Breeding a better cover crop: a screen of rye germplasm for weed suppression

Final Report for GS01-008

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2001: $9,986.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Major Professor:
Dr. Nancy Creamer
North Carolina State University
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Project Information


Cover crops are an essential tool for farmers interested in sustainable agriculture, but have been ignored by plant breeding programs. The potential for breeding a better rye cover crop was explored by an interdisciplinary group of researchers at North Carolina State University. Two hundred and sixty-eight accessions of rye were chosen from the National Rye Collection and grown under field conditions. Accessions were screened for allelopathic potential using bioassays. The most allelopathic genotypes were used to start a breeding program that hopes to optimize allelopathy and other key cover crop characteristics.


Concern over non-point source pollution emanating from agricultural areas has led to interest in reduced pesticide use and reduced tillage. Cover crops are an important tool in reducing non-point source pollution. They protect the soil from erosion, trap nutrients, enhance soil organic matter, protect the soil from erosion and suppress weeds (Echtenkamp and Moomaw 1989, Hartwig and Hoffman 1975). When cover crops are killed and left as mulches on the soil surface for the following crop, their environmental benefits are even greater. The residues continue to inhibit soil erosion, while increasing infiltration of rainwater (Creamer et al. 1996). Residues also inhibit weed growth by shading the soil, physically inhibiting the growth of seedlings and releasing weed-inhibiting chemicals, also known as allelochemicals, into the soil. The weed control afforded by cover crop mulches can significantly reduce herbicide inputs (Teasdale and Mohler 1993).
While all cover crops provide these environmental services, they are not all equally effective. Rye is known as one of the best winter cover crops and has been widely used by farmers. With vigorous root growth, rye has proven more effective at scavenging nitrogen from the soil profile than other popular cover crops, thereby reducing nitrate contamination of groundwater (Wagger, Cabrera and Ranells 1998). In addition, rye mulch contains several known allelochemicals and has proven effective at controlling weeds in multiple crops (Smeda and Weller 1996; Worsham and Blum 1992; Barnes and Putnam 1983). Unfortunately, the weed control has not been consistent from year to year (Nagabhushana et al. 1997). Inconsistent weed control by cover crop mulches is not surprising. Allelochemical production is a poorly understood phenomenon. In particular, the interaction between genetics and environment has received little scientific attention.
Two years ago, we began examining whether 9 commercial varieties of rye differed in allelochemical production. In a field study, different levels of weed control were found between varieties, even after the amount of biomass was adjusted to be equivalent (Reberg-Horton et al. 2000).
The effect seen in the field also shows up in petri dish bioassays. Whether tissues from the nine varieties varied in their inhibition of weed seedling growth was tested in the bioassays. While rye tissue was found to be toxic to the weeds in general, differences in toxicity between varieties were found. Pigweed and goosegrass, two important agricultural weeds, were variably suppressed by different rye varieties. Furthermore, growing rye with differing levels of fertilizer made no difference in toxicity. Our results suggest genetics play the primary role in allelochemical production.
Differences between varieties in their ability to scavenge nitrogen were also studied. Nitrates are a leading source of ground water contamination. Rye is particularly adept at preventing this contamination by capturing the nitrates before they reach the groundwater. However, the variation between rye varieties in this ability has never been studied. The nitrogen recovery rate was compared for all 9 varieties, under four rates of N fertilization (0, 20, 40, 80 lbs. N/acre). Soils were sampled at four depths, three times during the growing season. Some varieties showed better scavenging ability than others did. The most efficient scavengers were the deep-rooted varieties.
The encouraging results stimulated interest in breeding for a cover crop rye at North Carolina State University and the development of this SARE proposal. Researchers from various disciplines formed the Rye Breeding Committee to take the first steps towards a breeding program. We have two primary selection criteria. First, the ideal rye should produce large quantities of allelochemicals. The ultimate goal is for enough allelochemicals to be produced to provide weed control for a spring planted crop and replace the use of preemergent herbicides. Second, the rye should excel at scavenging residual nitrogen in the fall. This will reduce nitrate contamination of groundwater and lead to higher nitrogen use efficiency for the farming system as a whole.

Project Objectives:

Objective 1: Continue work on commercially available cultivars of rye to determine the stability of traits such allelopathic potential and rooting ability.

Objective 2: Screen 268 rye accessions for allelopathic potential and incorporate the most promising genotypes into a breeding program.


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Noah Ranells
  • Chris Reberg-Horton


Materials and methods:

Rye tissue was collected at flower from the 9 commerical varieties of rye and 268 accessions from the National Rye Collection and used in bioassays. To begin the bioassay, an extract was prepared by mixing ground rye with deionized water at a ratio of 1:40 (w/v). The mixture was placed on a shaker at 70 rpm for one hour. The mixture was immediately filtered through Whatman no. 1 filter paper. Collected filtrate will be chilled at 4„aC for 16 hours. After being removed from the cooler, the filtrate was kept on ice during the remainder of the process.
Petri dishes (90 mm) was lined with three Whatman no. 1 filter papers. Five ml of the filtrate was added to wet the filter papers. As a control, several petri dishes containing filter papers were wetted with deionized water only. Twenty-five seeds of either redroot pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus), or goosegrass (Eleusine indica) was placed on top of the filter papers. The petri dish edges were sealed with Parafilm and placed in a growth chamber at 28C under constant light. Root length was measured at 3 days for pigweed and 7 days for goosegrass.
Work on nitrogen scavenging in the 9 commercial varieties was continued and expanded. Each variety was grown with four rates of nitrogen fertilization (0, 20, 40 and 80 lbs./acre). Plots were sampled at four depths, three times over the growing season. A new measurement was developed during this project on rooting depths. A visual rating of root density at each of the four depths was used and compared to more intensive methods of root quantification.

Research results and discussion:

Work on the 9 commercially available cultivars of rye has led to some rather simple conclusions. First, allelopathy declines as a plant matures, particularly after the boot stage. To maximize allelochemical concentration, farmers should select late maturing cultivars such as ‘Wheeler’. The screening of rye accessions yielded 15 highly allelopathic genotypes that have been intercrossed to form a synthetic population that will serve as the basis of a breeding program. Finally, work on rooting ability revealed that visual ratings of rooting density are correlated with intensive root measurements such as root biomass, root length density and root surface area. The visual rating systems at various depths was able to detect which varieties were able to root deeply early in the season, and thereby reduce nitrate leaching.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Reberg-Horton, S.C., J. D. Burton, D. A. Danehower, G. Ma, D. W. Monks, J. P. Murphy, N. N. Ranells, J. D. Williamson, and N. G. Creamer. 2003. Effect Of Time On The Allelochemical Content Of Ten Cultivars Of Rye (Secale cereale L.). Journal of Chemical Ecology. (In Review).

Reberg-Horton, S.C., N.G. Creamer, D.A. Danehower, G. Ma, D.W. Monks, J.P. Murphy, N.N. Ranells, J.D. Williamson, and J.D. Burton. 2003. Cultivar and maturation effects on the allelochemical content of ten cultivars of rye. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting – Northeastern Weed Science Society 57: 84.

Ranells, N.N., Reberg-Horton, S.C., and Creamer, N.G. 2002. Varietal effects of cereal rye on recovery of soil inorganic nitrogen. Annual Meeting Abstracts of the American Society of Agronomy: 83.

Reberg-Horton, S.C., N.G. Creamer, J. Burton, N. Ranells, and C.L. Mohler. 2001. Bioassay and field evaluation of rye cultivars for allelopathy. (Abstract for presentation in 41st Annual Meeting of the Weed Science Society of America). WSSA Abstracts 41: 109.

Reberg-Horton, S.C., N.G. Creamer, J. Burton, N. Ranells, and P. Murphy. 2001. Breeding rye (Secale cereale) for increased allelopathy. (Abstract for presentation in 98th Annual Conference of the American Society for Horticultural Science. HortScience 36: 561.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Outcomes will not really be obtained for several years to come. Within the next 3 years, new cultivars of rye will be released that will hopefully be more allelopathic and better cover crops in general. Information on which currently available ryes are best is being distributed to farmers.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.