By Jennifer Bradley
Winter rye can be a great cover crop if the weather allows it, says Nick Schneider, the Winnebago County Extension agricultural agent. While the last two years have proven challenging, Schneider says that planting rye is a fundamentally good practice and he offers some suggestions on how to make it work.
Schneider explains that rye provides effective erosion control in the fall and spring, particularly following a corn silage crop when the field is left vulnerable with no residue. The unique thing about rye is that it returns vigorous enough in the spring to a suitable forage crop. Not every cover crop does that, Schneider explains, and while it is able to be fed to any type of dairy or beef cattle, it is most often fed to heifers.
"The challenge with rye comes in spring because the weather doesn't always cooperate," he adds. Two years in a row, farmers using this practice have had frustrating results.
Rye uses a fair amount of moisture and a very dry 2012 left farmers seeing struggling corn that started with dry soil which never replenished. This led to a decreased yield overall and the same happened in 2013, but for the completely opposite reason – too much moisture. The rye couldn't be harvested at the right time so it continued to grow, increasing in yield but decreasing in quality. Rye ideally is harvested mid- to late-May, says Schneider and depending on the weather, that date can push the next crop planting to a later window than farmers like. This year that was the scenario.
However, Schneider says that the last two seasons have been unusual.
"Certainly there have been plenty of years and yields where rye has been a great fit," he notes, and offers options for those years that don't turn out ideally.
One alternative Schneider says, is to plant the rye in fall (Oct. 10 is the target date, or right after corn silage is harvested), and in spring take an assessment of cattle feed stock.
"If feed inventory will be sufficient, use a burn-down herbicide and kill that rye early," he recommends. He says that if a farmer decides to go this route, the month of April prior to normal planting time, is the best time to kill off the rye crop.
"That will give erosion protection, suppression of winter annuals and allow a farmer to plant corn like normal," he says. This method is treating the rye like a true cover crop, with no intention to harvest.
On the other hand, if feed supplies are short, the rye can be left to grow for another month and used as a forage crop. Schneider then recommends an alternative field rotation. The traditional (corn, winter rye, corn) can be replaced by a more stable one in terms of yield loss. This would be corn, winter rye (harvest for forage) and then plant soybeans or alfalfa. Schneider explains that with this rotation, farmers can get soybeans in the ground in the later part of May and still reap the benefits of a rye crop.
"If it works into a crop rotation, it's a good alternative," he adds. "You don't take that big of a yield hit."
Schneider says an essential thing to do is learn the positives as well as potential pitfalls of using rye before making any decisions. While he is seeing a transition to cover crops in general, there is also a better understanding from farmers and research stations on how to implement them effectively.
"If a farmer tries a cover crop and it doesn't turn out well they may decide to not do it again," he says. Rye can prove a positive addition to a crop rotation, with some knowledge on how to manage weather adventures.
For more information and statistics on rye as a cover crop, visit http://ipcm.wisc.edu.
Bradley lives in East Troy.