Spotlight falls on forgotten crop

Rye has arrived | Crop is first successful hybrid cereal to be registered in Canada

Rye is a rock star in cereal circles.

It’s the first hybrid cereal registered for commercial release in Canada, in a crop breeding world where much attention is being paid to hybrid wheat and other cereal development.

Pedigreed seed producer FP Genetics of Regina is the first to bring a hybrid cereal into its lineup. Brasetto rye was developed in Germany and approved for interim registration in Canada in February.

“It is a big deal, for a number of reasons,” said Agriculture Canada cereals researcher Jamie Larsen.

“People have been talking about hybrid cereals for a long time, hybrid wheat and barley and stuff, and rye is really the first example of a hybrid cereal that is successful.”

Ron Weik, seed portfolio manager for FP Genetics, said increased yield is a primary attribute of Brasetto.

“It will get about a 25 percent higher yield or maybe better than the best current yielding open pollinated rye variety,” he said.

The hybrid is also shorter, which means less straw to manage, and has uniform growth and maturity for ease of harvest management.

Larsen said hybrid rye heads out in a shorter time frame, and its height is more uniform. Some varieties of open-pollinated rye grow tall, increasing potential for shatter when swathed.

“In comparing hybrids to open pollinated, there’s definitely some advantages. Basically, it comes down to genetics. The hybrids are pure. It’s line A by line B. Genetically they’re quite pure, but the open pollinateds are much more variable.”

Weik said an additional attribute is a higher falling number than existing rye varieties, which means the main target market will be milling and human consumption rather than feed.

Rye was once a more popular crop in Canada. Farmers produced nearly one million tonnes in the early 1980s, but fewer than 400,000 tonnes have been produced annually in the last 10 years.

Weik estimates that 200,000 to 250,000 acres of rye are grown annually in Western Canada now, mostly north of Medicine Hat, Alta., north of Swift Current, Sask., and parts of Manitoba.

He attributes this to lack of interest in genetic improvement, at least until recently. Higher prices for other cereals also shifted focus away from the fall-seeded crop.

However, rye prices have improved of late, trading at $4.75 to $5.25 per bushel f.o.b. the farmgate and are competitive with winter wheat.

The crop’s other attributes have also renewed interest in rye breeding: in open pollinated varieties as well as hybrids.

Larsen’s work on open pollinated rye is funded by the Saskatchewan Winter Cereals Development Commission, which he said seeks several improvements.

Among them is a higher falling number of at least 180 seconds, and Larsen said he thinks that is achievable, particularly because German-bred rye varieties have already achieved that minimum.

As well, Larsen and the commission are seeking open pollinated varieties with less height than Prima or Musketeer but without the reduced yield seen in existing shorter varieties such as AC Rifle, AC Remington and Hazlet.

“The idea is to produce (varieties) that are Hazlet’s height or shorter, which gets kind of closer to where the hybrids are, and then I think we would be in business,” Larsen said.

“There’d be a lot of producers that would be quite interested in this.”

Shorter varieties would also address problems with straw volume at harvest.

Rye is often criticized for its allopathic property, which is an ability to suppress other growth. Larsen said there is another way to look at that.

“My view is that it’s something you should embrace as a producer.”

He said rye was popular in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s because of its ability to suppress weed growth in a time before effective herbicides were available.

As a fall-seeded crop, it releases compounds that inhibit weed seed germination. After harvest, rye straw sitting on the surface will also inhibit growth, but only for two to three weeks, Larsen said.

“People make it out to be the bogeyman, and I don’t think it’s really that at all.”

Following rye with a large-seeded crop, such as soybeans, eliminates the allopathic issue. An extended rotation also addresses issues with rye volunteers.

“Volunteers can be an issue. I would strongly urge you to follow a good rotation. And a good rotation is not cereal on top of cereal. If you can move to a pulse, and then canola or something like that in a more lengthy rotation, you can control it quite easily.”

Rye is also susceptible to ergot, and research is underway to find more resistant varieties.

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