Hybrid rye gains pace across the UK
Inspecting hybrid rye
Hybrid rye is gaining in popularity across the UK. To find out what the crop has to offer and assess its potential we spoke to leading plant breeder KWS, Sentry, a major farming company which is growing 800ha, and ADM, one of the world’s largest agricultural companies.
“Growing hybrid rye for grain is a new venture for us and early indications are that it will have an increasing role to play in our rotations,” John Barrett Director of Sentry Limited, states.
Based at Hill House Farm, Hedenham in Norfolk, which is part of the Ditchingham Estate, John is responsible for Sentry-managed farms throughout East Anglia and the South East. One of the largest farming companies in the UK, Sentry took on the land there in 2001. Since then, Sentry’s presence in the local area has tripled, as owners have seen the results and decided that contracting out the job of farming their land is the best option.
Sentry now manages 1300ha of mainly Beccles Series clay soils in the area on behalf of seven landowners, through a mix of Contract Farming Agreements and Farm Business Tenancies. Its team of four full-time staff, under the day-to-day management of Richard Canham, is supported by a fleet of modern, high-specification machinery.
Growing hybrid rye for grain is a new venture for us and early indications are that it will have an increasing role to play in our rotations
Reduces risk on light soils
“To achieve consistent yields, it is critical to follow a sound rotation and grow the right crops on the right soil types,” John emphasises. “A key reason for choosing hybrid rye is that we have a belt of light land running through the farm where yields vary enormously from season to season. Two years ago, we harvested 9.5t/ha of winter barley from it, but winter wheat grown on the same land in 2020 suffered badly because of the very dry spring and hot summer. It averaged 4.5t/ha, which was obviously uneconomic and required a different approach.
“Although I am not afraid to grow hybrid rye on heavier land, and next season we will have it in a second wheat situation on heavier land which retains moisture, the crop is targeting a specific soil type. As a good scavenger of moisture, it works well on our light land and being a low-input crop reduces the financial investment, as well as the labour and machinery requirement.
“Another significant benefit is that hybrid rye is combined earlier than wheat, which extends the harvest period and spreads the demand on machinery and labour at a peak time of year. In recent years, the weather from late July through until early August has been a sweet spot for harvesting, so it fits in well with that timing.
“We have grown rye in the past, but that was conventional wholecrop for a local AD plant back in 2015. Currently we are in our first year of growing hybrid grain rye, which is being produced on a premium contract with ADM and will go for human consumption. The contract provides a choice of varieties, but we selected KWS Serafino as it is the highest yielding. On the farms which I oversee in South Norfolk we are growing 60ha of hybrid rye, which followed spring wheat, but across Sentry-managed farms we have 800ha.
“The plan was to drill the hybrid rye during the last week of September, but on 23 September over 60mm of rain fell, which set us back. The weather remained very wet for several weeks and the crop eventually went in at the end of October. Even then, it was necessary to create the opportunity by ploughing up dry soil, then pressing and drilling. To give the crop the best possible opportunity we increased the seed rate from the normal 200/m2 to 225/m2, which is still relatively low, but the seed cost is significant.
“The crop emerged well, with a good plant stand, and as of mid-January looked clean, despite having only a pre-emergence herbicide. In the spring we will apply a total of 135kg/ha of Nitrogen, significantly below what would be used on winter wheat, though the spray programme will depend on the season.
“We have budgeted for 7.5t/ha from the hybrid rye which we currently have in the ground, and although that is not a massive yield it reflects the fact that the levels of inputs will be lower. The straw we will bale ourselves and sell, while the grain will be stored until called off by ADM, but it will leave the farm before Christmas.
“Against a backdrop of reducing support, we are actively aiming to reduce the risk profile of the farming businesses we manage, all of which are in some form of stewardship agreement. Being a low-cost crop, rye helps to further reduce financial risk, which is important both for us as a farm management company and our clients.
“With changes in climate becoming more evident and periods of drought more frequent we will need to adapt our management approach by growing crops that are more resilient to such conditions, which will favour hybrid rye.”
This is the first year that the pieces of the jigsaw are really starting to come together for rye.
Increasing interest in growing grain rye
“The wholecrop market massively expanded the opportunity to grow rye, but now demand from that sector has plateaued farmers are showing increasing interest in grain rye. The market for it is certainly growing, but still very much in its infancy, with uptake from end users resulting in steady, but gradual growth,” James Barlow, Head of Seed for ADM Agriculture, states. Based at the company’s Hemswell office in Lincolnshire, he leads the company’s expanding seed business and works closely with growers, end users and plant breeders.
“I have worked with the crop for several years and always had growers asking for contracts, but because the end users simply weren’t there that limited the market. This is the first year that the pieces of the jigsaw are really starting to come together for rye.
“The area of grain rye being grown, primarily as a replacement for second wheat, has increased substantially and even at this early stage we have individual farmers with 100ha or more contracted to ADM Agriculture. This season we have achieved all the rye area that we wanted and reached our target much more quickly than I had anticipated, which highlights the strength of the underlying demand.
“Until recently, the market had been in something of a chicken and egg situation in which feed compounders could see the benefits of using rye, but the critical mass of end users was not there to justify including it in their rations. Now, with true end users starting to appreciate the benefits of rye, that situation should start to change.
“ADM Agriculture’s initial focus is the monogastric sector because that is where the most information exists on how to use grain rye and demand is greatest. If the case for incorporating rye into poultry and ruminant rations could be developed that would be a major leap forward in terms of developing the market.”
Useful in certain situations
“Because of its potential to host take-all rye is not a break crop, but it does bridge the gap between wheat and barley, with a higher gross margin in most second cereal situations.
“Although it will never compete with first wheats in terms of profitability, it may have a useful role on farms that struggle to produce second wheats, particularly as more open crops provide an opening for grass weeds.
“The other role for rye is where growers want a cereal which is earlier to harvest than second wheat and spreads the workload at a time of peak demand for labour and machinery.
“The seed cost of hybrid rye is the same as for hybrid barley, both around £110/ha, with actual variable costs of approximately £385/ha for hybrid rye and £475/ha for hybrid barley. Yields are broadly similar with rye having the advantage more often than not, but its nitrogen requirement is significantly lower than that of wheat or barley. Hybrid rye is deep rooting and a good scavenger of nitrogen from a previous wheat crop, so we suggest budgeting to apply 120kgN/ha. That makes rye a good option for farming businesses which are looking to reduce their nitrogen use and carbon footprint.
“Hybrid rye is one of the most drought-tolerant crops available and well suited to lighter, drier soils, particularly in areas of low rainfall. On the other hand, there is no reason why it cannot be grown on heavier soils and more farming businesses in that situation are now considering rye.
“The other characteristic of rye is that it produces more straw than other cereals. Modern hybrids are not necessarily shorter than conventional varieties, but they are stiffer and still require a robust PGR program to maximise their potential.
“Currently, the biggest headwind for rye is that wheat and barley are so well established, which limits open market demand and therefore the crop’s potential. The longer-term goal must therefore be to develop more end uses for grain rye.”
It requires less agrochemical inputs and utilises nitrogen and phosphorus very efficiently, without compromising yields, which reduces growing costs.
Market potential for hybrid rye is growing
“Arable farmers badly need another cropping option,” confirms John Burgess, Hybrid Rye Product Manager for KWS UK. “As a plant breeder, we hear from many who are increasingly concerned about restricted diversity in current rotations and the lack of cropping alternatives. This is reflected in the 2020 AHDB Early Bird Survey, which takes place each autumn to assess national cropping intentions.
“The current survey, which covers 615,000ha, or 13% of the UK area for the crops surveyed, highlights that the oilseed rape area is set to decrease by 18%, to 312,000ha. This is largely due to anxieties around the agronomic risks, rising cost and reduced effectiveness of chemistry, variable yields, overall economic feasibility, and pest prevalence of this break crop. The largest decrease is in the East, where it has fallen by 19,000 hectares, and East Midlands, where it is down 33,000 hectares, both areas where the Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle can cause significant damage.
“The AHDB Early Bird Survey also highlights a 41% increase in the ‘other cereals’ category, which includes rye. Although the rye area is still relatively small, it will increase substantially because the grain has many potential markets, from feed and food manufacturing to use in the malting and distilling sectors.
“From an arable perspective, rye is a crop for the future and fits in well with the new UK agriculture bill because it has specific advantages over other cereals. The crop needs a third less water than wheat and will thrive in conditions or on soils where wheat and even barley may struggle. It requires less agrochemical inputs and utilises nitrogen and phosphorus very efficiently, without compromising yields, which reduces growing costs. Rye also has ultra-low take-all carryover and is aggressive in reducing blackgrass populations, making it an ideal second cereal or addition to all arable rotations.
“The latest hybrid rye varieties produce a high yield of grain, while the straw can make a valuable contribution to the bottom line. Growers sometimes question the higher cost of hybrid rye seed, but there is a ready market for rye straw, so a crop which produces 4 t/ha at £50 per tonne would cover the cost of seed twice over.
“Modern breeding has virtually eliminated rye’s former weakness, its susceptibility to ergot, and with in-built resistance through KWS’ PollenPlus® technology, coupled with rhynchosporium and brown rust resistance, KWS hybrid rye varieties are agronomically secure.
“For pig producers, a major potential market, rye is a cheaper alternative to wheat and provides a range of key benefits. In Denmark, Germany, Russia, Poland, and Spain, for example, it is already an established component in rations and now an increasing number of producers in the UK are recognising the advantages of providing rye-rich feed, including improved gut health and behaviour. If that awareness can be further developed then feed compounders will be encouraged to use more in their rations, which would be a huge development in terms of rye’s potential for arable farms. We are working towards that situation and feeding trials are ongoing.”