Double Cropping Fall Rye for Extra Forage

by Joel Bagg, Forage Specialist & Peter Johnson, Cereals Specialist, OMAF and MRA

Fall rye is an excellent forage crop when seeded after early-fall harvested crops. It is ready for harvest in southern Ontario in mid-May, which provides great opportunities for “double crop” options, and can also fill in the gap in years when forage supplies are short. Seed as early as possible in September, apply nitrogen in the spring, and time harvest for nutrient quality needs. Do not confuse cereal rye (Secale cereale) with ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum or L. perenne), as they are totally different grass species with quite different characteristics.

Fall rye prevents erosion and gives good weed suppression. Rye is very cold tolerant, the hardiest and most disease resistant of the winter cereals. Fall rye has an extensive fibrous root system, can scavenge nitrogen very effectively, and utilizes early spring moisture for rapid growth.

Fall rye is faster growing and earlier maturing in the spring than the other winter cereals, including wheat, barley and triticale. This enables an earlier forage harvest and more “double crop” options. Fall rye grows well on lighter and low pH soils, but does not do well on poorly drained, heavier soils. Forage rye is higher yielding, but not as palatable as winter wheat. Rye matures rapidly at the flag-leaf, boot and early-heading stages, with significant reductions in forage quality. This can create the challenge of a very narrow harvest window, particularly if there are rain delays.

Double Crop Options

Farmers looking for extra forage can plant fall rye following the harvest of many crops, particularly corn silage. Forage rye harvested in mid-May can be followed by a late-planted crop, such as soybeans, edible beans, or a warm-season annual forage crop such as sorghum. Winter wheat heads two weeks later than fall rye making forage wheat harvest too late to be followed by corn or soybeans. In dry years, decreased moisture in the soil profile following forage rye can have a negative effect on the yield of the following crop. It is essential to completely kill the rye with glyphosate or tillage to minimize shading and competition for moisture.

Rye is sometimes noted for having an “alleopathic effect” that suppresses the germination and growth of weeds and other crops. With most of the rye plant removed, alleopathy is a low risk in forage situations. The possible exception is with no-till corn on heavier soil types.

Seeding

Fall rye is easy to establish and can be seeded from late-summer to late-fall. If harvest as silage the following May is planned, fall rye should be seeded in September, but later seedings can work. Early planting allows more time for tillering, higher forage yields, and slightly earlier forage harvest dates. Some growth going into winter is preferred for early spring growth and good yields. Seed is relatively inexpensive. Under good conditions, fall rye can be seeded at 110 kg/ha (100 lbs/ac), but the seeding rate can be increased up to 190 kg/ha (168 lbs/ac, 3 bu/ac) if the seed is broadcast rather than drilled, or if the seeding date is late.

Grazing

Fall rye is best used to provide early-spring grazing, but can also be grazed into late-fall. It is ready to graze early in the spring and growth is very rapid. To ensure that it does not get too mature, be prepared to move livestock frequently by strip grazing. Grazing rye on wet heavy clay soils in late-fall or early-spring is not recommended due to livestock “pugging” and compaction. If fall pasture is desired, fall rye should be seeded by August 15-30th. 

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