Experimenting with Relay Rye
August 5, 2020

Today, we want to give an update on the relay crop, now that the rye portion of the trial has all been wrapped up. One of the main things to consider as we expand cover cropping is that we need to be able to grow more cover crop seed. Cover crops are a key tool to protect water quality, sequester carbon and implement sustainable ag systems. The problem with implementing small grains like rye, barley, or wheat is that per-acre economics can be tough to pencil out. What I mean by that is that land expenses, equipment expenses and other fixed costs are super high on a per acre/per year basis. So utilizing a small grain that doesn’t yield like a corn or soybean crop does, and doesn’t have the same economics per acre can make small grain implementation a challenge. 

On our farm, we need more cover crop seed for ourselves which is an expense for us every year, so why don’t we try to grow our own cover crop seed? If we are planting cover crops anyway, we may as well try to harvest some of it. However, we realized the economics weren’t quite right, so we tried a relay crop in 2019 and harvested wheat.  Things went well and it opened us up to produce cereal rye this year with soybeans grown on the same acre.  This relay cropping system works great as the key is to relay a small grain and a legume (soybean crop) together. 

So, how did all of this go down? The 2020 relay crop field was corn in 2019. We had great yields, then came in and drilled a cereal rye cover crop. We increased the rate of the cover crop to 60lbs per acre and we used a better quality seed that had enhanced germination and vigor. We drilled the seed at 7.5 inch spacing using our no-till drill, nothing fancy. This spring we came in with a total of 150lbs of dry fertilizer per acre: MAP, Potassium Sulfate, and Urea.

relay rye crop

On May 1st, we drilled in a full-season soybean, which for our area of Southeast Iowa is a 3.6 – 3.8 maturity soybean.  The rye was about 15 inches tall. The key is to use full-season soybeans because of the timing and photoperiod. We sprayed fungicide on this rye right before it was going to seed. What we discovered in 2019 was that the quality of our relay crop wheat wasn’t superb so we used the fungicide to help with the quality component. 

On July 6 we attempted to harvest the rye but the rye was still too wet at about 24% moisture.  On July 10, we tried again and were able to harvest about 30 bushels to the acre with an average moisture of 18%. We spread this rye on the floor of the grain bin to allow for circulation and drying of the grain to make sure it doesn’t spoil. We will use this rye as cover crop seed later this fall. 

The key to the diversification of our farm is that this was done using our normal soybean/cover crop drill. It’s a 20-foot Great Plains no-till drill. When we came back through and harvested the rye, we used our regular soybean platform but kept the cutter head above the soybeans. This allows us to cut the seed heads right at the top of the soybeans without clipping them. The soybeans are now growing really well. The combine wheel tracks are not fully recovered and closed in, but sacrificing some beans to focus on profitability overall is key anyway. 

At the end of the day, we have a rye crop that produced 30 bushels per acre. That rye is worth about $5.50 per bushel right now, which isn’t a lot but we’re working on a new cost-share program to help farmers adopt small grain systems. We are still finding success because we have some revenue and cost savings coming from the rye, and not a ton of expenses going into producing it. We’re hoping to still pull 65 bushels of soybeans off this field. We are giving up around 10%-15% yield on the soybeans but at the end of the day, it’s about being profitable and implementing the principles of soil health. It’s about making your farm economically resilient and environmentally sustainable. 

We will definitely expand this concept going forward! Stay tuned! 

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