If producers are looking for a high-quality annual forage with good productivity, Paul Peterson recommends Italian ryegrass.

“I'm excited about it,” says Peterson, extension forage agronomist at the University of Minnesota. “Italian ryegrass is a vigorous forage that can produce high-quality grass — either solo-seeded or as a nurse crop.”

While Italian ryegrass has been grown in other regions for many years, it's relatively new to the Midwest, says Peterson. He seeded it in several research plots in Stearns County, MN, last April. The plots were harvested five times, with the last cutting taken in mid-November.

“The highest-yielding entries had 6.5 tons of dry matter/acre,” says Peterson. “While I'm still working on the final numbers, I'm seeing alfalfa-like quality or better so far. The relative forage quality numbers are in the ballpark of 200, with relative feed values around 150.”

However, he cautions that growing conditions for the cool-season grass were exceptional last summer. “Temperatures were cooler than normal and there was above-average moisture.”

Italian ryegrass likes fertile soil, says Peterson. “Don't plant it where it's in the low range of any of the regular nutrients.”

In the research plots, he applied 200 lbs of nitrogen/acre — equal to 40 lbs/harvest.

“We were looking at yield potential, so we didn't want nitrogen to be a limiting factor,” he says. “I don't think 40 lbs/acre/harvest would be essential, but I would recommend in the range of 30-40 lbs. If it's grazed, you can get by with a little bit less because there's some recycling of nutrients. Preplant manure could provide quite a bit of N as well.”

Italian ryegrass can meet many needs, Peterson notes. “I think it has excellent potential as a nurse crop for alfalfa. It can provide some protection to the alfalfa and ground cover to reduce erosion. The grass can also boost yields in the seeding year and in a high-quality manner.”

Italian ryegrass can be used for silage or grazing, he says.

“Hay can be made, but it's the most challenging of the three because it's so tough to get dry. It has very high moisture content — upwards of 80% — and it wilts slowly.”

Gaylord, MN, beef producer and Barenbrug seed distributor Doug Gunnink favors Italian ryegrass because of the flexibility it offers.

“I put it in and if it gets really dry, I'll graze it,” says Gunnink. “But in a wet year, I'll make haylage or baleage.”

Gunnink has seeded it with perennial ryegrass, timothy, meadow fescue and clovers. “By using the Italian ryegrass, I can get the cattle out and grazing more quickly, and it really helps keep the weeds down. Plus, the cattle love it.”

He's also used it as a nurse crop with alfalfa.

“That worked very well, but producers need to be aware that, because the grass grows so fast, they need to get it off in a timely manner so the alfalfa doesn't get shaded out.”

Based on research in Wisconsin, Peterson suggests a seeding rate of 4-5 lbs/acre if it's being used as a nurse crop. If it's being planted alone, he recommends 30 lbs/acre.

“We need more research on seeding rates, as well as what types of harvest management to use in the seeding year to optimize yields and minimize competitiveness with the perennial we're trying to establish.”

Seed is available from several companies, including Barenbrug, Seedland, Ampac and Olds Seed Solutions. The cost runs about $1/lb, says Gunnink.