Mike Casler is optimistic that four perennial grass varieties he developed will eliminate some of the problems growers have with current varieties.

The new cool-season varieties — one each of reed canarygrass, meadow fescue, festulolium and smooth bromegrass — are in the foundation-seed phase, says Casler, a grass breeder with the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, Madison, WI.

The varieties will be available commercially in three to four years. With the exception of the smooth bromegrass variety, called Alpha, they're not named yet. Here's a rundown:

Reed canarygrass

Casler and his research assistants have been working on the new variety for almost 12 years. “It's been bred to have significantly better seedling vigor,” says Casler. “We've been trying to solve one of the biggest disadvantages of reed canarygrass and that's poor establishment.”

Reed canarygrass seedlings emerge slowly, giving annual weeds a chance to form a dense canopy that shades them out. “And because it's very difficult for producers to see the seedlings under the weed canopy, they might not clip the stand as frequently as they should,” he says. “The weeds continue to grow and the seedlings eventually die.”

Casler identified seedlings with greater vigor and used them to develop the new variety. “It grows faster. At a particular age, it's taller and has longer roots compared to current varieties.”

It's comparable in yield and quality to other varieties, he says.

Meadow fescue

Since the 1950s, meadow fescue has been replaced by tall fescue because of the latter's higher yields and better resistance to crown rust.

“Tall fescue is a very good forage and it's grown in many parts of the country, but meadow fescue has some distinct benefits,” says Casler. “It has much softer leaves and is more palatable. We've conducted feeding trials that show animals prefer to graze meadow fescue if they have a choice. It's more winterhardy, too.”

The new variety produces large quantities of forage and, unlike some tall fescues, doesn't contain compounds toxic to livestock.

Festulolium

This grass is a hybrid cross between perennial ryegrass and meadow or tall fescue. Compared to earlier commercialized varieties, the new one contains more fescue genes and fewer ryegrass genes.

Festulolium has better drought tolerance and winter survival than perennial ryegrass. The new variety is even more winterhardy than Spring Green, released a few years ago, he says.

Festulolium has its greatest value as a grazing crop, but it can be hayed, too.

Casler is still working to determine the variety's geographic adaptation. “I anticipate it will be the northern U.S. and into Canada.”

Smooth bromegrass

Alpha ranks high in forage yield and digestibility. It's been tested in several states, including Illinois, Kansas, New York, North Dakota and Pennsylvania.

“It's also been bred for persistence in mixtures with alfalfa,” says Casler. “This forage can be grazed, but it's more useful as a hay crop. In general, bromegrass doesn't do very well under grazing pressure because it lacks good regrowth.”