There is no perfect grass for grazing or hay production. But knowing the pros and cons of the various species can help producers select the one that most closely meets their needs, says a University of Missouri Extension agronomist.

Here’s Travis Harper’s evaluation of the major cool-season grasses:

Tall fescue is the most widely grown cool-season forage grass in Missouri, primarily due to its hardiness and adaptability, says Harper. It can grow on almost any type of soil, and a well-established stand can survive through the coldest winters, hottest summers and all but the heaviest of grazing. It’s also the best choice to stockpile for winter grazing.

“The biggest drawback to fescue is that it contains an endophyte that produces compounds that can be toxic to cattle and grazing animals,” says Harper. The endophyte’s effects can be lessened with animal genetics or proper grass management.

“An alternative would be to use endophyte-free or novel-endophyte fescues, but these varieties typically are not as persistent as regular fescue and can be much more expensive to establish.”

The forage quality of smooth bromegrass is typically much higher than that of tall fescue and orchardgrass, and it has very good drought tolerance, says Harper. Brome makes excellent-quality hay but producers are typically limited to one cutting, as brome does not recover well. It’s also a high-quality forage for grazing, especially in rotational systems, but the majority of production occurs before June 15, leaving little for cattle to eat during summer and fall. Brome also requires nitrogen fertilizer to avoid becoming sod-bound.

Orchardgrass (pictured) is nearly as adaptable to a wide variety of soils as is tall fescue, with the added benefit that animal performance is typically greater on orchardgrass than on tall fescue,” he says.

Orchardgrass can grow in pure stands, but because it’s a bunchgrass it works very well growing with legumes such as alfalfa, clover or lespedeza. It’s susceptible to a variety of diseases, but disease-resistant varieties are available. The biggest drawback to orchardgrass is that it’s not nearly as drought-resistant or winterhardy as tall fescue or brome.

Timothy is a late-maturing, cool-season perennial bunchgrass that provides cattle with high-quality forage later in the season than orchardgrass or tall fescue.

“Timothy is extremely winter-hardy and is considered one of the few cool-season grasses suitable for wildlife habitat,” says Harper.

The biggest problem with timothy is that it doesn’t persist well under drought conditions. Timothy has long been thought of as the premier hay for horses, but it’s not necessary to feed horses timothy hay because there are many suitable alternatives, he says.