For years it could have been a candidate for the “Unsolved Mysteries” TV show. But, finally, researchers solved the puzzle on their own.

A mysterious grass that Charlie Opitz found 15 years ago on his Mineral Point, WI, dairy farm is a meadow fescue that may have great potential as a grazing crop.

Back then, Opitz' hilly pastures were mainly clover and bluegrass.

“We started to lose the red clover, and that's when this grass started to appear,” he says. “I kept an eye on it and it seemed to spread fairly fast. It looked a little like ryegrass, but I hadn't seeded anything there, and I'd never seen this type of grass before anywhere on the farm.”

Over time, he says, the mystery grass proved persistent and drought tolerant with good winter survival, and the cattle ate it.

“We're in an area where the soil isn't that deep, and it can get droughty. But this grass seemed to do well, even in the drier times.”

He had several experts examine the grass, including Mike Casler, USDA research plant geneticist in Madison. Casler was intrigued and began working with it. After years of testing and trials, Casler finally determined what species it is.

“This grass has some characteristics of fescue but more of the appearance of a ryegrass,” he says. “We're now 95% sure that the grass is a meadow fescue, which may have been brought to this country as far back as 150 years ago.

“It has good drought tolerance and winter survival, good tolerance to grazing, is very palatable and highly digestible. It certainly seems to be a good grass for management-intensive grazing in cold-weather climates.”

“It doesn't seem to need as much fertility as ryegrass,” adds Opitz. “With proper management, a stand could last for generations, I think. If it starts to thin a little, we let it set seed and reseed itself.”

The last four years, Casler and other researchers have learned much about the grass. They seeded test plots at Lancaster in southwestern Wisconsin and Marshfield in the central part of the state, and Casler says the results are very promising.

“We are all very excited about the potential for this grass,” he says. “It could fit a real niche for graziers in this part of the country.”

The researchers surveyed southwestern Wisconsin farmers and early results have identified the grass on a number of farms there.

They've also worked with a seed company, Seed Research of Oregon, to increase seed. Leah Brilman, the company's director of research and technical services, says the grass seems to do well in the Pacific Northwest, showing no signs of diseases such as rust, and having good winter growth.

“We've only had a limited experience with it here as we've increased the seed supply,” Brilman reports. “But it seems to have potential for grazing beyond just dairy cattle and could even be a fit for horse pastures. Wherever similar grasses do well, this should do well.”

The company expects seed to be commercially available by fall 2009. For more info, contact Seed Research of Oregon, 27630 Llewellyn Rd., Corvallis, OR 97333, 800-253-5766.