Pasture Grasses and Forages

Information on the different types of pasture grasses and clovers used in Pennsylvania.
Pasture Grasses and Forages - Articles

Updated: October 4, 2017

In This Article
Pasture Grasses and Forages

Kentucky Bluegrass

Characteristics

  • Narrow, creased, V-shaped leaves and canoe-shaped leaf tips
  • Seed head is a panicle inflorescence
  • Grows 12 to 18 inches in height

Attributes

  • Excellent pasture grass
  • Leaves are clustered close to the ground
  • Tolerates frequent and close grazing
  • Stores carbohydrates in roots and rhizomes
  • Rhizomes form dense sod, tiller, and fill in bare spots
  • Dense sod can reduce weed establishment
  • Good erosion control
  • Winter hardy
  • Very palatable

Limitations

  • Little shade tolerance
  • Little growth in summer when temperatures exceed 75 degrees
  • Will go dormant and turn brown during hot, dry summers and will resume growth in fall
  • Slow to establish - seeds take 14 days to germinate
  • Low yielding plants

Management

  • Maintain soil at a pH of 6 or 7
  • Apply nutrients based on soil test reports
  • Remove horses from pasture until all fertilizer has been incorporated into the soil
  • Pairing with white clover when seeding provides soil nitrogen
  • Seed conventionally into a firm well-prepared seed bed or use a no-till drill
  • When seeding a pure stand - plant at 10 to 14 lbs. of seed per acre; use heavier rates to ensure quicker ground cover
  • Seeding with other higher yielding grasses will increase production
  • Mow to maintain a plant height of 2 to 4 inches to promote tillering
  • If pasture is overgrazed, white clover may dominate the pasture; to suppress the clover, allow the blue grass to grow to 8 to 12 inches in height and /or apply nitrogen fertilizer


Kentucky Blue Grass Leaf Closeup


Kentucky Blue Grass Root System

Timothy


Timothy Grass

It is less competitive with alfalfa and trefoil than other tall grasses and is best suited for hay or silage in combination with alfalfa, red clover, or birdsfoot trefoil.

Characteristics

  • Perennial, bunch-type, shallow-rooted, cool season grass
  • Adapted to moist and cool conditions
  • Dense and cylindrical seed head
  • Leaves rolled in bud
  • Flat, ribbed leaf blade
  • Membranous ligule
  • Stores energy in a bulb-like corm at the base of the plant

Attributes

  • Excellent hay crop
  • Later maturing than orchardgrass - maintains quality later into spring
  • Compatible with other legumes and forages

Limitations

  • Little drought and heat tolerance
  • Plagued by cereal rust mite in early spring which consumes plant nutrients and destroys vascular bundles in the stems and leaves - plant leaves will roll and turn yellow
  • Low tolerance of drought or wet conditions
  • Hay type forage with few leaves at the base of the plant and limited energy storage in corms
  • Low tolerance of frequent grazing
  • Slow to establish - new seedings may fail if weed pressure is high

Management

  • Fall is preferred seeding time
  • Avoid growing in sandy soils
  • Pure stands - sow seeds at 8-12 lbs. per acre,
  • Seed 1/2 inch deep in well - prepared seed bed
  • For pasture use - seed with other grasses that are more tolerant of frequent grazing and dry conditions
  • Do not graze shorter than 3 to 4 inches
  • Allow a minimum of 3 weeks recovery time after grazing
  • Apply lime and fertilizer based on soil test results
  • Apply 100 to 150 lbs. of nitrogen per acre, split into several applications (apply 50 lbs. of nitrogen in spring)
  • Remove horses from pasture until all fertilizer has been incorporated into the soil

Smooth Bromegrass


Smooth Bromegrass

It can be used for silage, hay, or pasture, alone or in mixture with alfalfa, ladino clover, or red clover.

Characteristics

  • Leafy, sod-forming cool season grass
  • Spreads by extensive underground rhizomes
  • Leaf blade is smooth, thin, and flat and has a distinct M or W shaped constriction
  • Leaves form a "V" where they meet the stem
  • Seed head is branched with 6-7 spikelets that typically leans to one side


Smooth Bromegrass Leaf

Attributes

  • Survives long term periods of drought and extremes in temperature
  • Matures and maintains forage quality later in the spring than orchardgrass; extends hay making window
  • High stand persistence

Limitations

  • Slow recovery after harvest or grazing
  • Requires knowledgeable grazing management
  • Full yields not reached until second or third year of production

Management

  • Late summer is the preferred seeding time
  • No-till seeding produces the best results
  • Long, narrow seeds may be a seeding challenge and may bridge in the drill
  • If seed is broadcast, seed must be covered with a drag or harrow
  • If seeding alone, seed at 12-16 lbs. per acre
  • Apply fertilizer and lime based on soil test results
  • Maintain soil pH between 6 and 7
  • Nitrogen fertilizer will greatly increase yields
  • Apply 50 lbs. of nitrogen per acre at green up in spring and make additional applications in summer and late fall. Remove horses from pasture until all fertilizer has been incorporated into the soil
  • Brome can be lightly grazed in spring during the tillering stage
  • As the plants grow and stems elongate, grazing and mowing should be restricted since the growing point can be destroyed by mowing or close grazing
  • When seed heads emerge, the plants can be mowed for hay or clipped Pastures should not be grazed closer than 4 inches

Orchardgrass


Orchard Grass

Because of its growth characteristics, it persists well with alfalfa.

Characteristics

  • Tall, cool season bunch grass that is blue-green in color
  • Broad, folded, "V" shaped leaves
  • Seed head - panicle with spikelets in dense clusters
  • Membranous ligule at the base of each leaf

Attributes

  • Grows in early spring and develops rapidly
  • More tolerant of shade, drought, and heat, than other cool season grasses
  • Can be used for hay or pasture
  • Very productive - can yield 4 to 6 tons per acre with proper fertility and management

Limitations

  • Intolerant of close grazing - energy needed for regrowth is located above the soil surface
  • Early maturity in spring requires early harvest
  • Rapid loss in palatability and quality as plants mature
  • Close grazing in fall reduces winter hardiness

Management

  • Graze frequently to maintain adequate quality and establish rest periods when needed
  • Mow or graze to maintain a height of 4-5 inches
  • Most successful seedings are made in late summer
  • For pasture use, choose varieties with lower crowns developed for pasture use
  • Pure stands - seed at 8 to 12 lbs. per acre
  • Seed 1/4 to 1/2 inches deep
  • Apply nutrients and lime based on soil test reports
  • Maintain soil pH between 6 and 7
  • If soil fertility is low, most of orchard grass yield occurs in spring. If soil fertility is adequate and nitrogen applications are split, summer and fall yields may increase to 35 to 65% of total production
  • Very responsive to nitrogen fertilizer - apply 150 lbs. per acre each year - 50 lbs. in spring and the remainder split after grazing or harvest
  • Remove horses from pasture until all fertilizer has been incorporated into the soil


Orchardgrass Seedlings


Orchardgrass Leaf

Perennial Ryegrass


Perennial Ryegrass

It normally is considered to be less winter hardy and slightly more digestible than other forage grasses, such as timothy and orchardgrass, but newer varieties appear to survive satisfactorily, especially when grown in mixture with legumes.

Characteristics

  • Bright green bunch type grass
  • Smooth, narrow, very glossy leaves
  • Claw like auricles at the base of the leaves
  • Seed head consists of a long narrow spikelet
  • Grows best in cool, fertile, well-drained soils
  • Varieties occur as diploids or tetraploids
  • Tetraploids have larger leaves, a higher % sugar in the forage, and more open growth habit
  • Diploids have faster growth and greater persistence

Attributes

  • Quick germination and rapid establishment
  • Good species for overseeding
  • Long growing season
  • Higher tolerance of wet soils
  • Very high forage quality that is palatable to all livestock species, including horses
  • High tolerance of frequent grazing

Limitations

  • Poor winter hardiness
  • Low drought and heat tolerance
  • Low persistence - only survives several growing seasons

Management

  • Can be successfully seeded in spring (April or May) or late summer (before August 25 in southern PA)
  • Can be no-tilled into pastures if existing vegetation is grazed or mowed very short or suppressed chemically
  • Seed at a rate of 4-8 lbs. per are when seeded alone
  • Seeding with white clover will supply some nitrogen for the ryegrass
  • Fertilize and lime based on a soil test
  • Maintain soil pH between 6 and 7
  • Graze in spring when perennial ryegrass is 2 to 3 inches in height
  • Established grass can be continuously grazed but yield and persistence will decline if the grass is grazed less than 1.5 inches.
  • Allow 7 to 10 inches of regrowth between grazing periods


Perennial Ryegrass Root System


Perennial Ryegrass Leaf

Red Clover


Red Clover

Characteristics

  • Short-lived perennial legume, well-adapted to cool summers with adequate moisture
  • Dark pink/ purplish flower (modified raceme)
  • Very hairy - stems, petioles and both sides of leaves are pubescent
  • Growth habit varies form erect to prostrate
  • Numerous stems with large trifoliate leaves
  • Watermark "V" on leaves
  • Deep tap root - 24 to 36 inches in length

Attributes

  • Does not require nitrogen fertilizer
  • Nitrogen - fixing nodules on roots can incorporate nitrogen from the atmosphere into protein
  • Shade tolerant
  • Higher tolerance of acidic soil than alfalfa
  • Easily established

Limitations

  • Low winter hardiness
  • Low drought resistance
  • Low to moderate tolerance to frequent grazing
  • Moderate tolerance to wet soils
  • Some varieties are susceptible to powdery mildew and anthracnose
  • Short-lived - 2 to 3 years, new plants may develop from seeds
  • Rhizoctonia fungus can grow on leaves and may irritate salivary glands of horse resulting in slobbering. Increased moisture and high humidity will increase fungal growth

Management

  • Use in mixtures with cool season grasses
  • Easily established using a no-till drill
  • Best seeded with grasses at 6-8 lbs. per acre
  • Easily seeded with a no-till drill
  • Seed should be inoculated with Rhizobium trifolii bacteria
  • Seed no deeper than 1/4 inch
  • Can broadcast (frost seed) in late winter or early spring when soil is honeycombed
  • Top dress annually with fertilizer based on a soil test report
  • Add lime as needed to maintain soil pH above 6 to maximize nitrogen fixing ability


Red Clover Flower


Red Clover Distinct Leaf Markings

Tall Fescue


Tall Fescue Seedling

In Pennsylvania it is used primarily for conservation purposes, but it is well suited either alone or with ladino clover for hay, silage, or pasture for beef cattle and sheep, including stockpiled pasture or field-stored hay for winter feeding.

Characteristics

  • Perennial bunch type forage grass that grows on a wide range of soils
  • Spreads by underground rhizomes
  • Leaf is rolled in the shoot
  • Blades - course textured and thick with prominent veins, and sharp edges; upper surface is dull green underside is glossy
  • Seed heads are a loose or compressed panicle

Attributes

  • Grows well in poorly-drained soils
  • Easily established
  • Highly tolerant of low pH and limited fertility soils
  • Tolerates frequent grazing
  • Ideal grass for conservation plantings and areas of heavy livestock and machine use
  • Stays green year round - can be stock piled (fertilized and rested) for fall feeding
  • Provides growth into summer when cool season grasses have declined

Limitations

  • Low palatability especially in summer
  • Tall fescue (K31) contains an endophytic fungus which produces toxic alkaloids that cause reduced weight gain in young animals and retained placentas and aborted fetuses in mares that graze plants in the last trimester

Management

  • When seeding a new pasture, use low endophyte and endophyte "friendly" varieties that have been developed for pasture use
  • Seed at 12 lbs. per acre if seeded alone and 8 to 10 lbs. per acre if seeded with a legume
  • Apply lime and fertilizer annually based on a soil test report
  • If the pasture already contains endophyte infected tall fescue, remove pregnant mares from pasture 30 to 90 days before foaling and supplement grazing with hay and grain
  • Over seeding with other forage species provides some alternative forage benefit, but tall fescue will again dominate if the plants and seeds are not eliminated prior to reseeding
  • When reseeding, eliminate all vegetation in the pasture, and seed to another crop before replanting the field in pasture forages


Tall Fescue Stem Leaf System


Tall Fescue Leaf Close Up

White Clover


White Clover

White clover is commonly planted with orchardgrass, ryegrass, or tall fescue.

Characteristics

  • Most widely adapted legume in the U.S. - common in pastures, meadows, and lawns
  • White (tinged with pink) globe like flowers
  • Plants reproduce by stolons (horizontal stems) along the surface of the ground
  • Prolific seed producer
  • Leaves have long petioles and consist of three round or heart-shaped leaflets
  • Leaflets have a white "C" watermark
  • Grows best under cool, moist conditions on well drained clay or loam soils

Attributes

  • Winter hardy
  • Tolerates heavy grazing pressure - can be grazed to one inch in height
  • Improves forage quality
  • Nitrogen-fixing nodules on roots can incorporate nitrogen from the atmosphere into protein
  • Pasture requires less nitrogen because of the white clover contribution
  • High tolerance to poor and/or wet soils and moderately tolerant of low pH soils
  • Very persistent

Limitations

  • Contains a fungus that irritates salivary glands and may cause horses to "slobber"
  • Can cause bloat in cattle
  • Phytoestrogens can cause lactation in non-pregnant mares
  • Not drought or heat tolerant
  • Can dominate an overgrazed pasture

Management

  • Best seeded with grass to counteract low yield
  • Seed at 2 - 4 lbs. per acre (one lb. of seed = 8000,000 seeds)
  • Seed no deeper than 1/4 inch
  • Easily seeded with a no-till drill
  • Can broadcast (frost seed) in late winter or early spring when soil is honeycombed
  • Plant on well-drained loam or clay soils
  • Manage to maintain at least 50 - 60% grass
  • Maintain pH between 6 and 7
  • Apply phosphorus and potassium based on a soil test
  • Add lime as needed to maintain soil pH above 6 to maximize nitrogen fixing ability


White Clover Flower


White Clover Leaf Markings

Authors

Hay and Forage Nutrition Pasture and Nutrient Management Practices PA Manure Management Equine Health and Parasites Pasture Weed Identification

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