Cover Crops: Rye

Table of Contents

  1. Description: Family
  2. Growth Habits
  3. Control Options
  4. Sensitivity to Herbicides: Weed Control
  5. Benefits and Concerns
  6. Getting Started
  7. Related Links


Figure 1. Cover crop of rye

Figure 1. Cover Crop of Rye

Figure 2. Closeup picture of rye

Figure 2. Closeup picture of rye


  • Grass

Growth Habits

Germination and Emergence

  • Will germinate in cold temperatures – 1 to 2°C but vegetative growth requires 4°C

Top Growth

  • Taller than wheat, mature crop 120 to 150 cm in height; Warm wet weather in spring can cause rapid growth from 15 cm to 1 m in a short period of time
  • Long day plant – will flower when daylight hours exceed 14 hours and temperatures average 5 to 10°C
  • When flowering starts – vegetative growth stops

Root System

  • Fibrous
  • Extensive - can cover 1 m radius and 2 m depth of soil


  • Does not winter kill
  • As living tissue, there is greater resistant to sand abrasion over winter
  • Resumes growth in spring faster than wheat

Site suitability

  • More drought tolerant than wheat or oats
  • Tolerates a wide range of soil conditions but does best in well drained light soils – sands, loamy sands, sandy loams and gravelly soils

Control Options

Figure 3. Monitored crop of rye

Figure 3. Monitored crop of rye

  • Can be harder to kill than other cereals – timing and control options are critical
  • Mow when crop goes into flowering stage (vegetative growth has stopped) for non-chemical control
  • Requires careful management of chemical control in the spring
  • Low rates of glyphosate can kill the plant – but leave it standing. This prolongs protective features longer. High rates of glyphosate will knock the crop down leaving less wind protection.

Sensitivity to Herbicides: Weed Control

  • There are many herbicides registered for use in wheat but good weed control for a cover crop should not be expensive and may not be needed. Establish a vigorous crop canopy to smother out weeds.

Benefits and Concerns

Nutrient Management

  • Best cool season cereal crop for taking up leftover nitrogen from previous manure application(s);
  • Can tie up nitrogen in spring when needed by following crop;
  • Rye may help to increase the concentration of potassium at the surface due to its extensive root system

Pest Management

  • Competitive growth habits – good for suppressing weeds;
  • Allelopathic effect – prevents weed germination and growth, but can have allelopathic effect on other grass-like crops e.g. corn

Organic Matter

  • Large volumes of plant biomass returned to soil

Erosion Control

  • Wind abatement strips;
  • On tomato beds;
  • As strips in tobacco or vegetable fields;
  • Preferred because it does not winterkill and is resilient to sand blasting

Soil Moisture

  • More drought tolerant than wheat or oats

Getting Started


  • Shade tolerant – can be overseeded into a standing crop of corn before leaf drop;
  • Only cover crop that can be planted in the late fall and still provide some soil cover, although the protection may not be highly effective until early spring;
  • Cold tolerant - established rye can withstand temperatures of – 35° C

Cost & Availability

  • Seed is relatively inexpensive and readily available

Related Links

For more information:
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