Co-Ordinated Research Supports Grain Rye Growth - Agrii - Connecting Agri-science with farming

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August 14, 2020

Co-Ordinated Research Supports Grain Rye Growth

Grain rye is attracting a growing following across the country as the latest research demonstrates its particular abilities in both arable cropping and animal feeding.

From less than 1000ha currently being grown in the UK, Agrii specialists who have been putting the crop to the test agronomically as well as in pig feeding trials over the past four years foresee the national crop increasing to over 5000ha in the coming season. And they believe it has the potential to overtake oats as the third most widely-grown winter cereal.

“Following-on from our extensive research into rye for AD in Yorkshire since 2012, our variety and agronomy trials have shown winter rye to be an extremely robust cereal for UK grain production,” says project leader, Matt Richardson. “The nutritional work we’ve been involved with has also shown major advantages in pig daily liveweight gains, together with improvements in gut health, digestive function and temperament, and reductions in manure production.”

“Based on this work, we are seeing an upsurge in interest in the crop among growers keen to diversify their rotations and pig producers wishing to secure additional improvements in performance, welfare and waste management. We are also developing a buyback on key varieties for harvest 2021 with Glencore for both domestic use and export.

“Sown in October, we have found rye to be highly competitive with weeds, tolerant of difficult growing conditions and able to deliver much higher yields than second wheats at far lower levels of input.

“It copes with challenging soils, harsh winters and droughts – not to mention grassweeds – noticeably better than wheat or barley. Combined with its much lower input requirement, this means valuable opportunities for improving the environmental as well as economic sustainability of arable rotations.”

As a crop, rye is preferred to wheat in many parts of Scandinavia where it has long been used in both animal and human foods. It is widely employed in pig feeding across Europe and the USA. But, until viable alternatives to maize and grass were needed for anaerobic digestion in the north, it remained virtually unknown in the UK outside of those growing it for small-scale pig feeding or as an alternative forage for cattle.

Eight seasons of pioneering work alongside a new AD plant at Agrii’s Brotherton iFarm since then has enabled a large number of varieties to be evaluated and agronomy refined to provide growers with a highly cost-effective feedstock.

The success of this programme led the team to begin exploring opportunities for grain rye production, including a project with KWS, local feed mill, Thompsons of York, and the Bishop Burton pig unit (right next door to the company’s Northern Technology Centre) to investigate its potential for wider pig feeding from 2016.

This suggested rye-based diets could both improve pig performance and reduce aggression, and led Agrii, breeders Elsoms and Saaten Union, and nutritional specialists, Harbro to join forces with Leeds University in a full scientific study of the subject.

Agrii’s crop performance research has been progressively extended into grain production in recent years. To such an extent that the current national trials programme involves 16 varieties from all the main breeders at Cambridge and Aberdeen as well as Bishop Burton.

The most promising varieties are also included in annual Stow Longa grassweed competitiveness evaluations; and a range of lodging, crop protection and other agronomic improvement studies have been undertaken.

“Our Bishop Burton trials showed an average treated yield of 10.96 t/ha across 14 varieties in 2018/19,” reports Agrii northern R&D manager, Jim Carswell. “Individual variety yields ranged from 11.77t/ha to 9.63 t/ha. And the performance around the average untreated yield of 8.36t/ha was even greater at well over 3t/ha.

“We also see major differences in the susceptibility of varieties to lodging. And, equally importantly, in their grain protein and starch contents. So, choosing the right variety is vital with grain rye.

“Helltop and SU Bendix currently stand out in our trials. They both have the right nutritional profile, some of the best 72kg/hl-plus specific weights, stand better than most untreated, and suit AD, grain production or whole crop silaging. Of the two, Helltop is the fastest developer and slightly ahead on treated yield, but there’s not much in it.”

Agronomically, Jim Carswell finds that both varieties only need around 120-160 kg N/ha. He advises applying this in three splits where possible, starting earlier than second wheat to support their very robust winter and early spring growth.

Brown rust is the only real disease watch-out he identifies, with an appropriate T1 + T2 fungicide programme likely to be sufficient to manage it unless infections come in early enough to warrant a T0.

“In 2019 we saw significant levels of rust in our untreated plots by early March, developing rapidly to sap yields in a major way,” he notes. “The treated plots, though, remained remarkably clean right through. In contrast, this season we had negligible brown rust anywhere until early June.”

The tallness of the crop and weight of its ears puts the premium on a good PGR programme, even with the strongest-stemmed varieties. “I strongly advise three sprays here. It’s especially important not to miss the late ‘Terpal timing’ at flag leaf emergence to restrict the length of the final internode. The semi-dwarf varieties we are evaluating for the first time this year would certainly simplify things. However, it’s very much early days yet.”

As for ergot – historically the main concern with grain rye – this has been noticeable by its absence in all the Agrii trial work to date; something the team ascribe to the sheer volume of pollen produced by today’s hybrids. Even so, they are currently investigating a novel titanium-based product said to suppress ergot while enhancing fertility – just in case.

“In gross margin terms at fairly conservative crop values, we reckon a 10.5t/ha crop of grain rye will earn just under £850/ha compared with £790/ha for a 9.5t/ha second wheat and £750/ha for a 10.5t/ha winter barley,” suggests Mr Carswell. “And this is without accounting for the straw, yields of which can typically be double those of wheat or barley.

“Add in its tolerance to take-all and much greater options for grassweed control than winter barley and the crop is certainly an eye-opener as a second cereal from the agronomic point of view.”

Encouragingly, rye has been at least as much of an eye-opener on the pig feeding side in the Leeds University trials published this summer. Daily liveweight gains in the 480 finishing pigs involved in two replicates increased from 0.92kg to 1.11kg as rye inclusion rates in the diet were increased from 0 to 100%. This was accompanied by reductions of up to 7 days in time to slaughter and 0.65kg in daily feed consumption, indicating much greater feed conversion efficiency.

“Our trials suggest an optimum inclusion level of around 60% in finisher diets, explains Agrii national forage product manager, Ben Lowe. “Alongside performance one major pig producer tells us would add the best part of £1 million to his bottom line, the Leeds work found a reduction in ulceration and salmonella, less fighting, minimal tail biting, and lower water intakes with rye in the diet.

“Its higher fibre content resulted in generally ‘happier pigs’, fuller for longer and producing lower volumes of manure,” he notes. “Lower levels of by-pass protein and the highest level of digestible lysine of any cereal almost certainly also contributed to the better performance.
“Together with lower water intakes, the relatively low levels of nitrogen per kg of drymatter and high digestibility of phosphate in rye were also appear to be valuable in minimising the manure’s environmental load as well as volume.”

Based upon the understanding they have developed of the pig feeding value of rye as well as its agronomy, the Agrii team are not surprised at the interest they are seeing in this ‘alternative’ cereal from growers, pig producers and feed manufacturers alike.

“It’s important we develop good markets for rye as well as the best way of growing it if we are to create a sustainable long-term future for this highly promising crop,” Mr Lowe stresses.

“Initially, we believe it will appeal most to pig finishers milling and mixing their own rations, either with home and locally-grown grain, as well as those already producing for AD and wishing to expand rye growing for rotational reasons.

“Beyond this we’re working with the feed industry to explore its inclusion in sow and beef rations, in particular. And we’re not ignoring the opportunities for distilling and milling either. After all, rye has been used for bread-making since the middle ages and offers a number of human health advantages. So, it could well be a classic case of back to the future.”