An old grass is offering a new option for farmers who intensively graze their pastures.

Meadow fescue, a bunch-type grass native to northern Europe and Central Asia, was introduced to the U.S. more than a century ago, but mostly died out after the development of new tall fescues in the 1940s. It's being rediscovered in the Upper Midwest, where graziers and USDA-ARS researchers see its potential as a high-yielding, high-quality pasture grass.

Geoff Brink and Michael Casler are with the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center in Madison, WI. They conducted three studies at two locations over two years (2005 and 2006) to see how meadow fescue measured up when compared to tall fescue and orchardgrass.

“We included three meadow fescues in our studies, including a commercial variety called Bartura; a variety originally found on a Mineral Point, WI, farm, called Hidden Valley; and one from the germplasm center, dubbed Azov,” explains Brink. “The different studies looked at yield, response to nitrogen and response to grazing and hay management.”

There wasn't a big yield difference among any of the grasses, he says. “The tall fescue and orchardgrass produced slightly better yields overall, but the meadow fescue varieties produced better-quality forage.”

According to Casler, a separate on-farm grazing study showed that meadow fescue had superior palatability compared to tall fescue and perennial ryegrass, which translated to about equal consumption among all grasses.

Response to nitrogen was measured for all the grasses, and Brink says the results were very similar.

“Meadow fescue showed a fairly consistent response to nitrogen fertilizer and was comparable to the other two grasses. Overall yields were greater at the Lancaster location (southwestern Wisconsin) than at Marshfield (central Wisconsin), but that was most likely due to below-normal rainfall in the northern part of the state during our trials.”

The optimum N rate for the grasses was 120 lbs/acre based on nitrogen-use efficiency, which is the pounds of dry matter produced per pound of N applied. In this study, ammonium nitrate was used. The researchers applied overall rates of 0, 60, 120, 180 and 240 lbs of N/acre each season, split evenly into three applications — before the first harvest in late April and immediately after the second and fourth harvests.

“The more nitrogen we applied, the higher the yields, as you would expect,” says Brink. “But at applications above the 120-lb level, the nitrogen-use efficiency declined, showing that the grasses were less able to efficiently use the added nitrogen.”

The proof is in the grazing for most pasture grasses, and that's where the researchers say meadow fescue really delivers. In the third study they looked at how well the different varieties responded to frequent cutting. When the grasses reached 12”, they were harvested down to 4” stubble. A total of six cuttings were taken, between 16 and 25 days apart.

Under the simulated intensive grazing, meadow fescue provided comparable and sometimes greater annual yield, with the greatest advantage occurring in the spring and early summer, according to the researchers.

“While the three meadow fescues did well in general, the Hidden Valley variety consistently produced the best forage quality, over both years,” Brink says. “We think it has a lot of potential for intensive rotational grazing systems.”

Meadow fescue has consistently exhibited desirable grazing characteristics for cool-season regions, such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, including the ability to withstand grazing pressure, drought tolerance and superior cold tolerance, even with little snow cover, notes Casler.

He says the new varieties, Hidden Valley and Azov, could be commercially available later this year.