The best-quality products that bring top dollar require more effort and expense to produce.

So it is with precut rye straw — rye that's harvested before the grain is mature. Precut rye is a premium-quality bedding material that's favored by racehorse owners and trainers who want nothing but the best for their valuable steeds.

Compared with wheat straw, precut rye is longer, stronger and more comfortable for horses. Since it hasn't been run through a combine, it's cleaner and less chaffy, and its whitish-yellow color brightens stalls.

High-quality precut rye brings up to $50 more per ton than conventional straw, and is always in demand. Small bales of precut rye sell for up to $140/ton in years when straw is in short supply. This summer they're bringing $100-125/ton.

“It's a niche market, but it never gets saturated,” says Neil Cousino, an Erie, MI, grower. “There always seems to be a deficit.”

He says precut rye is popular at racetracks and stud farms east of the Mississippi River. It's made in a number of states, but the northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan region is one of the most concentrated production areas. He estimates that 7,000-8,000 acres of it are grown there. In many cases, doublecrop soybeans are planted after the rye harvest.

Cousino and his brother Earl run B.L. Cousino, Inc. They grow about 400 acres of rye in central and southern Michigan, primarily as a rotation crop for their main enterprise — hay. They seed the rye in fall and harvest it the following June, ideally after the crop has headed out but before grain has developed.

If well-fertilized, rye can grow 7' tall and yield 4 tons of straw per acre. But 3 tons/acre is a good yield and 1½-2 tons/acre is average, he says.

“It depends on how hard you hit it with nitrogen,” says Cousino. “Some growers use 40-50 units of N, and it adds quite a bit of yield. But it also adds to the problem of getting it bleached out right.”

Rye straw should be uniformly dry and fully bleached when baled, a process that takes several days in Michigan. Most growers ted the mowed crop more than once, and actually hope for a small shower to promote bleaching.

“If you get a tenth of an inch or two of rain on cut rye, it dries out and bleaches well,” Cousino reports. “But if you get an inch or more of rain, it can get moldy and ugly. Then you've got mulch and you've lost the $50 advantage.”

Some growers now start the curing process early by killing the crop with a burn-down chemical before cutting it. Roundup at ½-¾ qt/acre seems to be the most popular choice, according to Cousino. A burndown treatment usually reduces tonnage harvested by 5-15%, he says. But the shorter curing time dramatically reduces the risk of losing quality.

With wheat acreage on the decline, demand for all types of straw should be strong for at least the next year or two. But precut rye isn't for everybody, says Cousino, and Lloyd Eldred, Auburn, NY, agrees.

“Making rye straw is kind of an art — you have to grow into it,” says Eldred. “Some farmers make it for two or three years and then want nothing to do with it again.”

This 40-year rye straw grower and dealer operates Eldred Hay & Grain with sons Douglas and Randall. He says the crop is consistently profitable if properly grown and harvested. Here are a few of his secrets:

  • Plant early. If you wait until October or November, yield may be reduced.

    “We like to have all our rye planted by the 10th of September,” says Eldred, who lives in central New York.

  • Go easy on nitrogen. Sandy soils need N to produce a good crop. But Eldred avoids it on his heavier ground. It makes the stems a darker green, and the bleached straw isn't as white.

    Also, N promotes high yields that are harder to cure and bale.

    “I would much rather have a 2½-to 3-ton crop than a 4-ton crop,” says Eldred. “I would sacrifice a ton to be able to make it right.”

  • Cut anytime between heading and 10 days prior to full maturity. Rye straw's harvest window is fairly wide.

  • Be sure it's uniformly dry when baled.

“You need to have a moisture tester with you,” Eldred advises. “Sometimes the straw feels dry but isn't quite there. Rye will heat up fast and will either get moldy or dusty. I don't like to bale rye above 15% moisture.”