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Rye forage


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Common names 

Rye [English]; seigle [French]; centeno [Spanish]; centeio [Portuguese]; žito seté [Czech]; rogge [Dutch]; roggen [German]; segale [Italian]; rozs [Magyar]; rug [Norwegian]; żyto zwyczajne [Polish]; råg [Swedish]; çavdar [Turkish]; شيلم مزروع [Arabic]; 黑麦 [Chinese]; שיפון [Hebrew]; Рожь [Russian]

Product names: rye forage, rye pasture, rye hay, rye silage


Secale afghanicum (Vavilov) Roshev., Secale ancestrale (Zhuk.) Zhuk., Secale cereale cv. multicaule Metzg. ex Alef., Secale cereale var. viride Vavilov, Secale cereale var. vulgare Körn. & H. Werner, Secale dighoricum (Vavilov) Roshev., Secale segetale (Zhuk.) Roshev., Secale segetale subsp. dighoricum (Vavilov) Tzvelev, Secale turkestanicum Bensin

Related feed(s) 

Rye (Secale cereale L.) is a tufted annual or biennial grass reaching up to 150 cm high. Rye has an extensive, fibrous root system that may go as deep as 1.5 m. Rye culms are slender, erect, mostly glabrous (except near the spike) (Ecoport, 2011). The leaves are smooth, bluish flat blades, 14 mm broad, shorter than the culms. Rye leaves are smaller than wheat leaves (UC SAREP, 2006). The inflorescence is a curved, much awned, 7-15 cm long spike that bears sessile spikelets at each node. The seeds are oblong, light brown, 0.8 cm long.

Rye is mainly used for its grain (see the Rye grain and by-products datasheet), but it is also a valuable fodder (for pasture, hay or silage) and cover crop during winter. When it is used as cover crop in double cropping systems (a warm season crop followed by rye as late fall crop), harvesting rye forage during spring provides supplementary income to farmers who usually grow maize grain and vegetables (Kelley et al., 2011).

Rye is the tallest and the hardiest annual cereal crop. There are many cultivars of Secale cereale. Diploid cultivars are more drought-hardy than tetraploids (Ecoport, 2011). In Africa, the related species Secale africanum (wild rye) is a palatable pasture species (FAO, 2011).


Rye possibly originated in south-western Asia and became domesticated between 4000 and 3000 BC. It is now usually cultivated in areas with cold winters and warm, dry summers, from 0° to 70° latitude, notably in central, eastern and northern Europe, though it is also grown in Africa, Asia and North America. It grows up to an altitude of 4300 m in the Himalayas (Ecocrop, 2011; Ecoport, 2011). In the tropics, it is only found at high elevations (Brink, 2006).

Rye grows best at temperatures ranging from 15°C to 20°C but can tolerate a wider temperature range (3°C to 31°C). Once well established it can withstand very cold conditions (down to -35°C). Its winter-hardiness is partly due to the structure of the plant, which enables it to capture and hold a protective snow cover (UC SAREP, 2006). Rye grows well under 600 to 1000 mm annual rainfall and is relatively drought-resistant: it can tolerate dry conditions with annual rainfall as low as 400 mm. Rye prefers well-prepared, fertile, well-drained sandy or loamy soils, with a soil pH ranging from 5.6 to 6.5. Because it is tolerant of low temperatures, of droughty conditions and of acid soils, rye may be cultivated in places where wheat cannot grow (Ecoport, 2011).

Forage management 

Rye can be sown with other cereal forages, such as oats (Chelliah et al., 2008), wheat (Bohman et al., 1983), and/or with annual ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum Lam.) (Vendramini et al., 2006; Vendramini et al., 2008a; Vendramini et al., 2008b; Roso et al., 2000). Dry matter yield can reach 1.45 t/ha during mid to late winter (Elbon variety in Arkansas) (Short et al., 1975). When sown in association with ryegrass (rye:ryegrass = 140:30 kg/ha) and with 220 kg N fertilizer per ha, the total DM yield was 9.77 t/ha (Roso et al., 2000). Rye forage is also profitably sown with companion legumes, such as white and red clover or hairy vetch. Rye forage sustains the legume and the association makes full benefit of residual N in the soil (UC SAREP, 2006)

As a fodder crop, rye is helpful in reducing reliance on stored feed during winter periods. Rye can be grazed late in the fall-early winter period and early in the spring. During late fall, grazing stock should enter the sward when it is 15 cm high and should be removed when the grass height is reduced to 5-7 cm. Rye allows very early spring grazing when other cool season pasture grasses are still dormant. It should be grazed rotationally and at high stocking rates in order to prevent it from maturing and losing nutritive value (Samples et al., 2011).

Rye forage can be used to make silage, haylage and wrapped baleage. It is recommended to harvest rye no later than at early boot stage (before heading) in order to maintain good palatability, intake and nutritive value. At this stage, yields are about 5 t DM/ha. After rye forage is cut it should be wilted and then made into silage in tower, bunk, pile or bag silos. Hay making is possible but difficult since forage moisture is too high at the early boot stage for easy drying (Bagg, 2005).

Environmental impact 

Soil improver and water conservation

Sowing rye has many positive effects on soil structure. Because of its fibrous root system, rye makes full use of the various soil layers, and in so doing it improves soil permeability, soil moisture content and soil biodiversity (earthworms); rye forage also prevents leaching of excess soil or manure N (UC SAREP, 2006). Used as green manure, rye provides large amounts of organic matter to the soil. However, when rye is sown for forage, a part of the organic matter is not returned to the soil.

Rye is an undemanding crop that requires 20-30% less water per unit of dry matter than wheat (Ecoport, 2011). During winter, rye forage is a trap for water since it holds snow within its culms and thus prevent it from being scattered by the wind (UC SAREP, 2006).

Soil erosion control

Rye forage prevents soil erosion by water and wind in autumn and winter (UC SAREP, 2006).

Nutritional aspects
Nutritional attributes 

Rye forage crude protein and fibre contents are highly variable and depend on the stage of growth. Between stem elongation and the dough stage, crude protein varies from 22% to 6% and NDF varies from 47% to 70% (INRA, 2007). The NDF, ADF and lignin fractions increase from the vegetative to milk stages, and remain unchanged or slightly increase through the hard dough stage (Edmisten et al., 1998). Higher crude protein (29-31%) and lower NDF (18%) contents are reported in some pastures of South Carolina and Arkansas (Worell et al., 1990; Short et al., 1975).

Much lower crude protein (3%) and higher NDF (84%) contents are reported in straws (Lopez et al., 2005; Guedas et al., 1973).

Potential constraints 

Nitrate poisoning

Nitrates are generally non-toxic to ruminants, but their transformation into ammonia in the rumen produces toxic nitrites that bind with haemoglobin and prevent blood from binding with oxygen. This results in oxygen starvation of the tissues and animal death in the most severe cases (Marais, 2001). Nitrate levels ranging from 0.5 to 1% DM in the plant are considered potentially toxic to ruminants and levels higher than 1% DM are considered dangerous (Yaremcio, 1991).

In rye, nitrate accumulation in the plant can be caused by water stress, cold, diseases and high N fertilizer rates. It is thus recommended to limit access to the stand or to feed livestock with grain before it enters the sward. Ruminants can get used to high-nitrate forage provided that they are progressively introduced to such forage. If rye forage is offered as green chop, silage or hay, it should be mixed with another feed in order to decrease the overall nitrate content of the diet (Yaremcio, 1991).

Grass tetany

Grass tetany generally affects dairy cattle, beef cattle, sheep and goats in the temperate regions of the world when they receive inadequate available magnesium (Mg) in the diet. Grass tetany symptoms are nervousness and twitching, then staggering, collapsing and convulsions that may end up in death (Dalley, 2004). Autumn rye and other lush growing pastures may have low Mg levels after intensive growth (Chelliah et al., 2008). This problem often occurs when the crop has received large amounts of water (rainy spring) and has been heavily fertilized with N and K, because Mg is leached by water, and an over-application of fertilizer. In some cases, the Mg level is nominally adequate but there is an unbalanced mineral ratio if K:(Ca+Mg) is more than 2.2, which is detrimental to Mg availability (Agdex, 2009). Livestock grazing unbalanced pasture or pasture where the Mg is low, have low Mg levels in their blood. This phenomenon is of utmost importance in high-yielding dairy cows, which require extra Mg for fat mobilization and milk production. The recommended safe level of Mg in forage is 2.0 g/kg DM for lactating or pregnant cattle (Grunes et al., 1970; NRC, 2000). However, if N and K are high, the Mg concentration should be at least 2.5 g/kg DM (Grunes et al., 1984). It is possible to prevent the problem by adding Mg fertilizer to the sward, or by feeding animals with an adequate mineral and energy supplement (Agdex, 2009).


Rye grain is susceptible to ergot (Claviceps spp.) infestation. Mycotoxic risk associated to ergotism is negligible when forage is pastured or harvested before flowering but increases after seed-heading (ISPB, 2011). The alkaloids produced by Claviceps purpurea have vasoconstrictor and neurotoxic properties that result in necrosis of extremities, staggering, lameness, hyperthermia and sometimes death (Bourke, 2000; Guerre, 2011).


Compared to other cereals, rye is nutritious at the early stages of growth (vegetative to boot) as a highly digestible green chop or grazing crop that is also high in protein; in contrast, barley and wheat stand out as excellent high yielding, nutritious silage sources at the soft dough stage (Edmisten et al., 1998).


Organic matter digestibility varies widely according to the stage of growth, falling from 84 to 59% between the stem elongation and dough stage (INRA, 2007). Comparable values are reported for silage (55% when harvested at 32% DM, i.e. late milk-early dough stage, Emile et al., 2007), and for hay (57% at the dough stage, Andueza et al., 2004). Changes in digestibility are less marked through the hard dough stage, as observed in vitro (Edmisten et al., 1998). The decrease in nutritive value with maturity is associated with a rapid decrease in the leaf:head DM ratio after the boot stage (Moon et al., 1992).


Data on voluntary intake of fresh rye forage are scarce. In rams, it ranks from 76 to 58 g DM/kg W0.75, depending on growth stage, with an only moderate effect of ensiling (Ferri et al., 1993). Much lower and questionable values have been reported in Holstein heifers for fresh rye forage at the vegetative and flowering stages (20 to 26 g DM/kg W0.75, Moon et al., 1992).

In the Southern Plains of the USA, many beef cattle systems utilize winter wheat and rye from November through May to improve the seasonal balance of forage availability (Gillen et al., 2005). In Florida, small-grain rye is used in association with annual ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum Lam.) to feed weaned beef calves or heifers (Vendramini et al., 2006; Vendramini et al., 2008a; Vendramini et al., 2008b; Roso et al., 2000). A mixture of rye forage and sorghum was fed to Holstein yearling steers (Cardozo, 1984). Mixing rye and wheat in pastures resulted in some cases of grass tetany (see Potential constraints above) in mature beef cows (Bohman et al., 1983).

Goats fed on pure stands of rye had the same growth rate as goats fed on triticale and higher growth than goats fed on fescue (Lema et al., 2007).


Rye can also be used as silage and is particularly valuable if harvested at late milk-early dough grain stage. As opposed to summer crops, the use of whole-plant winter cereals would spare water resources and highlight low-input management systems (Emile et al., 2007). It is preferable to ensile the crop before heading (Moon et al., 1992). The optimal harvest time is very limited and critical because the quality and palatability of the forage decrease more quickly than other cereals at heading stage (Bagg, 2005).

Intake and milk yield of dairy cows appeared lower with rye than with maize silage (Fisher et al., 1987). Whole crops of rye harvested at 37.2% DM (relatively immature, but stemmy) ensiled with NaOH (51 g/kg) improved the digestibility of all feed components other than nitrogen (Tetlow et al., 1987).

Hay and wilted forage

Rye can also be used as hay or wilted forage. Compared to other cereals at the same stage (dough), intake of rye hay is close to that of barley (av. 54 g DMI/BW0.75 in sheep), but lower than that of oats and triticale (av. 66 DMI/BW0.75) (Andueza et al., 2004). Careful drying of rye fodder at air temperatures up to 320-350°C does not alter digestibility of energy and crude protein whereas severe drying at air temperatures up to 350-450°C reduces digestibility significantly, especially that of crude protein (Jentsch et al., 1973).

The proportion of N intake excreted in faeces and urine, and methane yield, are not affected by stage of growth (heading vs. boot stage) (Moon et al., 1995).


Rye can also be used as straw. Treatment of straw with alkali (NaOH, Janicki, 1991; Bergner et al., 1989) improves its degradation, as observed both in sacco (Deschard, 1980) and in vivo in sheep. A dose of 50-60 g NaOH/kg rye straw DM can be used (Piatkowski et al., 1974).


The traditional practice of raising pigs outdoors on forage and pasture has been coming back in numerous countries as an alternative approach to pig farming. For instance, EU standards of organic pig production require that breeding animals have access to pasture (Blair, 2007). In addition to environmental and societal benefits, the main advantage is a reduction in feed costs, particularly for gestating sows (Duval, 1993). However, cereal pastures are too fibrous for young pigs and may not supply enough protein and energy for growth. In all cases, access to concentrates, and to minerals and vitamins supplementation may be required (Blair, 2007). Rye sown in spring or autumn can be grazed after 2 or 3 months and support 38-50 pigs (45 kg) per hectare. Rye forage is less palatable to pigs than wheat forage, but it is generally more productive (Duval, 1993; Pickett et al., 1965).


No information found (2011).

Horses and donkeys 

Horses can graze or be fed rye forage provided it is free of ergot (NRC, 1989).

Nutritional tables
Tables of chemical composition and nutritional value 

Avg: average or predicted value; SD: standard deviation; Min: minimum value; Max: maximum value; Nb: number of values (samples) used

Main analysis Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb
Dry matter % as fed 16.8 4.1 12.1 22.3 6
Crude protein % DM 15.1 6.0 7.5 21.4 6
Crude fibre % DM 28.8 5.9 24.8 38.7 5
NDF % DM 88.7 1
Ether extract % DM 4.8 1
Ash % DM 10.7 4.4 4.7 15.2 6
Gross energy MJ/kg DM 17.8 *
Ruminant nutritive values Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb
OM digestibility, Ruminant % 69.8 5.2 69.8 81.0 4 *
Energy digestibility, ruminants % 66.8 *
DE ruminants MJ/kg DM 11.9 *
ME ruminants MJ/kg DM 9.5 *
Nitrogen digestibility, ruminants % 71.7 6.4 65.9 77.5 4

The asterisk * indicates that the average value was obtained by an equation.


Alibes et al., 1990; Djouvinov et al., 1998; Tisserand et al., 1989; Vargas et al., 1965

Last updated on 24/10/2012 00:44:57

Main analysis Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb  
Dry matter % as fed 92.0   91.6 92.4 2  
Crude protein % DM 4.1 1.9 2.5 6.7 4  
Crude fibre % DM 41.9   39.3 44.4 2  
NDF % DM 77.9         *
ADF % DM 50.3   42.4 54.4 2 *
Lignin % DM 9.0   5.5 12.4 2  
Ash % DM 7.7 4.2 3.8 12.2 3  
Gross energy MJ/kg DM 18.3         *
Minerals Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb  
Calcium g/kg DM 4.1       1  
Phosphorus g/kg DM 1.3       1  
Potassium g/kg DM 12.2       1  
Magnesium g/kg DM 1.4       1  
Manganese mg/kg DM 18       1  
Zinc mg/kg DM 12       1  
Copper mg/kg DM 3       1  
Iron mg/kg DM 54       1  
Ruminant nutritive values Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb  
OM digestibility, Ruminant % 48.2         *
Energy digestibility, ruminants % 44.8         *
DE ruminants MJ/kg DM 8.2         *
ME ruminants MJ/kg DM 6.6         *
ME ruminants (gas production) MJ/kg DM 5.1       1  
Nitrogen digestibility, ruminants % 2.0         *
Pig nutritive values Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb  
Energy digestibility, growing pig % 11.9         *
DE growing pig MJ/kg DM 2.2         *
MEn growing pig MJ/kg DM 1.9         *
NE growing pig MJ/kg DM 1.0         *

The asterisk * indicates that the average value was obtained by an equation.


Alibes et al., 1990; Guedas et al., 1973; Lopez et al., 2005; McCartney et al., 2006

Last updated on 13/03/2013 11:07:52

Datasheet citation 

Heuzé V., Tran G., Nozière P., 2015. Rye forage. Feedipedia, a programme by INRA, CIRAD, AFZ and FAO. http://www.feedipedia.org/node/385 Last updated on October 5, 2015, 15:08

English correction by Tim Smith (Animal Science consultant) and Hélène Thiollet (AFZ)
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