Thoughts on Rye

Above is the front fender of the brush hog, covered with rye seed heads and loose kernels.

For some time I had wondered why my enormous back field, thick with rye, was not crowded like a New York City deli at lunch hour with wildlife eating the grain. Last summer deer (and my horses) jumped the fence repeatedly to demolish my much tinier plot of wheat. The deer did not seem interested in the rye. Did they not care for pumpernickel? Were they waiting for pastrami?

It was not until I was wading through the dense, waist-high stand that I began to get a clue. Ow! This stuff is really sharp and scratchy! When I looked closely at each seed head I realized that the kernels of grain were protected by long, stiff, painful needles.

Anything grazing on this might as well be munching on a porcupine.

The only exception I’ve seen are field mice and meadow voles. Hundreds of the tiny creatures, fat with rye, have scampered away from the roar of the brush hog. Perhaps my cutting has become a small part of the ecosystem, for on my last day of mowing I noticed a redtailed hawk circling hopefully overhead.

When you’re buying in grain, bag by expensive bag, it’s maddening to have a field full that only wild rodents will eat. Reading a memoir from 1910, I learned that in the past farm hens would scavenge fallen rye from around the shocks. I cut a bundle of rye and carried it back to the barn. My chickens trampled it underfoot in their rush to their familiar Blue Seal pellets. Oh well.

It occurred to me that rye might mostly be useful as livestock forage when it’s still young and green. However I have now read about ergot, a fungus to which rye is susceptible, that when ingested by animals (including humans) causes convulsions, hallucinations, mania, and black gangrene in the extremities. In the middle ages in Europe, ergot poisoning was believed to be a communicable disease and called St. Anthony’s Fire. The mania was the cause of many accusations of witchcraft, and ergot poisoning loosely associated with bubonic plague.

Perhaps I will skip the idea of feeding rye to anything.

However, on the plus side: I had wanted as much “litter mass” (growing stuff to chop and let rot as mulch) and as many roots in the impoverished soil as I could get ā€” and in this the rye has been spectacularly successful. A single bale of straw costs $6 and I have an entire field of it!Ā  Bales upon bales. Yes, the mowing is a serious commitment but I’ll get that done eventually.

Meanwhile the blades of the brush-hog have acted as a flail, shaking the ripe kernels loose from the needles and straw. In many places the ground is covered with seeds. Each day finds more crows, ravens, and wild turkeys pacing the mowed area, gobbling the loose grain. (And if I should see a large maniacal bird, I shall know it’s been dining on rye.)

As it is raining this week I’ve returned the brush hog until my leg heals and the skies clear.

3 Responses to Thoughts on Rye

  1. June says:

    This is great information! My son is celiac so I’m looking to plant fodder crops that aren’t wheat for our animals…. I guess I can check off rye….!

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Isn’t it frustrating? I have thought about oats and barley but haven’t yet read anything about them, so don’t know the difficulties.

  2. June says:

    Was curious what the memoir you are reading was called? We have a LOT in common…lol… couldn’t find an email address for you. We are also big history buffs and it was a selling point on our 196 year old farm house we bought in October and are just starting out. We also have pilgrim geese, as well as cayuga ducks, buckeye chickens and shetland sheep. Looking to be as sustainable as possible at some future point. The sheep breed you picked is a nice one. I went with shetlands for fiber as well as size…. I want to be able to win if we have to wrestle šŸ™‚

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