Orchardgrass

Orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata L.) is a perennial, cool-season, tall-growing, grass which does not have rhizomes or stolons (bunch-type grass).
Orchardgrass - Articles

Updated: August 14, 2017

Orchardgrass
Table 1. Characteristics of perennial cool-season grasses in the Northeast.
GrassSeedling vigorTolerance to soil limitationsWinter survivalTolerance to frequent harvestRelative maturityb
DroughtWetLow pHa
a pH below 6.0.
b Maturity characteristic refers to relative time of seed head appearance in the spring. This will depend not only on species but also variety.
c L = low, M = moderate, H = high
Kentucky bluegrassMcLMMHHEarly
OchardgrassHMMMMHEarly-medium
Perennial ryegrassHLMMLHEarly-medium
Reed canarygrassLHHHHHMedium-late
Smooth broomegrassHHMMHLMedium-late
Tall fescueHMMHMHMedium-late
TimothyMLLMHLLate

Orchardgrass is adapted to the better well-drained soils and is especially well adapted for mixtures with legumes such as alfalfa or red clover (Table 1). It will generally persist longer than the other cool-season grasses in frequently cut, properly managed, alfalfa mixtures.

Orchardgrass is a versatile grass and can be used for pasture, hay, green chop, or silage. A high-quality grass, it will provide excellent feed for most classes of livestock.

Adapted Varieties

Several varieties of orchardgrass have been tested and were high-yielding in Pennsylvania variety trials. Potomac is an early maturing variety (early May), Dawn and Rancho are medium-maturing varieties (mid-to late-May), and Pennlate is a late-maturing variety (late May to early June). When seeding an orchardgrass-legume mixture, the two should mature at about the same time. This will enable harvesting of both species at proper developmental stages and improve the potential of harvesting top quality forage.

Establishment

Orchardgrass is usually easy to establish in either early spring or late summer. Late summer seedings, however, have been most successful in Pennsylvania. There is increased risk of winter injury with summer seedings made after mid-August.

Seed at the rate of 8 to 12 lb per acre. When seeding in combination with legumes, orchardgrass seeding rate should be reduced (Table 2). Orchardgrass should not be seeded with other grasses because of differences in maturity and palatability.

Table 2. Seeding rates for timothy and a single legume in mixture.
Specieslb/A
Timothy2-6

with any one of these legume
Alfalfa8-10
Birdsfoot trefoil6-8
Red clover6-8
White clover2-4

Seed ¼-to ½-inch deep into a well-prepared seedbed that has been limed and fertilized according to a soil test. Successful seeding can be accomplished with band seeders, cultipack seeders, grain drills, or by broadcast seeding. Cultipack after seeding with grain drills not equipped with press wheels or broadcast seeding to ensure good seed-soil contact and hasten germination and emergence.

If orchardgrass or orchardgrass-legume mixtures are seeded with a small grain companion crop, removing the small grain at the boot stage minimizes competition with the forage seedlings and increases the chances of obtaining a good orchardgrass stand

Harvest Management

For highest quality and high yielding hay, orchardgrass should be harvested in spring during boot stage. Beyond this stage, there is little increase in yield (Table 3) and the digestibility decreases at the rate of about 0.5 percent per day (Table 4). Aftermath growth can be harvested at 4-to 6-week intervals. Production and cutting frequency are greatly affected by soil moisture, soil temperature, soil fertility, and disease incidence.

Table 3. Yield and persistence of perennial cool-season grasses when the first harvest was taken at different stages of grass development and fertilized at two rates of N, averaged over three production years.
Stage at first harvestNaYieldPersistance after 3rd year
OGbRCbSBbTimbOGRCSBTim
-------- T/A ---------------- % Groundcover --------
a High N treatments received 200-250 lb N per acre per year, low N treatments received 100-125 lb N per acre per year.
b OG = 'Pennlate' orchardgrass, RC = common reed canarygrass, SB = 'Saratoga' smooth bromegrass, Tim = 'Climax' timothy
Adapted from Northeast Regional Publications 550, 554, 557, and 570. Management and Productivity of Perennial Grasses in the Northeast. West Virginia Agric. Exp. Stn.
PrejointHigh3.23.33.03.3541002232
Low2.22.12.32.5581003047
Early-headHigh3.53.53.93.4491002332
Low2.01.92.92.4571003032
Early-bloomHigh3.63.74.93.9511002514
Low2.42.03.72.8551003535
Late-bloomHigh3.63.85.14.0421003013
Low2.52.04.03.6531003840
Means of harvest schedules
Prejoint
2.72.62.72.9561002639
Early-head
2.82.73.42.8571002732
Early-bloom
3.02.94.33.3521003024
Late-bloom
3.02.94.63.4481003426
Means of N rates

High3.53.64.33.6481002522

Low2.32.03.22.7561003338
Table 4. Nutritional value of perennial cool-season grasses at first harvest.
Stage at first harvestCrude proteinaDigestible dry matter
OGbRCSBTimOGRCSBTim
--------------- % ---------------
a Grasses were fertilized with 200-250 lb of N the previous year.
b OG = orchardgrass, RC = reed canarygrass, SB = smooth bromegrass, Tim = timothy
Adapted from Northeast Regional Publications 550, 554, 557, and 570. Management and Productivity of Perennial Grasses in the Northeast. West Virginia Agric. Exp. Stn
Prejoint28.324.531.932.382798476
Early head16.817.018.016.166727262
Early bloom14.715.414.111.363716759
Late bloom12.511.18.68.857605455

Since orchardgrass is a high-quality grass, it can be grazed by most classes of livestock. Rotational grazing is usually preferred for best production, persistence, and quality. Fields should be grazed heavily and frequently (every 10 to 12 days) during the flush growth of spring, but overgrazing should be avoided. Leave a 3-to 4-inch stubble so the grass can recover quickly. Heavy grazing during October can lead to depleted root reserves and increased winter injury.

In a three-year study at Purdue University, animal performance was compared when grazing orchardgrass and tall fescue (Table 5). Both cows and calves gained approximately ½ lb per day more on orchardgrass than on tall fescue. Conception rate of the cows was 18 percentage points higher on the orchardgrass pastures. Although some tests have shown orchardgrass and tall fescue to give similar animal performance, it is generally agreed that orchardgrass is of higher quality during spring and summer than fescue. This is probably associated with the endophyte problem in older varieties of tall fescue. However, fescue is of higher quality in fall, especially after frost.

Table 5. Performance of cows and calves grazing orchardgrass and tall fescue during a three-year period.
OrchardgrassTall fescue
Adapted from V. L. Lechtenberg et. al. 1975 Indiana Beef-Forage Research Day Report, Purdue University 1975.
Calf performance
Average daily gains, lb1.761.28
Weaning weights, lb (205-day adjusted)429351
Cow performance
Average daily gains, lb0.580.02
Conception rate, %9072

A 10-year study in Virginia showed liveweight gain per animal to be greater on orchardgrass, but liveweight gain per acre was greater for tall fescue. Palatability, as measured by grazing preference, was higher for orchardgrass than either tall fescue, bromegrass, or bluegrass.

Fertility

Maintain soil pH between 6.0 and 7.0 for best results. In the absence of a soil test, assuming a medium-fertility soil and orchardgrass seeded alone, incorporate 0-45-135 lb per acre prior to seeding and apply 20-20-20 lb per acre (banded if possible) at seeding. Top dressings with lime, phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) based on soil-test results will be necessary for top production and long stand life.

If soil fertility is low, a large proportion of the total production of orchardgrass occurs in spring, whereas with proper fertility and split applications of nitrogen, aftermath production may contribute from 35 to 65 percent of total production. By comparison, aftermath of timothy with similar management and fertility contributes about 20 percent of the total production. Orchardgrass is responsive to fertilizer, especially nitrogen (N), and becomes very competitive when adequate nutrients are available. Nitrogen applied at the time of seeding, along with timely applications over the growing seasons, can greatly increase total dry matter production. Annual nitrogen applications of 150 lb per acre are economical. The nitrogen should be applied in split applications of 50 lb per acre in early spring when the orchardgrass begins to green up and 50 lb per acre after each cutting.

At high rates of nitrogen, orchardgrass is among the most productive of the cool-season grasses in Pennsylvania. Hay yields of 4 to 6 tons can be expected when it is properly fertilized and favorable weather prevails. Yields are reduced during periods of drought.

Summary

Orchardgrass is a bunch type grass which establishes rapidly and is suitable for pasture, hay, or silage. However, because it becomes coarse and less palatable as it matures, it is best suited for pastures. The rapid decline in palatability and quality as orchardgrass matures is the major deterrent to its use. Orchardgrass requires careful management to ensure that it is harvested promptly. Orchardgrass responds well to nitrogen fertilization and is very compatible with legumes in a mixture. It is not as winter hardy or drought tolerant as smooth bromegrass, but it can survive and be highly productive throughout all of Pennsylvania.

Prepared by Marvin H. Hall, associate professor of agronomy.

Authors

Forage Crop Establishment, Management and Utilization Perennial Warm-Season Grass Establishment and Management

More by Marvin Hall, Ph.D.