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Winter Rye

Note: this is installment 3 in a series (Legumes, and Grasses, and Weeds, Oh My!), studying forage and pasture management in in New England.

Winter Rye (Secale cereale), also known as Cereal or Annual Rye, is a cool-season annual grass.  Unlike the previous perennial forages I’ve discussed (Timothy and Orchardgrass), Winter Rye is unlikely to be found as a volunteer grass in northeastern fields.

Winter Rye, photo by

Winter Rye is very popular as a winter cover crop, being one of the most cold-hardy forage crops you can plant.  It will germinate at near-freezing temperatures and once it establishes its deep root system, can survive in its dormant stage down to -30 degrees F.  It is also extremely adaptable to poor soil quality and a wide range of acidic conditions (tolerating pHs from 4.5-8.0), however with good soil (ph near 5-7 and available nutrients) it will commonly produce in the ton-per-acre range in New England (it can top 4-5 times that in ideal conditions).

Planted immediately after Fall harvest, it will germinate quickly, start to produce and then go dormant as freezing temperatures hit.  But as soon as the ground begins to warm, it shoots upwards with generous production of dry matter.  Though it isn’t as palatable to livestock as many pasture grasses, its early availability make it a good option for early spring grazing (if soil water conditions allow pasturing).  Further south where continuous freezing temperatures aren’t as prevalent, Winter Rye will grow throughout the winter and be usable for grazing within a few months after planting.

By early May in NH, the ground has warmed and the sun is up long enough to spark the emergence of the plant’s inflorescence (flowers).  When this occurs, vegetative growth stops and the Carbon-Nitrogen ratio of plant begins to peak.  This is necessary if the Winter Rye is being grown for grain; however, it is better to harvest or graze earlier if it is being used for pasture, baled forage, or silage.  As the plant matures, it also becomes less palatable to livestock.

Like other cover crops, Winter Rye can be an excellent tool in a farmer’s toolbox when developing a herbicide-free or reduced-herbicide weed management program.  The early and rigorous growth of Winter Rye in the Spring competes well against many early weed growth cycles, with its tall and dense vegetation shading and thus stunting weeds that do manage to grow.  In addition, Winter Rye functions as an Allelopathic, meaning that it produces substances in its growth that can stop or slow the growth and/or germination of other seeds.  Because of this, it is important to know the possible undesired side effects such as inhibition of germination/growth of desirable species grown in concert with or after the cover crop.

Winter Rye can be planted by drilling or broadcasting.  UVM Extension recommends 1-2 bushels/acre for the former method, and about 50% more for the latter.  It germinates most quickly when drilled in tilled soil (no more than 2″ deep), and if broadcasting should be lightly tilled or disced in.

No-till seed drill... if only...

At the Flying T this year, we are planting Winter Rye in three areas.

1. “Rough” pasture.  This is an area approximately 1.25 acres that had been “let go” for some time, I estimate ~10 years.  I am still removing unwanted vegetation ranging from an overgrowth of goldenrod to poisonous Pin Cherries and Braken Fern that have grown up in that time.  My hope is that the Winter Rye will slow the germination of remnant plants in the Spring.  The plan is to either graze or cut the Rye in the Spring and then immediately reseed with a Japanese Millet/legume mix.  We will use aggressive cutting of reappearing undesired species and encouragement of both volunteer and sown forage species.  Next year, we will repeat, this time adding a legume in the Winter Rye planting (I am getting too late a start this year to do this).  We’ll rinse and repeat over the next couple years and if the experiment works, we should have both increased soil quality and another healthy grazing pasture for our animals without the use of herbicides or artificial fertilizers.

2. Vegetable garden.  Our goal here is to protect the soil from erosion while stabilizing Nitrogen and other nutrients.  Early in the spring, just before planting (and before maturity), we will till in the majority of the crop as green manure, while drying some of it for next year’s strawberry mulch.

3. Experiment plot.  This small (30′ x 30′) opening was full of Goldenrod, Queen Anne’s Lace, and even some Nightshade.  I’ve cut it low and will till it over this week before planting Winter Rye.  Again, the hope is that the Rye’s early growth and allelopathic effects will interrupt the growth cycle of the weeds.  I have not yet decided if I will allow the stand to grow to maturity (to harvest for grain) or cut it early to plant a small experimental bale forage crop or even a small stand of corn.

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