Orchardgrass doesn't need companionship. This cool-season grass is often seeded in pasture mixes, and probably is the most-popular grass for alfalfa-grass stands. But it's gaining ground as a stand-alone hay crop, too.

Orchardgrass hay usually doesn't bring as much money as timothy, the No. 1 hay for horses. But it regrows faster after cutting, often producing higher season-long yields. And people who feed horses increasingly are choosing orchardgrass instead of timothy.

That's why hay growers in Nevada's high-desert Diamond Valley began adding orchardgrass to their rotations in 2002.

“People were starting to ask for it,” reports Jim Gallagher, manager of the valley's Eureka Producers Cooperative.

Now there are 12-14 pivot-irrigated orchardgrass fields in the valley, each with 125 acres, says Gallagher. Alfalfa, timothy and alfalfa-grass mixtures also are grown.

Growers sell their grass hays to California horse interests, mostly in the Los Angeles area. Gallagher says premium-quality first-cutting timothy yielded 3 to 3½ tons/acre and brought $220-240/ton in 2004. The second cutting sold for $150-160/ton — $180 tops — and yielded only 1 to 1¼ tons/acre.

“We can cut the orchard three times, and I think we can get 2 tons per cutting and it'll bring $160-180/ton if everything goes right,” says Gallagher.

Cutting back on timothy and adding orchardgrass has helped stagger cutting schedules, too, he says. First-cutting alfalfa is ready in mid-June, followed by orchardgrass and then timothy. Growers with a lot of timothy have trouble getting it all baled at the right maturity stage.

For horse buyers, the best maturity stage for both timothy and orchardgrass is after heading but before pollen-shed. That period is shorter in timothy than in orchardgrass, says Jim Dawson, Joseph, OR.

“Timothy can be more in demand,” says Dawson. “But the cutting timing on timothy is very, very critical. Orchard is a little slower between head-out and bloom stage, so it gives you a little more time to get a quality product.”

He grows 120 acres of orchardgrass, 40 acres of timothy and 300 of alfalfa.

“We're sitting at 4,000', so we only get two cuttings, no matter what we grow,” Dawson reports.

Orchardgrass yields a little better than timothy, primarily in the second cutting. Two-string bales of both are trucked to feed stores in Oregon's Willamette Valley, typically bringing $95-105/ton. Demand has been steady.

“I've never had any trouble selling the hay from those straight grass fields,” says Dawson. “The feed store market is mainly a color market. If it looks good, it's going to sell.”

He could get more money for timothy by selling it for export, but would need a three-string baler and a new stacker.

He seeded his orchardgrass seven years ago, and it's still productive. Timothy stands aren't quite as persistent, but last longer than alfalfa, mostly because alfalfa is more susceptible to pocket gopher invasions.

Dawson used a herbicide when he established the orchardgrass, and hasn't had a weed problem since.

“Because it's a bunchgrass, it doesn't seem to allow competition, where timothy does,” he says.

Is orchardgrass Dawson's best crop?

“It's working for me,” he answers. “If I had a new line of equipment, I'd probably lean more toward the timothy. It's also a very good crop.”

Nutritionally, timothy and orchardgrass are about equal, figures Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska extension forage agronomist. Orchardgrass hay tends to be leafier than timothy, but the leaves are coarser. Given a choice, horses may prefer timothy.

“But from a straight nutrition standpoint, I think we're going to see the same kind of protein and energy characteristics, and similar intakes,” says Anderson.

The two grasses can be about equal nutritionally, agrees John Williams, an extension agent in northeastern Oregon's Wallowa County, where Dawson farms. But he says orchardgrass offers more flexibility in the type of product produced.

“You can put orchard up in the vegetative stage and it's a very high-quality feed with low fiber, clear up to the bloom stage when it's a higher-fiber plant that mimics timothy,” says Williams.

Stabled horses need higher-fiber, lower-energy hay, and timothy fills that need very well. When harvested just prior to pollen-shed, orchardgrass does, too.

“There are some differences between the two, depending on what you're looking for,” says Williams. “But I almost look at it as Ford vs. Chevrolet — it's preference.”

Orchardgrass Has Great Plains Potential

Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska extension forage agronomist, sees some potential for orchardgrass hay production in his state. He's been evaluating available varieties, and is impressed with the wide range of maturities. The earliest and latest varieties form heads 15-20 days apart, he says.

In most cases, he thinks Nebraska growers would be wise to choose late-maturing varieties. They yield better, plus the first cutting comes after workloads and the weather have improved. Timothy shares that advantage.

“One reason I believe timothy has enjoyed such a long history with the horse market is the fact that it matures later than most other cool-season grasses,” says Anderson. “That enables growers to harvest it later in spring when the risk of rain damage is lower.”

Orchardgrass is better-adapted than timothy to Great Plains environments, because it's more heat- and drought-tolerant, he adds.

In dryland situations, orchardgrass may only yield two cuttings in Nebraska. But Anderson harvests his irrigated test plots four times, and each cutting yields in excess of 1 ton/acre.

“We've got orchardgrass that's regularly producing in the 6- to 7-ton/acre range with four cuttings,” he reports.

The downside: Orchardgrass is more susceptible to leaf rust than many other grasses, says Anderson.