When to plant rye?



Rye, (Secale cereale), also called cereal rye or winter rye, cereal grass (family Poaceae) and its edible grain that is chiefly used to make rye bread and rye whiskey. It is high in carbohydrates and dietary fibre and provides small quantities of protein, potassium, and B vitamins. Rye is also used as livestock feed, as a pasture plant, and as a green manure crop that is plowed under to improve the soil. Its tough fibrous straw can be used for thatching, mattresses, hats, and paper.

Read More on This Topic cereal processing: Rye Rye, which has been known for some 2,000 years, ranks second to wheat as a bread flour. The principal rye producers are…

Rye is a fast-growing annual with long linear leaves. It can reach heights of 1 to 2 metres (3.3 to 6.6 feet), depending on the variety. Its small florets (reduced flowers) are wind-pollinated and are borne in dense spikes; they develop into one-seeded fruits, or grains, with long awns (bristles). The plant is highly susceptible to the ergot fungus, which if ingested by humans and other animals can result in serious acute or chronic illness known as ergotism.

Rye cultivation probably originated in southwestern Asia about 6500 bce, migrating westward across the Balkan Peninsula and over Europe. Modern rye is grown extensively in Europe, Asia, and North America. It is mainly cultivated where climate and soil are relatively unfavourable for other cereals and as a winter crop where temperatures are too cool for winter wheat. The plant, which thrives in high altitudes, has the greatest winter hardiness of all small grains, growing as far north as the Arctic Circle.

field of ryeField of rye (Secale cereale) in Poland.© Studio Barcelona/.com

Rye contains gluten and is the only cereal other than wheat that has the necessary qualities to make a loaf of bread, though it is inferior to wheat for that purpose and lacks elasticity. Because of its dark colour, a loaf made entirely from rye flour is often called black bread. The lighter-coloured rye breads popular in Europe and the United States contain admixtures of wheat or other flours in addition to rye. Pumpernickel, a dark brown bread made wholly from unsifted rye flour, was a staple food in central and eastern Europe for centuries.

dark rye breadA loaf of dark rye bread.Geoff Lane Get exclusive access to content from our 1768 First Edition with your subscription. Subscribe today




Quick Tips

How to cook rye

For tender, but chewy berries, bring a pot of water to a boil with a pinch of salt. Add the rye berries, reduce to a simmer, and cook upwards of 60 minutes. Drain any excess water and serve. Soak rye berries overnight to reduce cooking time.
Rye flakes and cracked rye both cook similar: 1 cup rye to 3 cups liquid. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 15 minutes; stirring occasionally. Cracked rye may need a bit more time, taste and adjust time as needed.

How to use rye

Rye is traditionally used in breads but the whole berries can be used like wheat berries: in salads, as a base for grain bowls, or in casseroles/soups/stews. Rye has a bit more earthy flavor than wheat, so use accordingly.

How to store rye

Rye, whether the whole grain or flour, is best stored in airtight containers in a cool place. Whole berries can be stored up to a year in the freezer or 6 months in the pantry. Rye flour is best stored in the freezer and will last up to 6 months. If the grains or flour have a rancid smell when you open the bag, toss and buy fresh.


Whole Berries

All About Rye

A kernel of rye has many of the characteristics of a wheat seed but is a little less plump, is a little longer and has a darker, grayer color. Chewing seeds from each, they also taste quite similar, although rye has a little stronger flavor. When cooked, rye takes on it’s distinctive flavor that makes this bread such a treat. A very popular grain in East Europe and Germany, breads made from rye have a distinctive flavor that is prized by many. A relatively new grain, it’s estimated that rye has only been in cultivation for 2,000 to 3,000 years, probably originating in Asia Minor. In the past, rye was a very popular grain as it grew so well, even on poor soils, under dry, cold conditions and at high altitudes – on lands where other grains didn’t produce well. For many in the dark ages, rye was a grain that could most often be counted on to give them enough of a return that they wouldn’t starve. Rye made it’s debut into the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries and has been a minor cereal grain here ever since. During the 19th century and into the 20th century with the advent of more hardy, quicker maturing and more abundant producing strains of wheat, rye has markedly decreased in popularity and production. But rye continues to hold it’s ‘nitch’ with the distinctive flavor it gives breads in Europe as well as here in North America.
Although rye does have some gluten, it doesn’t contain enough to make good bread and must be used with other high gluten flours. Because of this, rye bread is generally heavier than wheat bread and has a darker color, a reflection of the grain it comes from. The more wheat flour is used, the lighter and milder the bread. Pumpernickel is one of the breads on the rye heavy side of this spectrum, prized by many for it’s rich, dark brown color and strong flavor.
Rye’s nutritional characteristics are similar to the other cereal grains, however rye is higher than wheat in fiber, vitamin E, riboflavin, folacin and pantothentic acid. And unusual for a cereal grain, rye contains twice as much of the amino acid, lysine as wheat. This is especially significant because lysine’s the limiting amino acid in wheat and most other cereal grains which necessitates food mixing to develop a complete protein. This isn’t a problem with rye as eating rye by itself gives you a well rounded protein. Rye’s high fiber content, higher than the wheats, also aids in fighting heart disease. In one study reported in the December, 1966 edition of the American Heart Association’s Journal, the high fiber content in grains, and especially rye, decreased the incidence of heart disease by 17% in 22,000 Finnish subjects.
Rye has many uses but is most well known for breads and the making of rye whisky. Rye flours are used as fillers in sauces, soups and in many processed meats such as sausages. Rye can be rolled into flakes or cracked and eaten as a breakfast cereal or ground and made into crackers. Rye can be added to many foods to give them a distinctive flavor. Whole rye kernels take a long time to cook – as long as two hours. And rye flakes can take as long as an hour to cook. Soaking the whole rye seed overnight will reduce the cooking time markedly. A small percentage of rye goes well with rice or you can make your own cracked or rolled multi-grain cereals. Rye flakes go great in granolas, trail mixes, and rye flakes are also a popular item in rye breads.
Rye Bread Recipes:
Latvian Sourdough Rye Bread
German Rye Bread
Limpa Rye Bread for Electric Bread Machine
Bread Machine Jewish Rye Bread
Stout Rye Bread
Deli Style Rye Bread

One of the easiest and most economical ways to improve your soil is to plant green manures, commonly called cover crops. Most garden soils can be maintained at their highest level of productivity by sound soil management practices that involve a combination of soil tillage, crop rotation, and most importantly, the addition of organic matter through green manures.
Organic matter is the food component of soil. Soil-dwelling fungi and bacteria work to break down organic matter. When these soil microorganisms eat organic matter, nutrients are released back into the soil in a form that is usable by plants. This process is called nutrient cycling. Nutrient cycling affects both the physical and chemical properties of the soil. The addition of organic matter builds soil structure, which increases water absorption and nutrient-holding capacity, buffers the soil pH, and improves aeration. Cover crops choke out weeds by restricting sunlight to the soil, stabilize the soil surface, and through their deep-reaching roots, help to break up hardpan and bring nutrients to the surface for other plants to utilize. As part of a long-term rotation plan, cover crops can provide a stable habitat within your garden for beneficial insects and microorganisms.
Green manures can be grown in the same year as a vegetable crop, such as a cover crop of white clover planted around a cole crop. They can also be grown as a perennial in orchards and vineyards. In mild climates (zones 6 and above), cover crops can be fall planted and tilled in the following spring just before planting. In harsher climates, cover crops can be grown in rows between the crops or as a component of rotation in your garden. Green manure crops are a superior source of organic matter when they are cut and turned under. In addition to this benefit, legume green manures (peas, beans, clovers, favas and vetch) act as a host for the bacteria that fix and make nitrogen available for your vegetable or fruit crops.
Legume cover crops are an essential component of good soil management. Growing legumes and incorporating them back into the soil increases the organic carbon content, and improves the soil fertility and water holding capacity of the soil. Legumes obtain their nitrogen from the air, and can provide as much nitrogen for your next crop as fertilizer, containing 100-150 pounds of nitrogen per acre. For maximum nitrogen yields, legumes should be incorporated into the soil at peak bloom.
Cereal Grains and Grass
Cereal grains and grasses grow very quickly and provide quick ground cover. They can provide a tremendous amount of biomass that not only smothers weeds and prevents soil erosion, but also puts huge amounts of green matter, or green manure, back into the soil which improves the soil’s tilth. These cover crops are nature’s great nutrient recyclers. The plant’s extensive root system pulls nitrogen and other minerals from deep within the soil, and stores these elements within its roots and leaf structure. Upon turning under the crop, nitrogen and other elements are released or recycled back just underneath the soil surface so the next crop can utilize the nitrogen that once was beyond reach and leaching away.
Growing grains as a cover crop provides other options such as forage for animals or food for people. We strive to offer varieties that give gardeners flexibility on how to best utilize the crop: for food, forage, or green manure.
Winter Wheat
Plant late September to early October. Also known as pastry wheat. A great all purpose crop that works three ways. When fall sown, it grows quickly and overtakes fall weeds, then as the cold days of winter begin, it goes dormant. Spring arrival brings re-growth that can be turned under as a green manure. If left to grow, winter wheat makes good forage for livestock; or if allowed to mature it can be harvested mid-summer. Winter wheat is an exceptional, inexpensive and fast growing cover crop that suppresses weeds and disease with its allelopathic effect. Recommended seeding rate: 3-4 pounds per 1000 square feet; 70-150 pounds per acre.
More and more organic growers and gardeners are discovering the long list of benefits that growing cover crops such as oilseed radish, mustards, and forage turnips can provide. The rapid growth of brassicas supplies a thick ground cover that protects the soil from erosion and helps suppress weeds with a dense amount of biomass. Some brassicas have a large taproot that can break through plow or rototiller pans, thus aerating the soil. The roots also scavenge nutrients from deep in the soil and bring them back to the surface where they can be utilized by your next food crop plantings. Other brassica species release chemical compounds that may be toxic to soil borne pathogens and pests such as nematodes, symphylans, and even some weeds. And if left to flower, brassicas are especially popular with beneficial insects.
(A) Annual
(B) Biennial
(P) Perennial

Cereal Rye

Product Description

Rye is a very popular cereal grain for cover crops or forage through the Winter and early Spring. Very aggressive to establish and very winter hardy. Rye is an excellent soil builder too. There are some forage varieties available. The downside for rye for forage is it matures very fast in the Spring so it requires strong management. The hardiest of the cereals, rye can be seeded later in the fall than any other grain or grass. Forage quality is decent if cut at flag leaf stage. Rye matures quickly and therefore many times triticale is a better choice for over wintering forage because of its wider harvest window. Seeding rate: 2 bu/Acre

The hardiest of fall planted cover crops, is the “last chance” crop for late fall plantings. If planted late, it may not provide much winter cover, but if it has germinated, it will show rapid spring growth, suppressing weeds and providing forage or grain for harvest. If planted early enough, it makes a great winter grazing. Rye is inexpensive and easy to establish. It has a fast growing fibrous root system that can take up and hold residual nutrients. It’s an excellent source of residual ground cover for no-till systems. Note: It can tie up nitrogen as it decomposes so N is not immediately available, so compensate.


Drill 1/2 to 3/4 inch deep at 60-200 lbs/A or broadcast or aerial seed into standing corn at the higher rate from early September to November. Use 50-60 lbs/A in mixes.


Can establish in very cool weather in a variety of soil types. It can be killed by incorporating, spraying, or, after boot stage, by mowing or rolling with a stalk chopper. Rye can deplete soil moisture in a dry spring. In a wet spring, it can overwhelm the next crop with residual. Rye has an allelopathy effect which works on suppressing weeds, but may also stunt a following corn crop.

Tags: Byron Seeds, Cereal, Cereal Rye Byron, Rye, Seeds

Secale cereale

Also called: cereal rye, winter rye, grain rye
Type: cool season annual cereal grain
Roles: scavenge excess N, prevent erosion, add organic matter, suppress weeds
Mix with: legumes, grasses or other cereal grains
See charts, pp. 66 to 72, for ranking and management summary. The hardiest of cereals, rye can be seeded later in fall than other cover crops and still provide considerable dry matter, an extensive soil-holding root system, significant reduction of nitrate leaching and exceptional weed suppression. Inexpensive and easy to establish, rye outperforms all other cover crops on infertile, sandy or acidic soil or on poorly prepared land. It is widely adapted, but grows best in cool, temperate zones.

Taller and quicker-growing than wheat, rye can serve as a windbreak and trap snow or hold rainfall over winter. It overseeds readily into many high-value and agronomic crops and resumes growth quickly in spring, allowing timely killing by rolling, mowing or herbicides. Pair rye with a winter annual legume such as hairy vetch to offset rye’s tendency to tie up soil nitrogen in spring.


Nutrient catch crop. Rye is the best cool-season cereal cover for absorbing unused soil N. It has no taproot, but rye’s quick-growing, fibrous root system can take up and hold as much as 100 lb. N/A until spring, with 25 to 50 lb. N/A more typical (422). Early seeding is better than late seeding for scavenging N (46).

A Maryland study credited rye with holding 60 percent of the residual N that could have leached from a silt loam soil following intentionally over-fertilized corn (372). A Georgia study estimated rye captured from 69 to 100 percent of the residual N after a corn crop (220).
In an Iowa study, overseeding rye or a rye/oats mix into soybeans in August limited leaching loss from September to May to less than 5 lb. N/A (313).

Rye increases the concentration of exchangeable potassium (K) near the soil surface, by bringing it up from lower in the soil profile (123).

Rye’s rapid growth (even in cool fall weather) helps trap snow in winter, further boosting winter hardiness. The root system promotes better drainage, while rye’s quick maturity in spring— compared with other cover crops—can help conserve late-spring soil moisture.

Reduces erosion. Along with conservation tillage practices, rye provides soil protection on sloping fields and holds soil loss to a tolerable level (124).

Fits many rotations. In most regions, rye can serve as an overwintering cover crop after corn or before or after soybeans, fruits or vegetables. It’s not the best choice before a small grain crop such as wheat or barley unless you can kill rye reliably and completely, as volunteer rye seed would lower the value of other grains.

Rye also works well as a strip cover crop and windbreak within vegetables or fruit crops and as a quick cover for rotation gaps or if another crop fails.

You can overseed rye into vegetables and tasseling or silking corn with consistently good results. You also can overseed rye into brassicas (369, 422), into soybeans just before leaf drop or between pecan tree rows (61).

Plentiful organic matter. An excellent source of residue in no-till and minimum-tillage systems and as a straw source, rye provides up to 10,000 pounds of dry matter per acre, with 3,000 to 4,000 pounds typical in the Northeast (118, 361). A rye cover crop might yield too much residue, depending on your tillage system, so be sure your planting regime for subsequent crops can handle this. Rye overseeded into cabbage August 26 covered nearly 80 percent of the between-row plots by mid-October and, despite some summer heat, already had accumulated nearly half a ton of biomass per acre in a New York study. By the May 19 plowdown, rye provided 2.5 tons of dry matter per acre and had accumulated 80 lb. N/A. Cabbage yields weren’t affected, so competition wasn’t a problem (329).

Weed suppressor. Rye is one of the best cool season cover crops for outcompeting weeds, especially small-seeded, light-sensitive annuals such as lambsquarters, redroot pigweed, velvetleaf, chickweed and foxtail. Rye also suppresses many weeds allelopathically (as a natural herbicide), including dandelions and Canada thistle and has been shown to inhibit germination of some triazine-resistant weeds (336).

Rye reduced total weed density an average of 78 percent when rye residue covered more than 90 percent of soil in a Maryland no-till study (410), and by 99 percent in a California study (422). You can increase rye’s weed-suppressing effect before no-till corn by planting rye with an annual legume such as hairy vetch. Don’t expect complete weed control, however. You’ll probably need complementary weed management measures.

Pest suppressor. While rye is susceptible to the same insects that attack other cereals, serious infestations are rare. Rye reduces insect pest problems in rotations (448) and attracts significant numbers of beneficials such as lady beetles (56).

Fewer diseases affect rye than other cereals. Rye can help reduce root-knot nematodes and other harmful nematodes, research in the South suggests (20, 448).

Companion crop/legume mixtures. Sow rye with legumes or other grasses in fall or overseed a legume in spring. A legume helps offset rye’s tendency to tie up N. A legume/rye mixture adjusts to residual soil N levels. If there’s plenty of N, rye tends to do better; if there is insufficient N, the legume component grows better, Maryland research shows (86). Hairy vetch and rye are a popular mix, allowing an N credit before corn of 50 to 100 lb. N/A. Rye also helps protect the less hardy vetch seedlings through winter.

(Secale cereale)


Establishment & Fieldwork
Rye prefers light loams or sandy soils and will germinate even in fairly dry soil. It also will grow in heavy clays and poorly drained soils, and many cultivars tolerate waterlogging (63).

Rye can establish in very cool weather. It will germinate at temperatures as low as 34° F. Vegetative growth requires 38° F or higher (361).

Winter annual use. Seed from late summer to midfall in Hardiness Zones 3 to 7 and from fall to midwinter in Zones 8 and warmer. In the Upper Midwest and cool New England states, seed two to eight weeks earlier than a wheat or rye grain crop to ensure maximum fall, winter and spring growth. Elsewhere, your tillage system and the amount of fall growth you prefer will help determine planting date. Early planting increases the amount of N taken up before winter, but can make field management (especially killing the cover crop and tillage) more difficult in spring. See Rye Smothers Weeds Before Soybeans.

Rye is more sensitive to seeding depth than other cereals, so plant no deeper than 2 inches (71). Drill 60 to 120 lb./A (1 to 2 bushels) into a prepared seedbed or broadcast 90 to 160 lb./A (1.5 to 3 bushels) and disk lightly or cultipack (361, 422).

If broadcasting late in fall and your scale and budget allow, you can increase the seeding rate to as high as 300 or 350 lb./A (about 6 bushels) to ensure an adequate stand. Rye can be overseed by air more consistently than many other cover crops.

“I use a Buffalo Rolling Stalk Chopper to help shake rye seeds down to the soil surface,” says Steve Groff, a Holtwood, Pa ., vegetable grower. “It’s a very consistent, fast and economical way to establish rye in fall.” (Groff’s farming system is described in detail at www.cedarmeadowfarm.com).

Mixed seeding. Plant rye at the lowest locally recommended rate when seeding with a legume (361), and at low to medium rates with other grasses. In a Maryland study, a mix of 42 pounds of rye and 19 pounds of hairy vetch per acre was the optimum fall seeding rate before no-till corn on a silt loam soil (81). If planting with clovers, seed rye at a slightly higher rate, about 56 lb. per acre.

For transplanting tomatoes into hilly, erosion-prone soil, Steve Groff fall-seeds a per-acre mix of 30 pounds rye, 25 pounds hairy vetch and 10 pounds crimson clover. He likes how the threeway mix guarantees biomass, builds soil and provides N.

Spring seeding. Although it’s not a common practice, you can spring seed cereals such as rye as a weed-suppressing companion, relay crop or early forage. Because it won’t have a chance to vernalize (be exposed to extended cold after germination), the rye can’t set seed and dies on its own within a few months in many areas. This provides good weed control in asparagus, says Rich deWilde, Viroqua, Wis.

After drilling a large-seeded summer crop such as soybeans, try broadcasting rye. The cover grows well if it’s a cool spring, and the summer crop takes off as the temperature warms up. Secondary tillage or herbicides would be necessary to keep the rye in check and to limit the cover crop’s use of soil moisture.

Killing & Controlling

Nutrient availability concern. Rye grows and matures rapidly in spring, but its maturity date varies depending on soil moisture and temperature. Tall and stemmy, rye immobilizes N as it decomposes. The N tie-up varies directly with the maturity of the rye. Mineralization of N is very slow, so don’t count on rye’s overwintered N becoming available quickly.

Killing rye early, while it’s still succulent, is one way to minimize N tie-up and conserve soil moisture. But spring rains can be problematic with rye, especially before an N-demanding crop, such as corn. Even if plentiful moisture hastens the optimal kill period, you still might get too much rain in the following weeks and have significant nitrate leaching, a Maryland study showed (109). Soil compaction also could be a problem if you’re mowing rye with heavy equipment.

Late killing of rye can deplete soil moisture and could produce more residue than your tillage system can handle. For no-till corn in humid climates, however, summer soil-water conservation by cover crop residues often was more important than spring moisture depletion by growing cover crops, Maryland studies showed (82, 84, 85).

Legume combo maintains yield. One way to offset yield reductions from rye’s immobilization of N would be to increase your N application. Here’s another option: Growing rye with a legume allows you to delay killing the covers by a few weeks and sustain yields, especially if the legume is at least half the mix. This gives the legume more time to fix N (in some cases doubling the N contribution) and rye more time to scavenge a little more leachable N. Base the kill date on your area ’s normal kill date for a pure stand of the legume (109).

A legume/rye mix generally increases total dry matter, compared with a pure rye stand. The higher residue level can conserve soil moisture. For best results, wait about 10 days after killing the covers before planting a crop. This ensures adequate soil warming, dry enough conditions for planter coulters to cut cleanly and minimizes allelopathic effects from rye residue (84, 109). If using a herbicide, you might need a higher spray volume or added pressure for adequate coverage. Legume/rye mixes can be rolled once the legume is at full bloom (303).

Kill before it matures. Tilling under rye usually eliminates regrowth, unless the rye is less than 12 inches tall (361, 422). Rye often is plowed or disked in the Midwest when it’s about 20 inches tall (307). Incorporating the rye before it’s 18 in. high could decrease tie-up of soil N (361, 422). In Pennsylvania (118) and elsewhere, kill at least 10 days before planting corn.

For best results when mow-killing rye, wait until it has begun flowering. A long-day plant, rye is encouraged to flower by 14 hours of daylight and a temperature of at least 40° F. A sickle bar mower can give better results than a flail mower, which causes matting that can hinder emergence of subsequent crops (116).

Mow-kill works well in the South after rye sheds pollen in late April (101). If soil moisture is adequate, you can plant cotton three to five days after mowing rye when row cleaners are used in reduced-tillage systems.

Some farmers prefer to chop or mow rye by late boot stage, before it heads or flowers. If rye gets away from you, you’d be better off baling it or harvesting it for seed,” cautions southern Illinois organic grain farmer Jack Erisman (38). He often overwinters cattle in rye fields that precede soybeans. But he prefers that soil temperature be at least 60° F before planting beans, which is too late for him to no-till beans into standing rye.

“If rye is at least 24 inches tall, I control it with a rolling stalk chopper that thoroughly flattens and crimps the rye stems,” says Pennsylvania vegetable grower Steve Groff. That can sometimes eliminate a burndown herbicide, depending on the rye growth stage and next crop.”

A heavy duty rotavator set to only 2 inches deep does a good job of tilling rye, says Rich de Wilde, Viroqua, Wis.

Can’t delay a summer planting by a few weeks while waiting for rye to flower? If early rye cultivars aren’t available in your area and you’re in Zone 5 or colder, you could plow the rye and use secondary tillage. Alternately, try a knockdown herbicide and post-emergent herbicide or spotspraying for residual weed control.

For quicker growth of a subsequent crop such as corn or soybeans, leave the residue upright after killing (rather than flat). That hastens crop development—unless it’s a dry year—via warmer soil temperatures and a warmer seed zone, according to a three-year Ontario study (146). This rarely influences overall crop yield, however, unless you plant too early and rye residue or low soil temperature inhibits crop germination.

Cereal Rye: Cover Crop Workhorse

Talk to farmers across America about cover crops and you’ll find that most of them have planted a cereal rye cover crop. Almost certainly the most commonly planted cover crop, cereal rye can now be seen growing on millions of acres of farmland each year.

There are almost as many ways to manage cover crop rye as there are farmers using it. Climate, production system, soil type, equipment and labor are the principal factors that will determine how you manage rye. Your own practical experience will ultimately determine what works best for you.

Check out how others are managing rye in this book, on the Web and around your region. Test alternatives management practices that allow you to seed earlier or manage cover crop residue differently. Add a legume, a brassica or another grass to increase diversity on your farm.

Reasons for rye’s widespread use include:

It is winter-hardy, allowing it to grow longer into fall and resume growth earlier in the spring than most other cover crops.
It produces a lot of biomass, which translates into a long-lasting residue cover in conservation tillage systems.
It crowds out and out-competes winter annual weeds, while rye residue helps suppress summer weeds.
It scavenges nutrients—particularly nitrogen —very effectively, helping keep nutrients on the farm and out of surface and ground water.
It is relatively inexpensive and easy to seed.
It works well in mixtures with legumes, resulting in greater biomass production and more complete fall/winter ground cover.
It can be used as high-quality forage, either grazed or harvest as ryelage.
It can fit into many different crop and livestock systems, including corn/soybean rotations, early or late vegetable crops, and dairy or beef operations.

Fall management (planting):

While results are best if you plant rye by early fall, it also can be planted in November or December in much of the country—even into January in the deep South—and still provide tangible benefits.
It can be drilled or broadcast after main crop harvest, with or without cultivation.
It can be seeded before main crop harvest, usually by broadcasting, sometimes by plane or helicopter, and in northern climates, at last cultivation of the cash crop. Soil moisture availability is crucial to many of these pre-harvest seeding methods, either for germination of the cover crop or to avoid competition for water with the main crop.

Spring management (termination) is even more diverse:

Rye can be killed with tillage, mowing, rolling or spraying.
It can be killed before or after planting the cash crop, which can be drilled into standing cover crops in conservation tillage systems.
Some want to leave rye growing as long as possible; others insist on terminating it as soon as possible in spring.
Vegetable growers may leave walls of standing rye all season long between crop rows, usually to alleviate wind erosion.

Some examples of rye management wisdom from practitioners around the country:

Pat Sheridan Jr., Fairgrove, Mich. Continuous no-till corn, sugar beets, soybeans, dry beans: “In late August, we fly rye into standing corn (or soybeans if we’re coming back with soybeans the following year). We learned that rye is easier to burn down when it’s more than two feet tall than when it has grown only a foot or less.”
Barry Martin, Hawksville, Ga. Peanuts and cotton. After cotton, in late October or November, we use a broadcast spreader (two bushels of rye per acre), then shred or mow to cover the seed. We usually get enough moisture in November and December for germination. After peanuts, we use a double disc grain drill (1.5 bushels of rye per acre) in mid-September to mid-October.”
Bryan and Donna Davis, Grinell, Iowa. Corn, soybeans, hay. We tried to no-till corn and beans into rye three feet tall, but failed. The C:N ratio was way out of whack. The corn looked like it had been sprayed. If you don’t kill before planting, you will invite insects.” See also Oats, Rye Feed Soil in Corn/Bean Rotation.
Ed Quigley, Spruce Creek, Pa .Dairy. We seed cereal rye (two bushels per acre) immediately after corn silage. We allow as much spring growth as possible up to about 10 inches, at which point it becomes more difficult to kill, especially with cool/overcast conditions. We will also wait to make rylage in spring if we need feed, and then plant corn a bit later.”

In some areas, farmers substitute other small grain cover crops for rye. They are doing so to better fit their particular niches, better manage their systems, or to cut costs by saving small grain seeds. Wheat is a popular alternative to rye. Look around and experiment!
—Andy Clark

Pest Management

Thick stands ensure excellent weed suppression. To extend rye’s weed-management benefits, you can allow its allelopathic effects to persist longer by leaving killed residue on the surface rather than incorporating it. Allelopathic effects usually taper off after about 30 days. After killing rye, it’s best to wait three to four weeks before planting small-seeded crops such as carrots or onions. If strip tilling vegetables into rye, be aware that rye seedlings have more allelopathic compounds than more mature rye residue. Transplanted vegetables, such as tomatoes, and larger-seeded species, especially legumes, are less susceptible to rye’s allelopathic effects (117).

In an Ohio study, use of a mechanical under-cutter to sever roots when rye was at mid- to late bloom—and leaving residue intact on the soil surface (as whole plants)—increased weed suppression, compared with incorporation or mowing. The broadleaf weed reduction was comparable to that seen when sickle-bar mowing, and better than flail-mowing or conventional tillage (96).

If weed suppression is an important objective when planting a rye/legume mixture, plant early enough for the legume to establish well. Otherwise, you’re probably better off with a pure stand. Overseeding may not be cost-effective before a crop such as field corn, however. A mix of rye and bigflower vetch (a quick-establishing, self-seeding, winter-annual legume that flowers and matures weeks ahead of hairy vetch) can suppress weeds significantly more than rye alone, while also allowing higher N accumulations (110).

“Rye can provide the best and cleanest mulch you could want if it’s cut or baled in spring before producing viable seed,” says Rich de Wilde. Rye can become a volunteer weed if tilled before it’s 8 inches high, however, or if seedheads start maturing before you kill it. Minimize regrowth by waiting until rye is at least 12 inches high before incorporating or by mow-killing after flowering but before grain fill begins.

Rye Smothers Weeds Before Soybeans

An easy-to-establish rye cover crop helps Napoleon, Ohio, farmer Rich Bennett enrich his sandy soil while trimming input costs in no-till soybeans. Bennett broadcasts rye at 2 bushels per acre on corn stubble in late October. He incorporates the seed with a disc and roller.

The rye usually breaks through the ground but shows little growth before winter dormancy. Seeded earlier in fall, rye would provide more residue than Bennett prefers by bean planting—and more effort to kill the cover. Even if I don’t see any rye in fall, I know it’ll be there in spring, even if it’s a cold or wet one,” he says.

By early May, the rye is usually at least 1.5 feet tall and hasn’t started heading. He no-tills soybeans at 70 pounds per acre on 30-inch rows directly into standing rye cover crop. Then, depending on the amount of rye growth, he kills the rye with herbicide immediately after planting, or waits for more rye growth.

“If it’s shorter than 15 to 18 inches, rye won’t do a good enough job of shading out broadleaf weeds,” notes Bennett, who likes how rye suppresses foxtail, pigweed and lambsquarters. I sometimes wait up to two weeks to get more rye residue,” he says.

“I kill the rye with 1.5 pints of Roundup per acre—about half the recommended rate. Adding 1.7 pounds of ammonium sulfate and 13 ounces of surfactant per acre makes it easier for Roundup to penetrate rye leaves,” he explains.

The cover dies in about two weeks. The slow kill helps rye suppress weeds while soybeans establish. In this system, Bennett doesn’t have to worry about rye regrowing.

Roundup Ready® beans have given him greater flexibility in this system. He used to cultivate beans twice using a Buffalo no-till cultivator. Now, depending on weed pressure (often giant ragweed and velvetleaf) he will spot treat or spray the whole field once with Roundup. Bennett figures the rye saves him $15 to $30 per acre in material costs and fieldwork, compared with conventional no-till systems for soybeans.

Rye doesn’t hurt his bean yields, either. Usually at or above county average, his yields range from 45 to 63 bushels per acre, depending on rainfall, says Bennett.

“I really like rye’s soil-saving benefits,” he says. Rye reduces our winter wind erosion, improves soil structure, conserves soil moisture and reduces runoff.” Although he figures the rye’s restrained growth (from the late fall seeding) provides only limited scavenging of leftover N, any that it does absorb and hold overwinter is a bonus.

Updated in 2007 by Andy Clark

Insect pests rarely a problem. Rye can reduce insect pest problems in crop rotations, southern research suggests (448). In a number of mid- Atlantic locations, Colorado potato beetles have been virtually absent in tomatoes no-till transplanted into a mix of rye/vetch/crimson clover, perhaps because the beetles can’t navigate through the residue.

While insect infestations are rarely serious with rye, as with any cereal grain crop occasional problems occur. If armyworms have been a problem, for example, burning down rye before a corn crop could move the pests into the corn. Purdue Extension entomologists note many northeastern Indiana corn farmers reported this in 1997. Crop rotations and IPM can resolve most pest problems you might encounter with rye.

Few diseases. Expect very few diseases when growing rye as a cover crop. A rye-based mulch can reduce diseases in some cropping systems. No-till transplanting tomatoes into a mix of rye/vetch/crimson clover, for example, consistently has been shown to delay the onset of early blight in several locations in the Northeast. The mulch presumably reduces soil splashing onto the leaves of the tomato plants.

If you want the option of harvesting rye as a grain crop, use of resistant varieties, crop rotation and plowing under crop residues can minimize rust, stem smut and anthracnose.

Other Options
Quick to establish and easy to incorporate when succulent, rye can fill rotation gaps in reduced tillage, semi-permanent bed systems without increasing pest concerns or delaying crop plantings, a California study showed (216).

Erol Maddox, a Hebron, MD. grower, takes advantage of rye’s relatively slow decomposition when double cropping. He likes transplanting spring cole crops into rye/vetch sod, chopping the cover mix at bloom stage and letting it lay until August, when he plants fall cole crops.

Mature rye isn’t very palatable and provides poor-quality forage. It makes high quality hay or balage at boot stage, however, or grain can be ground and fed with other grains. Avoid feeding ergot infected grain because it may cause abortions.

Rye can extend the grazing season in late fall and early spring. It tolerates fall grazing or mowing with little effect on spring regrowth in many areas (210). Growing a mixture of more palatable cover crops (clovers, vetch or ryegrass) can encourage regrowth even further by discouraging overgrazing (329).

Management Cautions
Although rye’s extensive root system provides quick weed suppression and helps soil structure, don’t expect dramatic soil improvement from a single stand’s growth. Left in a poorly draining field too long, a rye cover could slow soil and warming even further, delaying crop planting. It’s also not a silver bullet for eliminating herbicides. Expect to deal with some late-season weeds in subsequent crops (410).


Rye is more cold- and drought-tolerant than wheat.
Oats and barley do better than rye in hot weather.
Rye is taller than wheat and tillers less. It can produce more dry matter than wheat and a few other cereals on poor, droughty soils but is harder to burn down than wheat or triticale (241, 361).
Rye is a better soil renovator than oats (422), but brassicas and sudangrass provide deeper soil penetration (451).
Brassicas generally contain more N than rye, scavenge N nearly as well and are less likely to tie up N because they decompose more rapidly.

Seed sources. See Seed Suppliers.

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It is not too late to plant cover crops

The days are getting shorter and the nights are getting cooler so many people feel that it is too late to plant cover crop. That is not completely accurate. While it is true that it is too late to plant the majority of cover crops it is not too late to plant cereal rye. Cereal rye is one of the best cover crop choices that we have in Michigan. It can be put in many different crop rotations and has proven to be an excellent cover crop.

Cereal rye, also called winter rye, is a cold hearty cover. It can germinate in temperatures as low as 34 degrees F in the fall and in the spring it will start to grow at 38 degreesF. Cereal rye can be established in a variety of soil types as well as quality. It can grow in rich organic soils as well as poor sandier soils. The preferred pH range is between 5.0-7.0. It is important to make sure that rye is planted at the correct depth. Drilling depth should be between ¾ to 1 ½ inches at a rate of 55-175 pounds per acre. The rate for broadcast is 60-185 pounds per acre and for aerial application it is 65-205 pounds per acre.

Cereal rye has many outstanding qualities that are looked at when considering cover crops. It is an excellent nitrogen scavenger. It will seek out nitrogen in the soil and will hold it for the next crop. It also frees up potassium that is deeper in the soil profile so it can be later used by crops. Rye also can be used as a weed suppressor. Rye can be easily established and if the population is dense enough it will outcompete weeds. Some of the weeds that it will suppress are redroot pigweed, velvetleaf, chickweed, lambsquarter, and foxtail. Rye also has an allopathic effect on some weeds including dandelions and Canada thistle. Rye can also be used as a feed source for livestock. Rye is also excellent at helping build soil organic matter.

The biggest challenge for using rye as a cover crop is terminating the plant in the spring. As rye grows it will pull nitrogen from the soil and hold it in its stem. Unfortunately the release of the nitrogen from the plant as it decomposes is slow and not quickly available. Rye will also utilize any moisture in the soil, so if it is a dry spring a late killing of the rye could have negative effects on the following crop. To maximize the benefits of the rye terminate the crop before it matures. Termination method can be either mechanical or chemical. It needs to be done when the rye is between 8 and 12 inches. Rye can also be green chopped as forage when it is in the boot stage.

For more information on cereal rye visit the Michigan State University Cover Crops web page http://www.covercrops.msu.edu or the Midwest Cover Crop Council website at http://www.mccc.msu.edu . For assistance on cover crops contact Paul Gross, [email protected] or Christina Curell, [email protected]

9 Things to Know About Annual Ryegrass

Cover crops are gaining more interest among Midwestern corn and soybean growers looking to improve soil quality, combat compaction, eliminate erosion and maximize soil nutrients.

“Cover crops provide ground cover over the winter to help improve soil quality and increase crop production,” said the late Mike Plumer, an extension educator with the University of Illinois based in Carbondale, Ill. “By improving soil quality and the rooting of the corn or soybean crop, you get more consistent yields, rather than having large swings from one year to the next.”

Although a variety of grasses, cereal grains, legumes and oilseeds are used as cover crops, Plumer says one effective option to improve crop rooting is annual ryegrass.

Annual ryegrass is different from cereal rye, Plumer said in an interview. As a Midwestern cover crop, it’s typically planted in early September, either aerially over standing crops, or it’s planted soon after harvest using a grain drill or broadcast applicator with light tillage. It’s then burned down in the spring, typically with a glyphosate herbicide, prior to planting row crops into the field.

Midwestern growers that plant annual ryegrass early in September can expect up to 20 inches of root growth by late December, according to Nick Bowers, an annual ryegrass seed producer and co-owner of KB Seed Solutions in Harrisburg, Ore. Bowers says the fall growth provides soils with an excellent supply of organic matter because of ryegrass’ massive root system.

“Growers who use annual ryegrass as a cover crop for just 2 years say they see soil tilth improvements comparable to using a mechanical ripper to break up hardpan compaction,” Bowers says.

Annual ryegrass survives the winter approximately 75% to 80% of the time, according to Bowers. Planting dates, variety type and winter weather patterns, including snowfall which can insulate plants in extremely cold temperatures, are all factors that affect winter survivability.

Pete Bussey, a corn and soybean grower in Greenville, Ohio, says using annual ryegrass helped mitigate compaction problems at his operation due to spring manure applications.

“The annual ryegrass has a tremendous amount of roots that will grow right through the compacted soil,” he says. “This allows air and water to move. After the ryegrass dies, those roots leave spaces where the corn or soybean roots can follow.”

Bussey and his family have noticed that it’s easier to operate equipment where ryegrass has been planted.

In addition to enhancing root systems, annual ryegrass and other cover crops help keep soil and nutrients in the field.

“Overwintering cover crops will help keep soil in place, which will help keep phosphorus in place, and grass cover crops will uptake nitrogen in the soil profile and carry it through from the fall to the spring,” Plumer says.

“Ryegrass is like a bank that holds nitrogen during the fall and spring, and then releases it in the soil when it is killed,” Bowers adds. “When that ryegrass is killed in the vegetative stage of growth, most of the nitrogen is available to the corn crop 6 to 8 weeks later, just when it is needed most.”

Here are 9 things to consider if you are thinking about planting annual ryegrass.

1. Do your homework. Growing any cover crop, including annual ryegrass, requires growers to learn a new set of management skills. Consult experienced growers in your area about their management techniques, challenges and successes in using cover crops. Look for seed suppliers that can provide in-depth technical information about planting, management and burndown. A good source of information is the Oregon Ryegrass Growers Seed Commission.

2. Start small. Bowers and Plumer both recommend that first-time ryegrass growers plant a small plot the first year. “Begin with a small check strip with 30 or 40 highly erodible or compacted acres,” Bowers says. “This allows you to learn techniques required to grow ryegrass and judge the benefits for yourself.”

3. Select a winter-hardy variety. “There are a lot of varieties out there and a lot of them don’t work because they aren’t winter hardy,” Plumer says. He recommends reviewing university variety trials within your region and talking with grass seed dealers to select a “good, vigorous growing variety that’s winter hardy.”

4. Plant early. The ideal planting window for annual ryegrass is September 1 to September 20 for most areas in the Midwest, says Plumer. This allows approximately 60 days of growth prior to a hard freeze. “Ryegrass has to be planted early in the fall in order to establish a stand and survive the winter,” he says.

5. Understand planting methods. Annual ryegrass can be planted using a standard grain drill following corn or soybean harvest, or it can be broadcast over the top of a maturing crop using an airplane or high-clearance sprayer. Another option is to seed ryegrass after harvest with a fertilizer applicator followed by light incorporation.

Bowers and Plumer each say that drilling is typically the most cost-effective option and provides the best germination results because of good seed-to-soil contact. The drawback is timing — you have to wait until after harvest to plant.

If you do drill, be sure to set the drill properly. “Seed should be placed into the ground between 1/8th and 1/2 inch deep,” Bowers says. “Do not plant too deep.” The recommended drill seeding rate is 10 to 15 pounds per acre.

Many growers opt for aerial seeding to get the ryegrass growing earlier. Seed can be flown onto fields after corn begins to turn yellow-brown or soybeans are at the leaf yellowing stage prior to first leaf drop. The recommended seeding rate for aerial application is 20 to 25 pounds per acre. Bowers says costs typically run about $25 to $30 per acre with custom aerial application.

6. Judge the roots, not the grass. “With annual ryegrass, what is below the soil is more important than what’s on top of the soil,” Bowers says. “You really don’t know what you have until you start digging up the roots to evaluate the depth and volume under the surface.” In addition to fall growth, Bowers says it’s not uncommon to see 10 to 40 inches of early spring root growth when the crop survives over the winter.

7. Manage burndown carefully. Perhaps the biggest management challenge in growing annual ryegrass is properly orchestrating the burndown. Bowers urges growers to be patient in the spring and wait to kill ryegrass until after daytime temperatures are consistently above 50 F for the glyphosate to be most effective.

“Glyphosate doesn’t translocate well during cold weather,” says Dan Towery, Oregon Ryegrass Growers Seed Commission’s Midwest Educational Coordinator. He says a good rule of thumb is to wait to spray until the annual ryegrass is approximately 8 to 10 inches in height or about 2 weeks before planting corn or soybeans.

He also suggests growers pick a sunny day to spray and stop spraying by midafternoon as translocation stops with darkness. Be sure to control water hardness and pH to improve glyphosate effectiveness.

8. Think long term. Using a cover crop is not a 1-year fix for damaged soils, Bowers says. “Cover crops are something you may need to think about doing every year or every other year to achieve lasting results,” he says.

9.) Check out EQIP and CSP incentives. Growers using cover crops are eligible for cost-share funding through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Additional funding is available through the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) for growers using cover crops as part of a conservation system. Visit your local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service office to learn more.

What Is Winter Rye Grass: Growing Winter Rye As A Cover Crop

Cover crops are planted to minimize soil erosion, increase beneficial microbiological activity and generally improve soil tilth. Considering growing a cover crop? There are many to choose from but winter rye is a standout. What is winter rye grass? Read on to learn more about growing winter rye grass as a cover crop.

What is Winter Rye Grass?

Winter rye is the most winter hardy of all the cereal grains. It tolerates temperatures down to -30 F. (-34 C.) once established. It can germinate and grow in temps as low as 33 F. (.5 C.). Winter rye should not be confused with ryegrass.

Ryegrassis used for lawns, pasture and hay for livestock, while winter rye is used as a cover crop, forage crop or as a grain that is used to make flour, beer, some whiskey and vodkas, or can be eaten whole as boiled rye berries or rolled like rolled oats. Winter rye is closely related to barleyand wheat, and is a member of the wheat family, Triticeae.

Why Should I Plant Winter Rye Grass?

Growing winter rye grass as a cover crop is an excellent choice. It’s inexpensive, readily available, easy to sow and grow, and easy to till under. It produces more dry matter in the spring than other cereal grains and its extended, deep roots have a beneficial effect on tilth.

The prolific root system also enables winter rye to withstand drought better than other cereal grains. Winter rye cover crops also grow in low fertility soil better than other grains.

How to Grow Winter Rye Cover Crops

As mentioned, growing winter rye grass as a cover crop is quite simple. It thrives in well-draining loamy soil but is also tolerant of heavy clay or sandy soil. The preferred pH for growing winter rye is 5.0-7.0, but it is unfussy and will grow in the range of 4.5-8.0.

Winter rye cover crops are sown in the late fall near the first light frost. To assure a good amount of groundcover to protect against winter soil erosion, a high seeding rate is used. Rake the garden smooth and broadcast 2 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet. Take lightly to cover the seed and then water. Do not sow rye more than 2 inches deep.

Rye rarely needs any additional fertilizer, as it uptakes nitrogen in residual soil when it follows other crops that have been fertilized with nitrogen. As winter wanes and days lengthen, rye’s vegetative growth stops and flowering is induced. If allowed to flower, rye can be slow to decompose. Therefore, it is better to cut it back and till it into the soil when it is between 6-12 inches tall.

Why Rye? Cereal rye is an excellent winter cover crop because it rapidly produces a ground cover that holds soil in place against the forces of wind and water. Rye’s deep roots help prevent compaction in annually tilled fields, and because its roots are quite extensive, rye also has a positive effect on soil tilth.

Compared to other cereal grains, rye grows faster in the fall and produces more dry matter the following spring–up to 10,000 pounds per acre, although 2 tons is more typical in the Northeast. Rye is the most winter-hardy of all cereal grains, tolerating temperatures as low as -30°F once it is well established. It can germinate and grow at temperatures as low as 33°F, but it sure won’t grow very much when it’s that cold.

When sown in late fall, around the time of the first light frost, winter rye is still able to put on just enough growth to provide some protection against soil erosion over the winter. High seeding rates should be used for late-sown winter covers to assure a decent amount of ground cover, since individual plants will be small.

Growing Rye. Cereal rye thrives on well-drained loamy soils but it’s tolerant of both heavy clays and droughty, sandy soils. Rye can withstand drought better than other cereal grains, in part because of its prolific root system. It grows best with ample moisture, but excessive rainfall can suppresses subsequent vegetative growth and flooding can it. Rye can grow in low-fertility soils where other cereal grains may fail. Optimum soil pH is 5.0 ­ 7.0, but pH in the range of 4.5 ­ 8.0 is tolerated.

Suggested seeding rates are 1 to 2 bushes per acre if drilled, 1.5 to 3 bushes per acre if broadcast and lightly tilled in. A bushel of rye is said to weigh 56 pounds. It’s best to use seeding rates on the high side if planting into a rough seedbed, seeding late in the fall when growing time will be limited, or trying to establish rye on a field that has a high potential for erosion. Rye is more sensitive to seeding depth than some other cereals, and it should not be sown more than 2 inches deep.

Rye will often respond to a modest application of nitrogen (N) fertilizer, but when it follows corn and other crops that have been well-fertilized with N it seldom requires additional fertilizer. Rye has a good ability to scavenge residual soil N when it follows other crops, and it is commonly grown for this purpose. This reduces the potential for nitrate leaching into groundwater and it conserves N fertilizer inputs, which saves money.

Flowering in rye is induced by 14 hours of light in spring. Vegetative growth stops when reproduction begins. If allowed to grow to maturity, rye residues tend to have a high carbon to nitrogen ratio and high percentages of lignin and cellulose, so they can be slow to decompose.

Excessive amounts of spring residue produced by rye can delay cash crop planting and actually decrease the availability of N to subsequent crops as N is tied up or ‘immobilized’ by the decomposing residues. To avoid these problems, and to avoid ‘grow-back’ of the rye, it is best to thoroughly incorporate it when it is between 12 and 18 inches tall and still relatively succulent. In some years wet spring weather may prevent timely field operations, resulting in larger amounts of rye residue than desired.

Rye plus Legume. Winter rye can also be grown in mixtures with a legume such as hairy vetch and/or crimson clover. During the fall and winter, cereal rye protects the soil, scavenges soil-N, and acts as a nurse crop for the legume. In spring, rye provides structural support for the climbing legumes. The relatively high N content of legumes reduces the overall C:N ratio of the rye/legume mixtures, and increases the nitrogen available to the following crop.

When growing a winter rye and legume mixture, the rate of winter rye seeding should be reduced to no more than a bushel per acre to allow space for the legume to grow. A seeding rate of about 20 to 30 pounds of hairy vetch per acre is recommended. The mixture should be sown several weeks before the typical first fall frost date to allow time for the legume to adequately establish so it can survive the winter.

In winter hardiness zones 6 and above, about 10 pounds of crimson clover can be added to the mix above, or the clover can be sown at 15 to 20 pounds per acre in place of the vetch. In fields where they have not been grown before, legume cover crops should be inoculated with the proper Rhizobium bacteria to be sure that root nodules are formed and nitrogen fixation takes place.

A mixture of hairy vetch plus rye can produce a lot of biomass that can enhance soil quality while providing a significant amount of nitrogen to a subsequent crop. If a fine seedbed is needed the following spring, it may be better to mix hairy vetch with oats, which winter kill in northern locations, since there will be less plant residue to deal with than will be the case with mature rye stems

Allelopathic Effects. Cereal rye produces several compounds in its plant tissues and releases root exudates that apparently inhibit germination and growth of weed seeds. These allelopathic effects, together with cereal rye’s ability to smother other plants with cool weather growth, make it an ideal choice for weed control.

However, allelopathic compounds may suppress germination of small-seeded vegetable crops as well if they are planted shortly after the incorporation of cereal rye residue. Large-seeded crops and transplants rarely are affected. There is some evidence that the amount of allelopathic compounds in tillering plants is lower than in seedlings.

Rye for No-Till. Because it leaves a lot of residue on the soil surface, no-till rye can be an effective way to avoid erosion and help control weeds. Mowing or using a burn-down herbicide are two common methods of killing a rye cover crop for no-till plantings. To kill rye by mowing, it should be done at flowering when the anthers are extended, and pollen falls from the seed heads when shaken. If mowing is done earlier, the rye simply grows back. Studies are underway looking at rolling instead of mowing as a means of physically killing winter rye.

For no-till to be effective, it’s important to first grow a very good stand of rye before killing it. When rye is left as a surface mulch it is difficult if not impossible to manage escaped weeds with mechanical cultivation. Thus, a poor no-till cover may be worse than no mulch at all in terms of weed management.

Research at Penn State, Michigan State and elsewhere has looked at the use of a roller-crimper to mechanically kill winter rye for no-till crop production.

Grow your own Mulch. Some growers harvest winter rye to be used for mulching strawberries over winter or for mulching to suppress weeds between vegetable crop rows. Rye can provide a very clean mulch so long as it is cut before any viable seed is set. After mowing it should be allowed to thoroughly dry in the field and then baled using traditional baling equipment.

These windrows of rye will be baled and stored for mulching strawberries over the winter.

To learn more about using winter rye and other cover crops, get the book Managing Cover Crops Profitably. It is available for free as a pdf or order online at: http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition.

To view video clips of vegetable farmers in the Northeast describing their cover cropping techniques, go to: http://www.extension.org/article/18439.

Colorado State University

Fall is one of the best times of year to plant cover crops to improve soil. Planting a cover crop is easy, and delivers many benefits.

Winter rye grass is a popular Colorado cover crop, and it’s a natural because it grows well in the warm days of winter, prospers in poor soils and requires only minimal precipitation. Sow winter or perennial rye after you’ve cleared the vegetable or annual flower garden following a killing frost.

Rake the garden smooth, then broadcast seed at the rate of two pounds per 1,000 square-foot area. Rake lightly to cover the seed, then water. Generally, two or, at most, three fall waterings are enough to germinate and establish rye.

Allow rye to grow through the winter. By spring it will be six to 12 inches high. Before planting in the spring, mow rye grass to chop tops into smaller pieces, and then cultivate to turn it under. The plant residues break down quickly adding needed organic material to improve soil structure and drainage, and improve the soil’s ability to hold nutrients.

Winter cover crops also minimize winter soil erosion, add two seasons of plant growth for soil improvement in one year, and increase beneficial microbiological activity through plant growth in poor soils.

Winter rye is inexpensive and is available at most nurseries and garden centers in the fall. Sowing is easy, and the effort required to grow and turn under the rye grass is minimal. If your soil isn’t all you’d like it to be, you can’t afford not to plant a cover crop this fall.

For more information, see the following Planttalk Colorado script.

  • Cover Crops

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