Including Rye in Organic Poultry Diets

eOrganic author:

Dr. Jacquie Jacob Ph.D., University of Kentucky

NOTE: Before using any feed ingredient make sure that the ingredient is listed in your Organic System Plan and approved by your certifier.


Rye is a very versatile crop. It can be grown as a forage for cattle and other ruminant livestock or as a green manure in crop rotations in organic farming. It can also be grown for grain which can be used as a feed ingredient, feedstock for alcohol distilling and for human consumption. Fermentation of rye has ethanol yields comparable to those of wheat, which is a common feedstock used in ethanol production in Canada (Wang, 1997).

The number of rye cultivars is relatively low, especially when compared with wheat and barley. There has been considerably less effort put into the development and improvement of rye, partially because rye cross-pollinates while wheat and barley are self-pollinators. With cross-pollination it is difficult to maintain pure lines of breeding stock (Bushuk, 2001).

Rye cultivars are typically differentiated on the basis of growth habit, as either winter rye or spring rye. Rye has an amazing tolerance of cold weather and is still able to germinate at air temperatures in the 30s°F as long as the soil is warmed by the sun to slightly higher than the air temperature. Once established, rye will continue to grow in the fall until the temperature drops below 40°F. Growth resumes when the temperature rises above 40°F in the spring.  Spring rye is grown in areas where the winters are too severe for even the hardy winter rye. Typically the yields of spring rye are lower than of winter rye (Bushuk, 2001).

Rye is able to produce economical yields on poor, sandy soils not suitable for other crops. Rye has a deep and fibrous root system which makes it good at competing with weeds. This is another reason rye is often used in crop rotation in organic farming. Rye can be planted as pasture in both the fall and spring or can be grown as pasture in the fall and then raised as a grain crop in the spring (Bushuk, 2001).

There has been reluctance to use rye as a feedstuff. The primary concern is the presence of ergot alkaloids. Ergot is the most common disease of rye. The ergot fungus can be very toxic if present in sufficient concentration. Ergot is less of a problem these days as newer cultivars of rye are being developed that are resistant to ergot (Sosulski and Bernier, 1975). Controlling wild grasses around field borders will also reduce the chances of getting an ergot problem.


Rye (Secale cereale) has been studied as an alternative feed ingredient for poultry. The nutrient content of rye is very similar to wheat and corn but the nutritive value for poultry is very poor. The energy content in somewhere between that of wheat and barley. The protein content is similar to barley and oats. Unfortunately, rye contains the anti-nutritional factors of beta-glucans (ß-glucans) and arabinoxylans which limit their use in poultry diets. Both ß-glucans and arabinoxylans adversely affect nutrient availability by increasing the viscous nature of the intestinal contents. The gel-like material interferes with the activity of the digestive enzymes as well as the absorption of nutrients.

Canada's breeding program developed a low viscosity variety of rye (He et al., 2003).  They found, however, that genetic selection to reduce viscosity had only a minor increase in the nutritive value of rye for broilers. Regardless of the viscosity of the rye varieties used, enzyme supplementation improved performance through improved nutrient availability. The increase in nutrient availability, however, was greater for the broilers on the low-viscosity rye.

Feeding rye to poultry

When rye is included in poultry diets there is depressed growth performance and/or reduced egg production. The use of rye in turkey and broiler diets results in sticky droppings which add moisture to the litter and can cause problems with ammonia. The fecal material can also gather around the vent giving the birds 'pasty vents'. Rye may be fed to laying hens but should be introduced only after the hens have reached peak egg production (about 40 weeks of age). Rye should not be more than 40% of the diet. Birds may have sticky droppings which can increase the incidence of stained eggs.

Rye is not recommended for growing chickens (i.e., broilers and pullets) and turkeys. Including high levels of rye in poultry diets typically causes problems for growing chicks. The problem is the water-soluble, highly viscous non-starch polysaccharides referred to as pentosans or arabinoxylans. They are present in low amounts in rye (about 3.5%) and interfere with digestion of all nutrients in the diet, but especially the fats, fat-soluble vitamins, starch and protein. Chicks fed diets with rye produce wet and sticky excreta. There is also a higher moisture level in litter, increasing the problem of ammonia production. In addition, inclusion of rye in broiler diets has been shown to increase colonization by Salmonella Enteritidis, a common cause of foodborne disease in humans (Teirlynch et al., 2009) and Clostridium perfringens, a pathogenic organism that causes necrotic enteritis in poultry (Cravens, 2000).

There are commercial enzymes available that can counteract the negative effects of the rye. Part of the improved performance is due to an increase in nutrient availability (Silva et al., 2002) 


Bushuk, W. 2001. Rye Production and uses worldwide. Cereal Foods World 46:1-73.

Craven, S.E. 2000. Colonization of the intestinal tract by Clostridium perfringens and fecal shedding in diet-stressed and unstressed broiler chickens. Poultry Science 79:843-849.

He, T., P.A. Thacker, J.G. McLeod and G.L. Campbell. 2003. Performance of broiler chicks fed normal and low viscosity rye or barley with or without enzyme supplementation. Asian-Australian Journal of Animal Science 16:234-238.

Silva, S.S.P. and R.R. Smithard. 2002. Effect of enzyme supplementation of a rye-based diet on xylanase activity in the small intestine of broilers, on intestinal crypt cell proliferation and on nutrient digestibility and growth performance of the birds. British Poultry Science 43:274-282.

Sosulski, F. and C.C. Bernier. 1975. Ergot tolerance in spring rye. Canadian Plant Disease Survey 55:155-157.

Teirlynch, E., F. Haesebrouck, F. Pasmans, J. Dewulf, R. Ducatelle and F. Van Immerseel. 2009. The cereal type in feed influences Salmonella Enteritidis colonization in broilers. Poultry Science 88:2108-2112.

Wang, S., K.C. Thomas, W.M. Ingledew, K. Sosulski and F.W. Sosulski. 1997. Rye and triticale as feedstock for fuel ethanol production. Cereal Chemistry 74:621-625.

Published May 15, 2018

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.