John Burgess of KWS looks at alternatives to standard wheat and barley. Wendy Short reports

THE drive to reduce production costs, the dwindling range of crop disease control products and the burgeoning UK black-grass population are three factors that have encouraged growers to look for alternatives to standard wheat and barley.

John Burgess of KWS suggests that autumn hybrid rye might just fit the bill for some farms.

Hybrid rye has a wide range of purposes and growing costs are 20-30 per cent lower than wheat, says Mr Burgess. It makes an excellent feed for pig finishing and it can be distilled for brewing whisky, gin, vodka and other alcoholic spirits. Rye can also be used to produce flour, to make breakfast cereals or to generate biogas.

The hybridisation of the species has resulted in a plant that will out-yield wheat, barley and oats as a second or third cereal and it can be used as a method of extending the rotation, explained Mr Burgess. Average grain yields are nine to 11 tonnes/ha and it can also be cut as a wholecrop forage.

One of rye’s key agronomic features is its low susceptibility to take-all, he says.

He says: “Modern hybrid ryes have been developed with an excellent level of disease resistance. They have ultra-low susceptibility to take-all, with a disease resistance score that is second only to oats. It is partly for this reason that rye will out-perform second or third-year rival species.

“Our hybrid ryes have also been specifically bred for resistance to ergot infection. This has been achieved by speeding up the fertilisation period, thereby minimising the risk of disease vulnerability. It is classified as having minimal risk to ergot infection and this resistance trait has been key to our seed breeding programme.

“Despite its robust disease profile, rye must be protected against brown rust. It is also advisable to monitor the crop for mildew and eyespot, especially in the North. Another recommendation is to use a plant growth regulator (PRG). On lighter soils, one PGR application should be sufficient, with two usually recommended on clays or loams.”

In terms of an aid to black-grass control, trials have indicated that compared with wheat, black-grass seed present in the soil is about 60 per cent less viable following a rye crop. In addition, rye will grow to a greater height than most wheat varieties, so it can help to smother black-grass. This smothering effect will also apply to a wide variety of other weed species, he added.

Rye is a relatively straightforward crop to grow, largely due to its disease resistance traits.

“It has a wide drilling window which spans early September to mid-October. This sowing flexibility can extremely useful in a wet autumn, he said. It surpasses wheat in this context, especially due to the trend towards later drilling dates for winter wheat. Rye also possesses extreme winter hardiness and is suitable for a wide range of soil types.

“Another feature is its superb drought tolerance. Its water requirement is 25 per cent lower than wheat. Rye requires 300 litres per tonne of grain, while the figure for wheat is 400 litres.

“Rye is sometimes called the ‘scavenger’ crop, because of its comparatively modest requirement for nitrogen; a typical application would be 120kgs/ha. In Germany, regulations are forcing producers to reduce their nitrogen inputs and this move has boosted the country’s rye acreage. The plant’s phosphate and potash needs are similar to wheat.”

Lighter soils favour rye because it is a fast-growing and deep-rooting crop, while an early drilling date will maximise crop performance. The seedbed should be clod-free but a fine tilth should be avoided, as it will be prone to capping in periods of heavy rainfall.

KWS has conducted extensive collaborative studies on rye’s effect on pig finishing diets. The results have shown that it can be included at a rate of up to 70 per cent and has a positive effect on gut health. Meanwhile, rye straw yields exceed wheat and barley by 30per cent, despite the breeding scientists having selected for shorter stem length in return for a higher harvest index. Straw quality is similar to wheat, and useful for bedding, especially for outdoor pig units. Some growers will opt to incorporate rye straw and it has a role to play in soil conditioning.

The UK rye acreage has been rising steadily over the past several years, says Mr Burgess.

“Growers are being encouraged to increase their range of crop species, in order to deliver enhanced biodiversity,” he commented. “Rye is very widely grown in Continental Europe, partly as it will cope well with dry summers and cold winters. This weather pattern has been echoed in the UK in recent times and conditions certainly seem to have become more variable, adding to the crop’s popularity, along with its other positive traits. There is a widespread belief that hybrid rye will take up ten per cent of the country’s cereal acreage by 2030.”