July 15, 2024

Genetics-focused company spans 168 years

Justin Milcarek

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The company that’s bringing a new rye cover crop to market this year has a long history of developing top genetics through its research and breeding programs.

“KWS has been around for a long time. They’ve been in Germany since 1856. It’s a (sixth-generation) family-owned company that got their start with sugar beets,” Justin Milcarek, KWS Cereals USA hybrid rye sales manager, said during the rollout of KWS Cover+.

“The company has evolved over time and now we have 12 of the 14 of what we call the most important crops. The only two we don’t have anything in is sugar cane and rice. We breed for everything else.”

Hybrid rye was first developed in Germany in 1986 and was made commercially available in 1995.

“Over there, they burn it for fuel. Just like we feed our cows, they feed furnaces for energy. They know there’s a big market for forage and small grains in the U.S. and KWS decided to take a leap and try to get hybrid rye over here,” Milcarek said.

Claus Nymand of Denmark, KWS Cereals hybrid rye product manager, began building the market in the United States and Canada several years ago, touting its winter-hardiness and the benefits of using the cereal grain in hog and beef cattle rations.

From there, KWS began building a team in North America.

“We’re identifying areas where we need additional help with regional sales representatives to get more of them in front of the farmer. Meeting with farmers is the part that I really like the most,” Milcarek said.

Wheat Research

As the KWS Hybrid Rye market grows, the company also expanded its wheat breeding research team in the Midwest, most recently into Champaign County.

The wheat breeding team began its work in Ohio while looking for a permanent home. The team has now been in Illinois for just over 11 years.

“They identified Champaign as being a good area for that with the University of Illinois being here for collaborations. There’s four or five research stations that a local farmer created and leases to us,” Milcarek said.

The wheat research team moved to the current site west of Champaign in 2021.

“Wheat is the only thing that’s bred here. All of the hybrid rye is still bred in Germany, where there is also breeding that’s focused on North America,” Milcarek said.

“We have a product manager who manages all of our testing. I think last year we had over 100 testing sites throughout the U.S. at universities and other places.”

KWS also has trials for other crops across the United States.

“We have four or five breeder trials across the country, including rye and other products, one of them being two miles from here. That’s where all the breeders will come and take notes to see how things are doing in this area,” Milcarek said.

“For example, right now I cannot sell hybrid rye into Georgia or South Carolina. North Carolina is close to being there, maybe, maybe not, because of the weather. That is because all of our current rye hybrids are winter types. They have to vernalize.

“We’re learning a lot along the way, and the breeders are also constantly looking for things like the dwarf varieties and we’re looking for facultative varieties, a winter/spring cross that can be planted in the fall or the spring, but it doesn’t have to vernalize.

“Here we would plant it in the fall and you don’t have to worry if it’s going to get cold or not. I think that’s important, especially looking ahead and how things are changing in this environment.”


Another KWS facility is just down the road, literally, from the wheat breeding site. KWS sells corn and soybean seed through its North American company, AgReliant Genetics.

AgReliant Genetics, which markets its products under the brand names AgriGold Hybrids, LG Seeds and Pride Seed, has had a research station four miles south of the new wheat breeding site for well over a decade.

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor