Rye — arguably the runt of the litter among Prairie grains in recent decades — has staged something of a comeback. But this isn’t your granddaddy’s rye.
Since 2016, rye’s acreage across the Prairies has been on a steady climb. Statistics Canada pegs last fall’s seedings at 352,500 acres, up from 225,000 four years ago, but only a small percentage of those acres are old-style varieties.
“In the last four years we’ve seen the acreage of rye increase by about 40,000 acres or 15 per cent per year. The vast majority of that has been hybrid fall rye,” says Chris Churko, CEO of FP Genetics, which has licensed and marketed several new fall rye hybrids over the past several years.
New markets for rye are also opening. Churko believes the markets with the biggest potential include feed and forage for cattle and swine — common uses for rye in Europe but rarer in North America. And one of the big potential draws for both producers and feeders is that hybrid rye is inexpensive to produce compared to other feedstuffs.
“With hybrid rye you are talking about the largest volume of production for the lowest cost per bushel. The more you can incorporate that into your feedstuff the more gains you will get per pound, so your per-pound gain is relatively cheap compared to other options,” Churko says.
That doesn’t mean Canada’s traditional rye markets — milling and distilling — aren’t still a priority among breeders and marketers, but they’ve reached a bit of a standstill.
“The food market is somewhat capped because the primary end-user (for rye) is the U.S., which also has hybrid rye that it is also growing. Neither of our (major) markets is getting much bigger. It’s really that feed piece (that shows promise),” Churko says.
As a seed grower and retailer in the feedlot-heavy region of southern Alberta, Greg Stamp of Stamp Seeds has a unique window into producer interest in hybrid fall rye. He says producers in his area are making inroads with rye into local swine and cattle feedlot operations. Seed demand is high enough that he often plants two years ahead to keep up with it.
“We have seen anywhere from 20 to 50 per cent yield advantage compared to traditional rye varieties. What you get with (hybrid fall rye) is uniformity in seed size. People who are feeding products like uniformity.”
Resistance to ergot on the rise
There are several entries in fall hybrid rye’s “pro” column. Proponents praise its winter-hardiness and also its deep roots and its strong water and nitrogen uptake, which shine in times of drought.
Stamp says it also has potential for double-cropping. Due to its early maturity, there is possibly enough season to harvest fall rye and still have time to plant a spring crop such as barley. Like winter wheat, which is planted at approximately the same time, it provides competition for weeds in early spring, minimizing the need for herbicides.
Hybrids are better for milling than open-pollinated rye, Stamp says. “The falling numbers are almost double those of traditional rye varieties.”
But perhaps the real “killer app” of hybrid fall rye is its high — and growing — resistance to ergot, which has long discouraged producers from growing rye.
Churko says the hybrid fall varieties FP Genetics has licensed and marketed have increased ergot resistance significantly ever since Brasetto — one of the hybrids responsible for producers’ “honeymoon phase” with the crop — was released in 2016.
“The success story behind (hybrid fall rye) varieties is their continuously decreasing incidence of ergot,” he says.
And it’s set to get better. Churko singles out KWS Trebiano, a variety expected to hit the market in limited quantities this fall.
“It knocks back roughly half of the ergot in terms of grading standards within our own trials. With a lot of open-pollinated varieties it’s almost a given that you have to clean the ergot out of the grain one or two years in five. But KWS Trebiano is at the point where you may not have to. It’s getting to that point where the extra work involved in dealing with ergot may or may not be an issue at all.”
Stamp says KWS Daniello is the low ergot-risk variety he offers through his membership in SeedNet — a group of 13 independent seed growers plus dealers across Canada who have licence to that variety and many others. A new low-ergot variety — KWS Serafino — is launching next season, he says.
Forage and grazing
Stamp says the forage side of hybrid fall rye is taking off with varieties like KWS Propower.
“There’s the silage users in the feedlots, of course. Otherwise, some of the cow-calf producers graze it in the springtime for early-season grazing. Or they’ll take out a pasture and plant rye now (in July) and then graze it, overwinter it and use it next year for whatever purpose they want to.
“So there is a lot of flexibility. It really helps to stretch the grass when they’re dealing with feed shortages or droughts or more animals than they can support on their grassland acres.”
Stamp says one of his biggest challenges has been keeping up with demand for these hybrids. This is something the industry is working on and is coming close to tackling, says Churko. As is common with any new product, supply is a numbers game based on taking an educated guess on what the market will bear.
“We are still talking about a sub-half-a-million-acre crop — we’re not talking about millions upon millions of acres here,” Churko says. “We just happen to be in that time where we know the market is growing and seed is being produced to accommodate what we believe the market growth potential may be.
“We have been fortunate enough (in satisfying demand) for the most part. I wouldn’t say we have completely outpaced it but we’ve kept pretty close. There have been times certainly in some areas where the supply didn’t match what farmers were after. That’s not to say there wasn’t supply elsewhere in the Prairie provinces. It’s difficult to predict where the top end of the market is or what the demand will be when it’s been growing as fast as it has.”
Research spreads its wings
The future of hybrid fall rye lies in research, Churko says. FP Genetics — which licenses pedigreed seed from domestic and international research interests — has been co-operating with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) for a number of research projects covering a broad range of end-uses for the crop.
“The research we’ve been investing in along with AAFC is quite unique. We have forage, feed and milling studies going on. Some of it is new market stuff while others are intended to see if what works in other parts of the world would work here.”
Churko would someday like to see hybrid rye used in Canada much the way it is in Europe — as a go-to crop for a wide variety of end-uses.
“I think what we haven’t seen in North America that we see a little bit more of in Europe is rye as a complete utility crop that works great in feed rations, as forages and as ethanol,” Churko says. “We are really trying to explore opportunities in all those markets. I think it has a tremendous fit in each one of those aspects.”
Giving winter wheat a shot of rye
Agronomists and conservationists frequently hail the advantages of fall-seeded crops like winter wheat. However, some producers are reluctant to plant it because they fear it won’t survive a Prairie winter.
But fall rye has shown that it’s a tougher crop, and an ongoing project at the University of Saskatchewan is attempting to transfer its hardiness into winter wheat using “comparative genomics.”
“We’re studying fall-seeded rye using genomic mapping data to understand what is in its genetics — specifically gene sequences and their arrangement — that makes it so winter-hardy. We then want to use that genetic information to develop winter wheat which can be as hardy as fall-seeded rye,” says lead researcher Ravi Chibbar, a professor in plant sciences with the College of Agriculture and Bioresources.
The research team has developed almost 1,000 recombinant inbred lines (RIL) of winter wheat that have been analyzed by genomic sequencing in regions associated with winter field survival, Chibbar says.
“The wheat RIL that carry the gene patterns similar to that in the cold-hardy, fall-seeded rye have been identified and characterized by genetic sequencing. The identified wheat and rye lines are first tested in the controlled freeze tests in the laboratory and subsequently confirmed by field trials.”
This project is not about creating competition for fall-seeded rye as a winter crop, Chibbar says. Rather, it’s meant to encourage the planting of winter crops by providing a wider and more secure array of choices for producers.
The five-year research project, now in its second year, is being funded by Western Grains Research Foundation, Saskatchewan Winter Cereals Development Commission, and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.