting aerial sprayers into air seeders for rye seed.

Zabel’s business will do custom planting and one year planted rye at a customer’s request during a warm spell in December.

While Zabel said the field conditions were less than ideal, “it came up in the spring and the customer was happy.”

“There isn’t much you can do to goof that up,” Zabel said of planting rye.

Rye's reputation as a low-maintenance crop that doesn't require spraying herbicides on it is one of the things that makes it an attractive alternative cover crop for some farmers.

"The thing that has some value with rye is the fact that it has always been considered the poor man's crop," Zwinger said.

Melvin concluded that “For any individual that is looking at cover crops or … that has some tougher ground they would like to find a crop for, definitely consider rye.”

Reach Jeff Beach at jbeach@agweek.com or call 701-451-5651 (work) or 859-420-1177.
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