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Yield advantage with hybrid fall rye

Hybrid fall rye is changing the landscape in yield and marketing. Photo courtesy of Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Very high yielding with uniform maturity and better quality than open pollinated fall rye, hybrid fall rye is poised to open up a new era in production and marketing. Forget the notion that fall rye is a low-input crop for poor producing land. Hybrid fall rye has the yield and quality to open up new food markets, and compete on equal footing with winter wheat.

“There is a dramatic yield advantage to hybrid rye. In the low range, it is about 15 per cent higher in poorer producing areas but 30 per cent or more in higher productivity areas,” says Paul Thoroughgood, regional agronomist Prairies, with Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) at Regina, Sask.

DUC conducted 15 trials over the last two years for the German seed company KWS to look at the potential for hybrid fall rye on the Prairies. KWS is the leading rye breeder in the world, and has registered two hybrid fall rye varieties in Western Canada. Brasetto is marketed by FP Genetics at Regina, Sask. and is commercially available in 2015. Guttino is the other variety, and is being handled by SeedNet, a group of 14 seed growers in southern Alberta.

Provincial variety guides give Brasetto a huge yield advantage over the check variety Prima and the popular variety Hazlet – with the caveat that the number of trials is relatively low in Saskatchewan. In Alberta, Brasetto yielded 154 per cent of Prima compared to Hazlet’s 123 per cent advantage over Prima (15 site years). In Saskatchewan, Brasetto was 170 per cent of Prima in Areas 1 and 2, and 117 per cent in Areas 3 and 4 (three site years). By comparison, Hazlet was 120 per cent and 106 per cent of Prima. Manitoba has not run provincial fall rye trials since 2009.

“We are consistently seeing that hybrid rye is displaying good heterosis. The yields are easily 25 to 30 per cent higher,” says Rod Merryweather, CEO of FP Genetics. FP Genetics has another KWS variety in the registration pipeline called Bono, and Merryweather says its yield is 9.5 per cent higher than Brasetto.

Hybrid rye is a breakthrough in cereal production. Merryweather says attempts to breed hybrid winter wheat have been successful, but the hybrid vigour didn’t produce exceptional yields – only in the five to 10 per cent range over conventional winter wheat. As a result, hybrid winter wheat has not yet become economical. Hybrid rye, though, has been successfully commercialized because of a lower cost of production and high seed yield – although getting hybrid rye to market lagged behind corn and canola.

“Rye is a small crop globally – only a few million hectares – but it is open-pollinated, so easier to work with in a hybrid process,” Merryweather says. “A huge share of the rye market globally has converted to hybrids.”

Enhanced market opportunities
Rye acreage in Western Canada has dwindled over the last 20 years, dropping to 210,000 acres in 2015 from around 700,000 acres. The reason is simple economics. Rye has been displaced by winter and spring wheat in the feed market, and it never had a fit in the ethanol market because of lower yields. About 60,000 to 70,000 tonnes is exported to the U.S. and a similar amount is consumed in Canada in the distiller, milling and feed markets.

Merryweather expects to see 25,000 acres of Brasetto sown in Western Canada in 2015, with about two-thirds of it in Manitoba, and all destined for the milling and distillery markets. He hopes market development efforts can increase the acreage of hybrid rye to 100,000 acres.

“Rye has suffered in the milling market because there has been difficulty in getting consistent quality. Hybrid rye has a higher falling number than conventional rye, making it better for milling. If we can show consistent supply and quality with hybrid rye, there is a larger market that we can access,” Merryweather says. “The U.S. imports 150,000 tonnes of rye from the EU each year, so there is definitely a market.”

FP Genetics is partnering with several grain companies to develop markets and handle contracts, grain buying and handling. Patterson Grain, Scoular Canada and NAFI, all headquartered in Winnipeg, are handling 2015 contracts. Merryweather says these smaller, specialty companies are better suited to handling niche products like hybrid fall rye.

When Bono hits the market with even higher yield, Merryweather says it could have the ability to compete in the feed and ethanol markets as well.

Treat it like a high-yield winter wheat crop
Thoroughgood says the last two years of trials on hybrid fall rye have helped to develop an understanding of the agronomic management required to grow a high yielding quality crop. The drought was hard on the crop in 2015, but he says yields were in the 80 to 90 bushel range in 2014. In Manitoba and Alberta, yield was over 100 bushels at one site in each province.

“Consistently, we have seen hybrid rye yield in the 60 to 70 to 80 bushel per acre range depending on soil zone and precipitation. If you are targeting that yield, you need to manage the fertility package properly,” Thoroughgood says.

FP Genetics is working on trials this fall to help establish yield response curves to nitrogen (N) using the new variety Bono. In the meantime, Merryweather says if the yield target for winter wheat has been 85 bushels, a similar N fertility program would be appropriate for hybrid rye. Generally for winter cereals, aim for one pound of N for each bushel of target yield minus soil test residual N.

“There is some evidence that hybrid rye might have a 10 to 15 per cent higher N-use efficiency than winter wheat, but at this point, in highly productive areas we recommend that you do what you do with winter wheat for fall rye,” Merryweather explains.

Merryweather says field experience confirms that hybrid rye is responsive to N fertilizer. One test in Manitoba bumped the N fertilizer rate from 130 pounds per acre to 170 lbs. The yield response was an additional seven bushels per acre, providing almost a 2:1 return on the fertilizer.

Thoroughgood says time of N application comes down to farm preference. Ideally, a split application with some fall applied and the balance spring broadcast can make the most efficient use of N because the N is applied most closely to when the crop uses the nutrient. However, this isn’t always practical, so he recommends farmers do what has been successful on their farm with winter wheat, including using stabilized N products if that makes sense.

Time of seeding in the fall also parallels winter wheat. Going into the winter, the rye should be at the four-leaf stage with at least one and preferably two tillers. Seeding in late August up to September 15 is recommended. Where rye growers in the past may have pushed seeding into October because it was viewed as a low value crop, Thoroughgood says growers should seed early and do everything they can to get a healthy stand of hybrid rye established early in the fall.

Late seeding not only decreases winter survival, it can also significantly delay harvest from last July/early August into September. Delayed maturity also pushes winter crops into the Fusarium head blight window.

As for winter wheat, hybrid fall rye should also go into the ground with a good seed treatment for protection against seedling diseases. Seed treatment helps stand establishment and over winter survival. Seed shallow at one to 1.5 inches and target 18 plants per square foot. Seeding into standing stubble, preferably canola stubble is highly recommended.

Fall rye is susceptible to ergot, and Merryweather says hybrid rye is no different. Management practices focus on managing the ergot spore load. Don’t plant on cereal or corn stubble. Try to avoid areas where pasture and grasses are close to the field. Try not to let grass around field edges go to seed.

“Rye will have higher ergot infection than wheat, but it can be managed. Just do things to help minimize the spore load,” Merryweather says.

Hybrid rye appears to be less susceptible to Fusarium head blight than wheat, but that doesn’t mean it will necessarily escape infection. Merryweather says growers should monitor the disease and spray if necessary.  

Some leaf and stem diseases affect hybrid rye. Interestingly, information from KWS in Europe shows the importance of protecting against stem disease. With wheat, yield contributions come 31 per cent from the stem, 57 per cent from the leaf area and 12 per cent from the head. Hybrid rye yield is derived 57 per cent from the stem, 20 per cent from the leaves and 23 per cent from the head.

Putting all the pieces together – agronomics and market development – could herald in a new opportunity for Prairie farmers. Whether you have Brasetto or Guttino already in the ground for a 2016 harvest, or are just peering over the fence waiting to see how hybrid rye turns out, it is definitely a crop to keep an eye on.