Winter Rye Makes the Perfect “Sandwich” for Heifers

Maureen Hanson

May 9, 2022

Using the same acres to grow dual crops is paying off handsomely for two Ontario dairy farmers and the heifers they raise.

Corwin Schaap of Brantford and Haete Marks of Arthur each have been planting winter rye for heifer feed for about 7 years. Both dairymen sow it on corn silage or soybean acres as soon as possible after the late summer/early fall harvest.

The growing conditions in southern Ontario are similar to those of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, and Vermont. Schaap and Marks appreciate the winter-hardiness of rye, and the fact that it grows well in their somewhat challenging soil types, which range from heavy clay to clay-loam.

In the spring/early summer, there still is time after the rye is harvested to plant no-till soybeans. At the same time, acres are freed up to move out some late-spring manure. Marks said they plant beans into fresh rye stubble right behind the harvester, then follow with manure. Schaap prefers to wait for a bit of green regrowth, then does a herbicide burn-down and plants into the mat, which provides excellent weed control. As an alternative to soybeans, he sometimes rotates in short-season, corn silage hybrids.

Timing is everything when it comes to harvesting the rye, which both dairies chop for silage that goes into their heifer rations. “We tend to harvest at flag-leaf stage,” said Schaap. “The best feed value would be three leaves before the crop heads out.” Marks waits a bit longer until boot stage, but that’s still before the seed head forms, at which time forage nutritive value drops and the crop becomes considerably less palatable.

A yield of 2 tons per acre is fairly reliable year-to-year for the Marks dairy, with upside potential of 3 tons per acre. Schaap said 3-3.5 tons is their standard, though one season produced a colossal harvest of more than 6 tons per acre.

As heifer feed, ryelage is nearly an ideal feedstuff, because it is high-fiber, low-energy, reasonably palatable, and ensiles well. Its crude protein percentage on a dry-matter basis also falls neatly within recommendations for heifer-growing rations. In recent batch analyses of crude protein %DM, the Marks’ crop was 14.9 and the Schaaps’ was 17.0.

Digestible NDF – important for rumen and digestive development – measured well over 50% on a dry-matter basis for each dairy. Lignin – the tough fiber that interferes with palatability – was admirably low for both dairies, owing to their careful harvest timing. The Schaaps’ result was just 3.3% DM, while the Marks’ reading was even lower at 2.78% DM. Data from other operations provided by the Marks’ lab showed the median lignin percentage for multiple farm samples at 5.07% DM, with the range spanning as high as 7.73%.

In addition to great heifer feed, planting winter rye can improve soil tilth, water-holding capacity, and erosion control. Plus, with the ever-increasing cost of land, fuel, and fertilizer, it’s a resource-maximizer that helps producers do more with less.

“We value the fact that we are able to plant less alfalfa and more cash crops,” said Marks. “This system also builds organic matter in the soil. Plus, tillage is expensive, so we are able to cut that cost.”