The newest type of tall fescue is gaining attention for pastures and hayfields due to its palatability, drought tolerance and other advantages.
Europeans have been using soft-leaf fescue for decades. And its popularity in the U.S. has grown in the past five years, says Doug Gunnink, a private pasture and dairy nutrition consultant near Gaylord, MN.
Growers are using the grass mainly in the North, but it also has advantages in drier regions, says Gunnink. “It's probably the most drought-tolerant of the cool-season grasses and will continue to grow much better than other grasses through heat and drought,” he says. “It's superior for summer slump or to stockpile in the fall.”
The grass is also very tolerant of animal traffic and grazing pressure, says Paul Peterson, extension forage agronomist at the University of Minnesota.
Soft-leaf fescue is one of the easiest-to-establish, fastest-growing grasses, Gunnink says. Stands last about twice as long as alfalfa, and the seed is usually slightly less expensive than alfalfa seed.
Soft-leaf varieties are endophyte-free, so there are none of the toxicity problems that have traditionally plagued tall fescue. In the past, tall fescue was perceived as less palatable to livestock, largely because of the endophyte problem.
“What's exciting about these soft-leaf fescues is they have all the positive attributes of traditional tall fescue, and it appears they're more palatable,” says Peterson.
Compared to alfalfa, the fescue has less protein but its fiber is more digestible when grazed or hayed during its vegetative state, Peterson says. It might be higher in quality than most other grasses in spring due to its late maturation, he adds.
Not the highest-yielding grass, fescue does yield better than brome or orchardgrass, Gunnink says. In Iowa test plots, it yielded 6.5-6.8 tons of forage per acre.
Many growers plant a fescue-alfalfa mix in hayfields, he reports.
“Yield-wise and quality-wise, there seems to be a complimentary effect of putting the legume with the grass. We get a little higher yield and a little less pressure from things like leafhoppers.”
Gunnink says most hay growers plant 10-12 lbs of alfalfa and 6-8 lbs of fescue per acre. Some start with 70% alfalfa and 30% soft-leaf fescue, increasing the grass percentage as they get more comfortable with it.
In pastures, Gunnink recommends pairing a legume such as red or kura clover with the fescue. Perennial ryegrass is also complimentary; it flourishes in spring and fall while fescue is productive in summer.
For summer and stockpile pastures, growers may want to use a predominantly fescue mix with some alfalfa and clover.
For better spring and fall productivity, but not stockpiling, he suggests mixing soft-leaf fescue with perennial ryegrass and meadow or Alaskan fescue. Add orchardgrass in sandier areas.
Soft-leaf fescue must receive nitrogen fertilizer or be grown with a legume to be productive, Peterson says. For grass-only stands, he recommends 100-170 lbs of nitrogen per year in split applications based on the number of cuttings or grazings. If a legume-grass mixture is less than 50% legume, it will respond to added nitrogen.
Soft-leaf fescue seed is available from several companies, including Barenbrug, Ampac and Olds Seed Solutions.