There’s a reason the Midwestern part of the United States is known as the Corn Belt.
A better name in recent years might be the corn and soybean belt because that’s what most farmers grow. But there are other crops out there, and some might be a good fit in many farm operations.
One possibility is hybrid rye, according to Iowa State University agronomist Matt Liebman.
As more farmers plant cover crops, the idea of growing rye might not be as foreign to them as it would have been a decade ago. But hybrid rye is a bit different from the plant being used as a cover crop by some farmers.
Liebman says using hybrid rye or another small grain such as oats can help a farm operation in more than one way. Not only can they provide a different revenue stream, but they can help improve soil quality or reduce erosion and water quality issues.
“This isn’t just diversity for diversity’s sake,” Liebman says. “It contributes in other ways.”
The idea of hybrid rye comes from Europe, where more farmers grow rye as a cash crop and more research and genetic work is being done. A German company, KWS, is importing hybrid rye seed to the United States, and Liebman says the yield can be as much as twice what it is for the open-pollinated rye used in most cover crop mixes. While the open-pollinated rye might yield 35 bushels of seed per acre, the hybrid version might yield 70.
Of course, it also costs more to buy, and farmers would use it differently. It appears to be especially useful for some organic farmers.
Liebman says winter cereals are good for holding on to nutrients that would otherwise wash out of the soil. That means using rye in a rotation could help reduce the inputs needed for corn or could increase yields. They can also provide livestock feed.
One example is a rotation with the hybrid rye being seeded in September. It is harvested the following July and often followed with some kind of nitrogen-fixing cover crop, which is then grazed off. The next spring the field is planted to corn, the following year to soybeans, and then to oats or hay or pasture. The use of the rye can help in dealing with some weed issues, such as giant ragweed.
Of course, Liebman says, oats or other small grains can also fit into a rotation. There is presently an effort to get farmers in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota to grow oats for food usage. One challenge there is to get oat genetics that improve test weights. But oats, combined with red clover, can reduce nitrogen needs in corn.