Orchardgrass and tall fescue are the best grasses for Upper Midwestern livestock producers, with meadow fescue as a third option for growers willing to sacrifice a little bit of yield to get the highest quality, says Dan Undersander.
Two historically popular species, smooth bromegrass and timothy, aren't recommended.
“Bromegrass is high-yielding and very winterhardy, but 60 or 70% of its growth is in first cutting,” says Undersander, University of Wisconsin Extension forage agronomist. “So while it's probably our largest-acreage grass, that uneven distribution makes it less desirable than these other species.”
Timothy, he adds, “is pretty short-lived, only lasting three or four years, and it's our lowest-yielding grass. It's meant for cool, wet environments and works very good on the east side of the Great Lakes, and even does better in New York than it does for us.”
Orchardgrass and tall fescue can match bromegrass for yield and persistence, and have better season-long growth. Orchardgrass is a slightly better pasture crop than tall fescue because it recovers quicker after defoliation, while tall fescue gets the nod for poorly drained or droughty soils. But tall fescue should not be grown for horses or sheep because of palatability issues with those animals.
“A farmer on most fields can choose either orchardgrass or tall fescue, and I don't see a lot of difference between the best varieties of either one, with the exceptions I just gave you,” says Undersander.
He recommends endophyte-free, but not novel-endophyte, tall fescue varieties. The novel endophyte helps the crop survive hot, dry weather, but those conditions aren't prevalent in the Upper Midwest, plus it's mainly in varieties that aren't sufficiently winterhardy for the region.
Meadow fescue, according to Undersander, “is one of the two grasses that are higher in quality than all other grasses. But it does yield less, so other than for dairy cattle there probably would not be much reason for growing it for hay. New varieties will be beneficial in pastures.”
Perennial ryegrass matches meadow fescue for quality, and festulolium is almost as nutritious, but neither is winterhardy enough for most of the Midwest. They've survived for three or four years in variety trials at Marshfield in central Wisconsin. But at Arlington in southern Wisconsin, where winter snow cover is less consistent, neither grass has ever survived for a year, Undersander reports.
His recommendation for wet soils where many other grasses and legumes won't persist: reed canarygrass.
“It's high-yielding, it's a sod former, it's winterhardy,” he says. “It's a little harder to establish than some of the other species, and that's why there's somewhat less interest in it. But if you get a stand, reed canary is a good crop.”