Saving a rye cover crop for forage or grain

All farmers are looking at ways to decrease cost and have a chance of turning a profit in 2020. One avenue being explored by many farmers is harvesting a rye cover crop for forage or grain. This may be a viable option, but several considerations need to be followed.

Check your herbicide program crop rotation interval

Be sure your herbicide program crop rotation interval (the required time between herbicide application and planting another crop) is met for rye. If a producer does not intend to harvest the cover crop, the rotation interval requirement is not a legal requirement, but if the producer plans on harvesting the cover crop all label restrictions must be followed.

Be sure you have a market

Always have a livestock feeding option in case the grain does not meet grade for seed. Rye may be used to meet some of the current feed shortages many farmers are dealing with.  The rye grain market is not a large market, but there may be some opportunities. Food grade rye markets are pretty restrictive due to quality parameters. Some possible grain markets with their requirements include:

  • Flour: Flour must meet individual market standards (protein, bushel weight, % ergot, presence of smut, DON, etc.) Check with your local markets before making your decision. You may be able to secure a contract for fall delivery.
  • Livestock feed:Rye forage can be fed successfully to cattle. Forage amounts depend on the class of cattle that you are feeding. Rye forage fed to dairy cows is normally limited to about 30% because of the high fiber content, see the following article: and seek advice from your nutritionist. A 50/50 mixture of rye to corn silage has been successful in feeding dairy heifers. Expect lower forage yields with rye seeded to cover crops than rye seeded specifically for forage.Grain levels generally are limited to 25% of the grain ration for dairy, 20% of concentrate for beef or up to 2.2 lb/hd/day in finishing rations and 15% of the grain ration for hogs because of feed refusal above these levels. It is not recommended to feed rye grain to poultry because of issues with wet and sticky excreta (sticky butt).
  • Cover crop seed: Cover crop seed can be sold but follow the legal requirements of the seed you purchased originally. VSN (variety not stated) seed can vary widely by yield and quality but can be resold without any restrictions. Some hybrid varieties cannot be saved for seed even for your own farm.  Penalties for saving seed from these varieties can be very severe. Farmers that are receiving cost share for cover crops, must have the seed tested for germination, etc. at a certified seed testing lab (WI Crop Improvement Association).
  • Straw
  • Local distilling industry: Local distilling markets can be a very good market option, but they have very strict quality standards and generally are not purchasing large qualities of rye grain for their business. Generally, you will need to establish a one-on-one relationship with the distillery to sell into that market.

Treat it like a cash crop, not a cover crop

Plan on adding additional nutrients for forage or grain production, follow guidelines for leaf diseases and scab, and you may need a herbicide application as a rye cover crop is generally not seeded at the same rate as a rye grain crop. Leaf disease treatments are not always needed, so scout when close to flag leaf emergence to determine if needed. You will likely need a fungicide treatment at anthesis for reduction of scab (Fusarium Head Blight), and application timing is critical. Find all pest management recommendations at the following link There are NO fungicide treatments effective on ergot.  For ergot management see the following publication:

Look at your budget

It may seem like saving the rye for harvest is your best option, but do the numbers, for all the reasons stated above.

Example budget:

Income: Expenses:
Grain 40 B/A @ $6/bushel $240 Seed 80 pounds @ $0.26/Lb. $21
 Straw 2 T/A @ $80/Ton $160 Fertilizer $30
Total Income   $400 Chemical Herbicide +Fungicide $36
Harvest Combining + Baling $78
Hauling Grain + Straw $18
Storage Depends on market ??
Land rent $150
Total Expenses $333


Some expenses are already in place – use your numbers.  The yield is based on using a VSN variety and cover crop seeding rate.  Your yield should be significantly higher if you use a recommended hybrid.  Grain price is current market price at local elevators.  Cover crop seed is currently higher than elevator grain prices.  Add cost of seed cleaning, testing, etc. if selling for cover crop seed.

Other implications

  • If you received cost share for cover crops from NRCS, you can harvest for forage, but not for grain. Contact your local NRCS office if there are exceptions.
  • Need to report the change to FSA.
  • Check with your crop insurance company. If the rye has started to head or bud before forage harvest, or you harvest the rye for grain, if you plant another spring seeded crop following harvest, it will not be eligible for crop insurance.  Summer/fall-seeded crops, like establish alfalfa or winter wheat, can be insured.

For more information related to COVID-19 visit

Developed by UW-Madison Division of Extension Agriculture Institute Educators: Ashley Olson – Vernon County, Carl Duley – Buffalo County, Jerry Clark – Chippewa County, Ryan Sterry – St. Croix County, and Bill Halfman – Monroe County Amanda Cauffman,- Grant County, Dr. Megan Nelson Livestock Program Manager.  Reviewed by Dr. Damon Smith – UW-Madison Plath Pathology and Dr. Paul Mitchel – UW-Madison Applied Economics.


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