Rye takes an innovation jump

Hybrid varieties and new specialty markets are breathing new life into what had become the poor cousin of the Prairie cereal family

Some new varieties and new markets may signal the end of a long decline in Western Canada’s rye production. The 1990s started with rye area pushing the 1.3-million-acre mark, yet this year only 220,000 acres went into the ground.

But some of those acres were planted with new hybrid varieties that have produced some eye-popping yields as well as improved quality.

Will van Roessel of Specialty Seeds at Bow Island, Alta., had to measure twice because he didn’t believe the yield he got from Guttino, the hybrid variety that he grew this year.

“I got 153 bushels under irrigation. It yielded 1.45 times what my winter wheat did in a small, field-scale trial,” says van Roessel, who is also the chair of SeedNet, a group of independent Alberta seed growers distributing Guttino.

The new hybrid varieties — Brasseto and Guttino — average 25 to 30 per cent higher yields than older, open-pollinated rye varieties and give 45 to 55 per cent more yield than winter wheat. German seed company KWS Cereals developed the varieties, which have been evaluated for three years in co-operative field trials prior to their full registration in Canada.

“It’s a good alternate crop that delivers high yield and has a very ready market at a premium,” says Rod Merryweather of FP Genetics, the western Canadian distributor for Brasseto. “Some growers in the Red River valley of Manitoba under dryland conditions are getting around 92 bushels an acre and prices (in August) were $6.75/bushel, which is a huge return.”

Brasseto is grown under identity-preserved contracts with three companies — Paterson GlobalFoods, North American Food Ingredients and Scoular Grain. Farmers grew around 1,000 acres of Brasetto during its introduction year in 2014, but 2015 seed stocks quickly sold out, and at least 20,000 acres were planted this past fall.

Greg Stamp of Stamp Seeds says he’s seeing a lot of non-traditional rye growers in his area interested in growing hybrid rye under irrigation.

“They’re willing to spend extra money on the seed because they have that water constant and can really push the yield. Hybrid rye suits them well because it’s a high-yielding, high-return crop.”

Market potential

There are plenty of traditional and some new marketing options for these new varieties. Traditionally, much of the rye grown in Alberta goes to distillers in Calgary, and there’s a growing niche market of craft breweries who are malting rye to produce specialty beers.

A certain amount of rye has always gone to the milling industry, but Merryweather believes the improved quality of hybrid varieties gives good potential to expand its use for bread-making. “Most rye bread has five to 10 per cent rye and the rest is wheat, primarily because the bakers can’t get high enough quality rye to add more to the mix,” he says. “The hybrid rye varieties generally have falling numbers of 60 to 80 points higher than open-pollinated rye, which is ideal for making bread. We’re hoping ultimately that they will increase the amount of rye that’s used in making bread because we can deliver better quality.”

Rye also finds its way into the feed market for use in feedlot and dairy rations, and the new hybrids have attributes that make them more suitable than older varieties for livestock feed.

The new hybrid varieties average 25 per cent to 30 per cent higher yields than older, open-pollinated rye varieties.

The new hybrid varieties average 25 per cent to 30 per cent higher yields than older, open-pollinated rye varieties.
photo: Supplied

“The main advantage for the feed market is the yield,” says Van Roessel. “These varieties yield much higher than traditional feed crops like barley so it makes them competitive from a production point of view.”

Data from KWS research feeding trials of young bulls show that as the rye content increased in the ration, the amount of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E in the meat also increased. The research suggests 20 per cent rye content in the feed ration is optimum for fattening bulls. Other research trials indicate higher daily gain and more carcass yield in pigs fattened with dry feed rations containing rye than barley.

Stamp says that KWS researchers hope to work with some Canadian feedlots in the future to do similar trials. That said the biggest barrier for the feedlot market in the past has been uncertain supply.

“A lot of feedlots have never tried rye because there has never been  enough volume to work with,” says Stamp. “They need enough volume to justify having it as part of their ration.”

Management critical

Brian Fowler of the University of Saskatchewan believes that we haven’t seen the top end of the yield potential of hybrid rye yet. The current cultivars were developed for Europe, but breeding efforts have started to focus on designing varieties specifically selected for Western Canada. He believes farmers will eventually be able to push hybrid rye yields to 130 or 150 bushels an acre on dryland in good moisture years and higher under irrigation, although proper management is and will be critical.

“If it has the water and the nutrients, the yield potential of these hybrids is phenomenal,” Fowler says. “Rye is much more adaptable to cold conditions that any of our other crops and it’s usually six inches tall before the winter wheat really gets growing in the spring, which means it needs nitrogen (N) applied much earlier in the spring than winter wheat.”

Growers also need to make sure they don’t have a phosphate deficiency because the rye gets started so early in the spring that the soil is still cold, Fowler adds. Root growth is slow in cold soils and limits the root-feeding area. Because soil phosphate isn’t mobile, phosphate placed near the seed during planting will give a boost to plant growth early in the season, which will ultimately translate into much higher grain yield.

The ergot problem

Rye is susceptible to ergot, but it’s not generally as big a concern for farmers as it is in wheat, says Jamie Larsen of AAFC Lethbridge.

“In rye we expect ergot and will clean it out if it exceeds the tolerances set by the Grain Commission,” he says, adding that his program and another led by Kelly Turkington at Lacombe have developed ergot screening nurseries to improve resistance. In the meantime, because environment is the biggest factor in ergot infection, there are limits on what farmers can do.

“If you get a lot of rain right around flowering you will see a lot more ergot than if it’s dry, but growers can try to reduce infection by removing grass at the edges of their fields the year prior to and the year of a rye crop. This will limit ergot bodies that could overwinter and lead to primary infection during flowering or flowering grasses that could be a secondary source of ergot infection during the crop year.”

Another potential issue with rye has always been volunteers, which is why Larsen suggests farmers use a good rotation. “If farmers go with something other than a cereal after the rye — a pulse or canola, for example — they can spray out any of the volunteers through their regular herbicide management plan,” he says. “They need to follow rye with a good crop rotation to keep their fields clean.”

FP Genetics is also introducing Bono, a second-generation hybrid which yields 10 per cent higher than Brasetto and Guttino.

“This variety will put farmers to over 100 bushels an acre on dryland if they are providing a balanced crop inputs plan,” says Merryweather, who says the company will switch to Bono over the next two or three years. “We’ve got a good pipeline with KWS and expect new, improved hybrids on a regular basis, and we expect that acres in Western Canada will grow to 100,000 or more in several years.”

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