Rye fits well into the rotation on some of Britain’s lightest arable land and outperforms other cereals. David Jones reports from the Suffolk Brecklands.

One in six Ryvita crispbreads is sourced from Britain’s biggest arable farm where rye is the preferred cereal on its blow-away sandy soils.

The crop’s drought tolerance and disease resistance mark it out as a valuable earner on some the nation’s lightest arable land.

In this corner of north-west Suffolk, Elvedon Farms is Britain’s largest grower of rye which thrives better than wheat and barley on its Breckland soils.

With about half of the estate’s arable land down to vegetables, rye fits well into its six-course rotation as a break crop and helps spread its exposure to different end markets.

“Rye is more drought tolerant than wheat and barley, and fits well into a second cereal slot,” says senior farms manager Andrew Francis.

He harvests about 3,500t of rye each year which is delivered to Ryvita’s plant at Poole in Dorset which is now pushing into the snack market to boost growth.

Elvedon Farms

  • Area – 9,100ha
  • Soil – Sand with flints over chalk
  • Cropping area – 4,000ha
  • Potatoes – 650ha
  • Onions – 650ha
  • Carrots – 300ha
  • Parsnips – 280ha
  • Cereals – 2,120ha
  • Grassland – 400ha
  • Woodland, ponds – 2,400ha
  • Other habitats – 1,850ha

Rye has been grown at Elveden for as long as Mr Francis remembers on land which was bought by the Guinness family 119 years ago primarily as a shooting estate.

The head of the old brewing family Edward Iveagh, who lives on the 9,100ha estate, is an enthusiast about sustainable farming and protecting wildlife habitats and rye fits into this ethos.

Arable crops now cover 4,000ha of the estate which runs to rough heathland and forests on the poorest and lightest of its soils.

Rye has a 600ha slice of the arable area, and 60% is grown as a second cereal after wheat with the balance grown on some of the very lightest land on the estate.

It is a key crop in the estate’s six-year potatoes-onions-cereals-carrots or parsnips and then two cereals rotation, and is the only one which is not routinely irrigated.

Andrew Francis (c) Jim Varney
Andrew Francis grows 600ha of rye and says it outperforms wheats in the farm’s second cereal slot.

Rye gives an average yield of 5.0-5.5t/ha in a dry year with no irrigation compared with wheat which may dip to 4-5t/ha, with rye priced between feed and milling wheats.

Mr Francis typically grows the milling wheat variety Cordiale in his first wheat slot and says rye will outperform a second feed wheat in terms of yield at comparable costs.

“Overall, the variable costs of growing rye are similar to wheat but probably more than for barley,” he says.

LEAF demonstrations

In October, Elveden Farms became the latest to join the nationwide network of Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF) demonstration farms. It joins over 40 other LEAF farms across the country set up to showcase the very best of sustainable farming practices.

Lower nitrogen rates for rye are balanced by the greater use of plant growth regulators to control its long straw, while herbicide and fungicide use is broadly similar.

Rye has the advantage of being able to be drilled into early November after late crops of onions and grows well without irrigation, showing some resistance to take-all disease when grown as a second cereal after wheat.

The downside is that the crop takes longer to harvest with the grain often ready while the long straw is sometimes green and difficult to cut.

With just over 2,000ha of cereal to cut, the estate owns one combine and hires another but with no rye on the farm Mr Francis says he would only need one.

“On average, rye takes 30% longer to cut than wheat, so we would be reluctance to increase the area due to combine capacity,” he says.

All cereal straw, including rye, is baled on the farm for use in the estate’s pig units and for covering carrots through the winter months.

One key problem is ergot, and since rye is an open pollinating plant it needs good weather at flowering to avoid this problem as cleaning can cost around £15/t.

The estate is also the sole grower of rye for seed over a 78ha area using the varieties Mephisto and Phoenix, and some irrigation is used here to improve the evenness of the crop.

Most rye is grown in southern and south eastern England between Dorset and East Anglia and delivered to the Ryvita plant, which is owned by Associated British Foods, the group which also owns British Sugar.

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