Rye Vs. Ryegrass
By Eleanor Blazer

          I’ll have a rye.

          Would you like that toasted with butter; in a glass or a bale?

          Rye and ryegrass are distinctly different, despite sounding similar. As a horse owner it’s important you know the differences.

          Rye is a grain crop.  The seed heads are harvested and used to make flour for bread, beer and whiskey.

          Rye is rarely used in animal feed.  Most animals don’t like the taste and the texture is gummy when chewed.

          A fungus called ergot can infect rye (not the same ergot that is located behind the fetlock).  Ergot toxin causes severe muscle problems, convulsions and depression.     

          The grain also has high levels of a soluble carbohydrate called pentosan. If large amounts of rye are fed, the pentosans disrupt the beneficial digestive enzymes, leading to poor nutrient absorption.  When used in animal rations the inclusion of rye is less than 30% of the mix to avoid inadequate nutrient utilization.

          Rye makes a great cover crop to protect farm land from erosion and preserve moisture.  In the spring it should be plowed under, which introduces organic material to the soil (green manure).

          Ryegrass is used for lawns and forage.  It’s a bunch type grass, which means it grows in a clump – from one crown.  It doesn’t send out rhizomes or stolons (off-shoots) and spreads very slowly.

          There are three categories of ryegrass – annual, perennial and intermediate.

          Annual means plants complete their entire life cycle in one year – the seed germinates, the plant matures, seeds are produced for the following year and the plant dies.  A new plant germinates in the spring. 

          But, as in all things, there are exceptions.  In adequate growing conditions annual ryegrass plants may return in the spring.  This usually occurs in the north where deep snow cover can insulate and protect the plant.

          In the south annual ryegrass is planted in the fall, provides good winter forage and dies in the summer.  It is then a true annual.

          Perennial plants live more than two years – if conditions are adequate.  Lack of snow cover, extreme heat, disease and drought can kill the plant.  Healthy plants go dormant during winter and resume growing in the spring.

          Intermediate ryegrass is a cross between annual and perennial.  It’s not as hardy as perennial in the winter, but does produce more forage.  It also requires adequate snow cover to protect it during the winter. 

          Perennial and intermediate ryegrass would be considered annuals in the deep south.  Neither would survive due to lack of snow cover, drought and heat.

          Ryegrass can be infected with endophyte fungus.  The toxins the fungus produces causes nerve and muscles disorders. Symptoms of poisoning are staggering, stiffness, swaying back and forth when standing still, muscle twitching, excessive salivation, teeth grinding and convulsions.

          Ryegrass varieties that are used in lawns must not be used in pastures – these seeds are not endophyte free.  Ryegrass varieties developed for pasture and hay should be labeled endophyte free. 

          Avoid grazing horses in lawns that contain ryegrass.

          Endophyte free ryegrass is excellent for horse pastures and forage.  It is easy to grow (conditions permitting), very palatable, withstands heavy grazing and recovers quickly after being grazed or harvested. 

          So have your rye on the rocks and plant your ryegrass between them!

Learning About Horses
Contact Us
Top source for your horse supplies at Tractor Supply