Prairie fall rye acres may take a hit this year

Less demand for whisky and rye bread due to the pandemic and this year’s disappointing crop seen as reasons for drop

Fall rye acres could drop in Western Canada as COVID-19 cuts demand for whiskey and reduces restaurant sales of rye bread.

Plus, rye yields were all over the board this summer and some producers were disappointed by their 2020 crop.

“To be honest, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Some guys had exceptional yields and some guys definitely had an off year,” said Colin Herman, director of sales and marketing with FP Genetics, a company that sells hybrid rye, wheat, durum and a number of other seeds.

Hybrid rye yields are about 20 percent higher than open pollinated varieties and hybrid rye has superior falling numbers, making it more suitable for milling into flour.

In the fall of 2019, farmers in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan planted about 220,000 acres of rye. Of that, about 50 percent was hybrid rye, Herman said.

This fall, acres may not reach 220,000.

“Right now, if I had to peg it, (acres) would be flat to slightly down,” he said.

“The larger growers, instead of them putting in a section, they’re only putting in a field.”

Official yield numbers won’t be available for a while, but anecdotal reports suggest yield was highly variable this summer. Herman has heard reports from 60 to 130 bushels per acre.

The fall of 2019 was a cold, wet and difficult harvest. A number of rye growers may have planted the crop at a “less than ideal time,” Herman said. Normally, fall rye is seeded in the last week of August or first couple of weeks of September.

Spring weather was also too dry or too wet, depending on location, and a number of Manitoba growers reported poor rooting of their rye crop.

“If a hybrid is only doing 60 (bu.) there’s some environmental factor,” Herman said.

Production problems normally dampen enthusiasm for a crop, but FP Genetics has been getting many calls from growers who are interested in hybrid rye. As well, visits to a company website, explaining how to grow hybrid rye, are way up.

That’s a positive sign but acres will likely be flat, or decline, because demand for rye is soft and prices are down, compared to the last couple of years. In the fall of 2018, rye bids were around $7 per bu. in parts of Western Canada.

“COVID has had an impact on rye,” Herman said.

There are three markets for rye: distilling, milling and the feed sector.

The first two are depressed and the third is still in development.

Distilling demand for rye has dropped because some distillers have switched their production from whiskey to hand sanitizer, Herman said.

“(And) I would say that the premium products are potentially down. And people are drinking cheaper whiskies, rather than the premium whiskies.”

As for the milling market, a substantial percentage of rye flour is sold to the restaurant and food service trade. With restaurants closed or operating at reduced capacity, demand for rye flour has waned.

The largest opportunity for rye, in the long term, is likely the feed market.

Alberta Agriculture researchers have studied hybrid rye as a feed source for pigs and found it’s a reasonable substitute for wheat in hog rations.

“Fall-planted hybrid rye can completely replace wheat grain in grower-finisher pig diets without affecting feed efficiency, feed cost per pig or feed cost per kilogram,” they wrote in a 2019 paper.

Rye could be used in pig rations but displacing existing sources of feed is not easy. Livestock producers are highly sensitive to price. They will choose a cheaper grain if it’s available.

“If I’m a feeder I want to bulk up that animal for as cheap as I can. If feed barley is at $3 (per bu.), am I going to feed it rye that I have to pay $5?” Herman said. “We know it (rye) is good for the animals… (but) we almost need some prices to drop to get into that feed market.”

Researchers are also studying hybrid fall rye as a potential feed source for cattle.

Vern Baron, an Agriculture Canada scientist in Lacombe, Alta., is studying the “forage quality and economic feasibility of growing hybrid rye compared to more traditional forages,” says the Beef Cattle Research Council website.

The researchers will grow three varieties of hybrid rye, an open pollinated fall rye, winter triticale, winter wheat and other cereals.

They plan to test the digestibility and nutritional quality for cattle and an economic analysis for all the forages. The research will continue until 2023.

Fall rye acres may drop, but a surge of planting is still possible. In August the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corp., the provincial crop insurer, extended the seeding deadline for fall rye and winter wheat to Sept. 25. That expanded the seeding window by 15 days and could encourage additional acres.

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