Cereal Rye – A Cover Crop with Feed Value?

Eric Richer, Extension Educator in Agriculture and Natural Resources, Fulton County, Ohio State University Extension

In recent years, rye (Secale cereale L.), also known as cereal rye or winter rye, has been planted by producers as an entry level or “user friendly” cover crop.  As a cover crop, it is a great nutrient recycler, soil builder, topsoil loosener, and erosion preventer.  For dairy and beef producers, rye can also be considered for additional grazing or forage value.  Based on surveys from several Northwest Ohio producers who have used rye as a spring feed source, it can provide additional feed tonnage on idle acres in a corn-soybeans rotation and with minimal effort or expense. 

According to the Ohio Agronomy Guide, rye is the most winter hardy and earliest maturing cereal grain grown in Ohio. While spring rye-lage will not have the same feed value as corn silage, producers can evaluate its cost per pound of gain to see if it may fit in their total mixed ration (TMR) feeding systems.  Based on feed analyses from five producers, the ranges for some key feed quality indicators on a dry basis were: yield of 2 to 3 ton/ac, harvested at dry matters (DM) of 21 to 32% (average 27%), crude protein of 8 to 13% (average 12%), total digestible nutrients (TDN) of 53 to 63% (average 61%), net energy for gain of 0.24 to 0.38 Mcal/lb, net energy for lactation of 0.54 to 0.67 Mcal/lb, and relative feed value (RFV) of 71 to 121 (average 101).  These analyses were from rye harvested at the start of the boot stage to all the way to full head, thus the range in quality varies.

How do you produce rye for rye-lage?  Since many producers no-till soybeans and the planting window for soybeans is a little later than corn, consider planting rye after silage corn or early harvested corn that is going into no-till soybeans in the spring.  This timeframe fits well into many cover crop programs and one of the advantages of rye is that it will germinate up to November 1st during normal years.

As with all of our crops, starting with a clean seedbed is very important.  Fields with a history of winter annuals (i.e., marestail) need to have a cleanly tilled seedbed or follow Dr. Mark Loux’s “Burndown Suggestions for No-tillage Wheat” (C.O.R.N. 2013-30, Sept. 10-17, 2013).  Rye planted for forage production should be drilled at a rate of 85 to 115 lb/acre (more than typical cover cropping rates) and ideally planted by October 20th.  Fertility for high production rye is similar to wheat, and starter fertilizer should be applied according to soil test results and the Tri-State Fertility Guide (see “Important Wheat Management Guidelines”, Lentz et al. C.O.R.N. 2013-30, Sept. 10-17, 2013).  Producers should be sure to account for full crop and stover removal and consider fertilizing for the subsequent soybean crop.  In livestock situations, manure may be incorporated in the fall in place of starter fertilizer.   Of course, if you are just trying to scavenge nutrients, level of starter fertilizer use is up to the producer.  In the spring, up to 50 lb/acre of nitrogen can be top-dressed to increase production before termination.  

Mowing of rye at boot stage (mid-May) is most ideal for tonnage, feed quality, and palatability.  Harvesting at this time reduces some of the concerns with rye limiting soil moisture and nitrogen to subsequent crops.  Mowing can be done with a disk-bine or haybine, but drying can be a challenge.  A chopper with a pick up head can be used to harvest the rye-lage at 25 to 30% DM (upper end of range preferred; low DM can result in excessive seepage and undesirable fermentation).   Cut length should be adjusted to 0.75 to 1 inch for best results. Rye-lage should be packed and covered similar to corn silage to maintain its quality (Figure 1).  After rye harvest, soybeans can still be planted and normal yields realized. 

(Sources: Ohio Agronomy Guide-14th Edition, Midwest Cover Crops Field Guide; 2013 Ohio & Indiana Weed Control Guide-Bulletin 789).


Figure 1. Similar to methods of ensiling corn for silage, proper
packing and covering of rye-lage is very important for providing quality feed.