Growing cereal rye in the Northeast offers challenges, opportunities

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Cereal rye has been increasing in popularity as a cover crop; however, it provides other benefits and a few issues, as discussed in “Growing Cereal Rye in the Northeast,” a talk presented at the NOFA-NY winter conference recently by Todd Hardie, owner of Thornhill Farm in Greensboro, VT, and Sandy Syburg, owner of White Oak Farm in Oconomowoc, WI.

Hardie said his farm plants 24 acres of cereal rye, which supplies area bakeries and a distillery. The farm planted mid-September last year and it will be harvested by mid-August this year.

“One of our challenges has been fertility,” Hardie said. To address this, the farm applied two tons of lime per acre in June 2020. Another issue was that his seed company gave him a rye and vetch mix, not just cereal rye. Despite this, he had his highest yield ever in 2021.

“It’s always exciting to get closer to harvest,” Hardie said. “For the last five out of six years, it was August 12. It always looks ready before it is.” Instead of allowing anticipation to get the better of his judgement, he uses a moisture meter and watches for the moisture decrease from 25% down to 17%. It also helps to see the rye start to fall over.

For the past three years, he’s paid local farmer Seth Johnson to harvest his rye. Johnson’s larger, more efficient equipment can complete the job in two days rather than the 12 it would take Hardie. “We have to plan our schedule based on when he can come,” Hardie said. “It does mean that we have to pay more attention to cleaning. The second cleaning of the day of harvest is before the rye goes into the silo.”

The cleaning removes most of the weed seeds, weed leaves and rye particulate matter that surrounds the berry so that the rye can begin to dry in the silo immediately, as long as the relative humidity is low enough.

Growing cereal rye in the Northeast offers challenges, opportunities

Todd Hardie hires help for his harvest, which is the less expensive and fastest way for him to harvest rather than doing it himself. Photo courtesy of Todd Hardie

When Hardie began, he planted 110 – 114 pounds of rye per acre. When advised to increase it to 144 pounds, he found he increased his yield and had less weed pressure. He also found that the density helped the field retain more moisture. He plants buckwheat and oats every third year to give the fields a year off from cereal rye.

“We don’t have implements and markets for other grains,” Hardie said. “My friends all plant wheat and do a good job with that and corn. We are focused on rye. It’s probably not the best thing.”

His distillery customer, Caledonia Spirits in Montpelier, VT, has so far made 53 barrels of Thornhill Farm rye whiskey with his rye. “I see whiskey as the highest return on grain,” Hardie said. “It helps us meet our operational costs, cost of equipment, taxes, machinery and we get the highest price selling to the distillery and partnering with them on whiskey.” The whiskey is 84% rye and 16% malted barley. The whiskey ages for six years and is scheduled for release soon.

Syburg has operated a few different businesses in agriculture, including composting and selling organic fertilizer. These days, he farms 700 certified organic acres of crops with another 1,200 in transition, plus 215 acres of organic pasture for organic beef and dairy. His crop acres include corn, barley, rye, wheat, buckwheat, vetch and peas. He also raises dry edible beans, alfalfa and sunflowers.

“We’re deeply committed to certified organic,” Syburg said. “We’re having challenges throughout the organic industry, but it’s headed in the right direction.”

The farm has expanded considerably. Growing a variety of seed crops represents a key way Syburg gains higher returns for his efforts.

“Rye has been increasingly valuable,” he said. “We’ve moved away from the pounds per acre. Last year, we grew four different varieties of rye for seed and they all have different pounds per acre but I agree with planting thicker to get better weed protection.”

He looks at germination rates and seeds per pound. That helps him calculate the seeding rate, which can vary from 75 – 200 pounds/acre. He typically plants rye after corn, often very late in the year. In spring, he goes back in with frost seed cover.

The seeds are cured and dried with air – no heat – to preserve their germination. “It allows us to take advantage of a dry spell and get some of that grain field dried,” Syburg said. “It goes through the combine nicely.”

He likes the cover effect of the rye crop; in fact, he hasn’t seen much weed pressure when he has grown a good stand of rye.

“As far as fertility goes, not adding manure and using the deep roots of rye and its ability to scavenge, we’re maximizing that efficiency,” Syburg said. “Little or no applied nitrogen works in our system.”

The farm’s mixed soil types have proven challenging; however, planting rye has helped the farm even out the fertility and achieve more consistent yields in subsequent years.

He’s studied numerous varieties of rye and found that the differences among them matter. Aroostook, for example, is difficult to grow, but offers tall, lanky biomass, which is great in a crimp cover system – “but to get it off as harvestable grain is a challenge,” Syburg said.

He likes the higher yield potential of Hazlet. But finding out what rye works best can be individualized. “The interesting thing is figuring out what works well in your soils,” Syburg said.

It also matters how the rye will be used. “Flavor aspects are metrics that until recently have not been explored,” Syburg said. “It’s great we’re as farmers looking at metrics other than yield.”

For more information, visit uvm.edu/extension/nwcrops.

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