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Revised February 2022
Rye (Secale cereale) has been cultivated for more than 2,000 years and was the predominant world grain for making bread until the 19th century when it was replaced with wheat. Rye appears to have originated in Southwestern Asia, but the precise area is not known. In the first millennium, rye moved to northern Europe where it spread to the rest of Europe. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europeans brought rye to North and South America. From Europe, it continued to spread to Russia and Siberia. Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Australia and South Africa.
Globally, rye is considered a minor crop compared to wheat and acreage continues to decline in most regions of the world. The largest producers are Germany, Poland and Russia. Rye is an extremely hardy crop. It can survive harsh winters, sandy soils with low fertility and drought conditions. It has very good tolerance to aluminum toxicity so is better adapted to highly acidic soils than other cereals. It requires an estimated 30 percent less water than wheat. In some cases, the production of rye offers the only chance of economic returns on marginal land. There are both winter and spring types of rye. Winter varieties of rye are much more common than spring varieties in the U.S. as well as globally Agronomic characteristics and the end-use quality of winter rye types are generally considered to be superior to spring rye types.
The United States is a significant producer of rye. In 2020 the U.S. produced roughly 11.5 million bushels of rye that was valued at approximately $59.8 million. The marketing year average price for rye in the U.S. in 2020 was $5.20 per bushel. The national average yield for rye is around 35 bu per acre. Winter rye is commonly planted as a cover crop. As an example, in 2021, of the 2.1 million acres planted only 294,000 acres were harvested for grain. Therefore, a significant market for rye can be for seed that will be planted as a cover crop. The states with the most harvested acres of rye are Oklahoma, North Dakota, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The basic management practices and equipment needs for producing winter rye are similar to those of winter wheat within a similar environment. Commonly available winter rye varieties tend to be much more winter hardy than adapted winter wheat varieties. Therefore, compared to winter wheat, management to ensure winter survival is less of a concern with winter rye. There are few active rye breeding programs in the U.S. so procuring certified seed of adapted varieties may be challenging. Use data from variety trials conducted by land-grant universities when available to aid in variety selection and to identify potential sources of seed. Much of the seed currently available that is used for cover crop plantings and is sold as variety not stated (VNS), so when producing rye for grain using VNS seed it is prudent to use seed that was produced in the region where it will be planted to ensure that it is adapted. If rye is grown under contract is likely that the variety will be specified by the buyer and a seed source identified. Hybrids of rye developed in Europe may be adapted to regions of the U.S. Hybrids can be much more productive and uniform in plant types than open pollenated varieties. The seed cost may be justified if a good market for the grain is available.
Recommendations for planting rye as a cover crop can vary from those used for growing rye for grain since the objective of planting a cover crop is to provide cover to the soil without regard for the ultimate yield of the rye crop. Seeding rates may be lower and time of seeding can be adjusted to the fit into the cropping system of interest.
Rye can be grazed in the fall or early spring when fodder is needed. Rye grain can also be fed to livestock. While the feed value of rye is lower than other cereals, recent technological improvements in feed production have allowed a greater proportion of rye to be used in livestock feed rations. Rye straw can be a good source of livestock bedding and in the manufacturing of lightweight composite board for use in flat pack furniture.
With increasing interest in home and artisan baking, there is growing demand for diverse flour types including rye. Rye flour when used in breads and other baked goods adds unique flavors to them. However, rye dough does not have the elasticity and gas-retention properties that wheat has, therefore, rye flour is usually mixed with wheat flour when producing high-volume breads.
Malted rye can be used in making beer and there may be demand for locally produced rye by craft brewers. Rye is also used in alcohol distilling and there is also growing demand for rye by the craft whiskey and other spirits. There are numerous small-batch distilleries that use rye in the production of their products that may be interested in procuring locally produced rye.
Crop Production Summary, 2021, National Ag Statistical Service (NASS), USDA.
Crop Values Annual Summary, 2021, NASS, USDA.
Global Agricultural Trade System (GATS), Foreign Ag Service, USDA.
Small Grains Annual Summary, 2021, NASS, USDA.
Cereal Rye Production Guide – The University of Vermont, University of Vermont Extension.
Growing Rye as a Cover Crop in North Dakota, 2021, North Dakota State University Extension.
Hybrid Rye Production, Albert Lea Seed.