When you milk cows in the Ozark hills, reed canarygrass beats alfalfa hands down, believes Larry Schaffer.
"We get up to 20 tons of forage per acre (as harvested) from canarygrass," says Schaffer, who runs a 120-cow dairy farm near Norwood, MO.
"My cows probably would milk a bit better on alfalfa," he adds. "But I don't try to grow alfalfa here - it's too expensive and takes too much management. That's why I use reed canarygrass as my main dairy forage."
Reed canarygrass has a reputation for being suited only to poorly drained, wet areas. But Schaffer grows the cool-season grass on drought-prone clay ridges.
"It stands dry weather as well as any other grass adapted to this area," he says. "When we don't get rain, it doesn't get as tall but still produces forage."
Good forage, too, when it's harvested at the right stage.
"We chop canarygrass when the bottom leaves start to turn brown," Schaffer continues. "Our forage analyses show 18-22% protein, depending on the stage at harvest, and the relative feed value equals good alfalfa."
Reed canarygrass is a coarse-stemmed, sod-forming grass. It spreads underground by short rhizomes and forms a heavy sod in well-managed seedings.
Native reed canarygrass is high in alkaloids that reduce palatability, but Schaffer grows Palaton, a low-alkaloid variety.
"Canarygrass comes on early; it's one of the first cool-season grasses to begin spring growth," says Myron Hartzell, Natural Resources Conservation Service grassland specialist. "But it does not grow as late into fall as some other grasses, so it doesn't provide as much fall and winter forage as orchardgrass or tall fescue."
Most springs, Schaffer makes his first reed canarygrass cutting in mid-May.
"I chop the grass pretty finely and pack it into concrete-lined bunker silos," he says. "About July 1, I take another cutting off as silage. Then in September, before first frost, we bale a third cutting. This last cutting usually is a pretty short crop."
"Reed canarygrass responds well to fertility, especially high rates of nitrogen," says Hartzell. "When it gets the fertility and moisture, reed canarygrass makes more summer growth than any other cool-season grass in Missouri."
Schaffer's cows provide most of that fertility. He scrapes lots and building floors into a manure pit. The solids settle out and the overflow drains to an anaerobic lagoon. He pumps the manure pit about every 120 days.
"I put all of that manure on the canarygrass. I try to make the first application in early spring, to get the grass growing."
He applies the slurry-like manure with a tank spreader, often applying more than 3,000 gallons per acre. The lagoon effluent, which needs to be pumped less often, also goes on canarygrass through a traveling-gun irrigation sprinkler.
"After we take off the first cutting as silage, I topdress the canarygrass with 80 lbs of commercial nitrogen per acre. This stuff loves nitrogen."
Because he doesn't want to disturb his thin topsoil any more than necessary, he establishes new canarygrass stands without tillage. Canarygrass is a slow starter, and this has caused some problems.
"I killed back a stand of Matua prairie grass with Roundup, then made a fall no-till seeding of reed canarygrass," he recalls. "The Matua came back, germinating from seed on the ground, and crowded the canarygrass pretty badly the first year. But once reed canarygrass gets established, it's fairly competitive."
This year, Schaffer no-till seeded another 90 acres of canarygrass.
"It's expensive to get a stand established, but no more so than alfalfa," he says. "In this area, with our conditions, an alfalfa stand lasts four to five years at best. I have a 35-acre stand of reed canarygrass that is 10 years old and still producing."