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Cocksfoot Grass as Forage

By Newman Turner

Born in September 1913, Frank Newman Turner became one of the founders of the modern environmental movement and published some of the first organic farming and gardening magazines. After graduating in agriculture and dairying at Leeds University, he became an inspector with the Potato Marketing Board. His journalistic skills soon became apparent, and he wrote regular columns for the British publications Farmers Weekly and Farmer and Stockbreeder. He met his future wife Lorna while he was on a business trip to Cornwall, and they married in 1939. He founded The Farmer, the first organic quarterly magazine “published and edited from the farm,” became a founding council member of the Soil Association, the U.K.’s leading regulator of organic standards, and served as president of an early organic horticultural organization. As a farmer, he received numerous awards in animal breeding and horticulture. A true visionary, many of his agricultural innovations are only now being rediscovered by the new wave of organic farmers and graziers.


Editor’s note: This article is a part of a series on grasses as forage.

Cocksfoot or Orchard Grass (Dactylis Glomerata)

Cocksfoot is one of the most productive of grasses; and also one of the most useful on all soils when properly managed; but no one should grow much cocksfoot in his ley mixtures unless he can be sure of being able to control it with a large number of cattle and a good mower knife.

Given kindly treatment in its first year, to enable it to become properly established, it will, in the latter part of the first year and subsequent years, stand very heavy grazing; indeed it is essential that it should be grazed hard at all times to prevent it from gaining predominance in the sward or becoming unpalatable to stock. In its young leafy stages it is relished by cattle as much as any other domestic crop; but once it becomes stemmy and the leaves become coarse, stock will not touch it and it quickly goes to seed and develops a tufty growth.

In my book, Fertility Farming, I suggested heavy seedings of Cocksfoot, in order to prevent the inevitable tuftiness which is associated with this grass. I have since discovered that the amount of seed in relation to the subsequent evenness of the Cocksfoot in the sward is not so important as grazing it hard, and keeping it short either by grazing it or by use of the mower during the whole season. Once established, I know of no grass which will tolerate such heavy grazing or continuous mowing as Cocksfoot. No grass is quicker to put forth a fresh leafy growth after grazing or mowing than Cocksfoot if allowed a short rest. It is often suggested that it will not tolerate much grazing in the early part of the year; but provided it is not poached in the winter too much (and if this is done ultimate tuftiness is inevitable) it comes early in the spring, and will stand quite heavy grazing for the rest of the year, recovering quickly after grazing. If the grazing is not heavy enough to keep it in control it is most important to follow the cattle immediately with the mower: otherwise, should it go to seed, no stock will touch it, and hard, coarse clumps develop. This is probably because the grass does not appear to spread evenly over the ground in the way other grasses do, but develops a hard-core center to each plant, which becomes impossible to maintain in a level condition once it has developed.

Cocksfoot is a deep-rooting grass and will continue to show fresh green growth while other grasses are burnt up by drought. For this reason it is an admirable companion for the deep-rooting herbs of the herbal ley and should always find a place in the herbal ley mixture. Similarly, Cocksfoot shows great benefit from its association with clovers, being a lover of nitrogen, which is supplied by the nitrifying bacteria of the root-nodules of the legume.

In my observation of the ingredients of the bulky growth of the hedgerows I saw that Cocksfoot invariably predominates. This is a clue which should not be overlooked in aiming at maximum production of the kind which is available under the natural conditions of the hedgerow in the early season. It is also an indication that under conditions of high fertility, which results from the plentiful organic matter of the hedgerow and organically-farmed land, Cocksfoot is one of the most desirable of grasses.

Close up of cocksfoot
Dactylis glomerata or cocksfoot grass

An additional point in its favor is that it shows greater benefit from good soil conditions than probably any other grass. Under very poor conditions it grows coarse and fibrous; but where the fertility is high its nutritional value and palatability are equal to any other grass. Cocksfoot has gained the reputation for being coarse, fibrous and often unpalatable, largely because of bad methods of management, particularly on the poorer soils. Given a high content of organic matter in the soil in which it is grown, it produces a highly nutritious and acceptable grazing for all classes of livestock; and because of its low moisture content compared with other grasses, produces a great bulk of dry matter, which, under good conditions of soil fertility, and in conjunction with a wide variety of herbs, makes a greater contribution to the total yield of nutriment from the ley than any other grass.

No grass demonstrates better than Cocksfoot the use of the mower in maintaining the condition and nutritive value of a ley. On an acre plot of Cocksfoot and Lucerne, which I had grown experimentally and in which the Lucerne had almost disappeared, due partly to poor establishment under the conditions in which it was sown, the crop was now almost predominantly Cocksfoot. After one grazing and one cut, which went into silage, the third growth was allowed to grow up to about 6 in. in height. A section of it was then mown for feeding green to cattle indoors, and the whole was then left for three weeks. During that three weeks there was a good deal of rain and the growing conditions were good, though the time was September. Surprisingly, during that time the mown portion of the Cocksfoot grew so fast that it became level in height with the remainder of the plot, which had not been mown or touched in any way since the growth of the whole field had reached 6 in.

When the cattle were allowed to graze the whole of this Cocksfoot they almost completely ignored the unmown portion until the mown portion had been grazed thoroughly, though the two sections were approximately the same length of growth.

This demonstrates not only the improved palatability of the younger growth following topping-off with a mower, but also the very quick recovery of Cocksfoot after mowing, provided a satisfactory rest period is allowed, even though the end of the normal grazing season is being approached.

It also shows how much is lost when a pasture is not frequently grazed or mown but left to grow to maturity. Certainly with Cocksfoot and many other species the more you cut the more you get.

Of the various varieties of Cocksfoot, Danish Cocksfoot, which is primarily a hay strain, is the earliest to grow in the spring; and for early grazing purposes a mixture might well include a small proportion of the commercial Danish strain, but for all other purposes there is no point in using this strain where the specially bred pedigree strains of leafy Cocksfoot are available.

Of the pedigree pasture strains of Cocksfoot I have always found a combination of Aberystwyth S.26 and Aberystwyth S.143 gives the best results and, especially where separate mixtures are used for early grazing, there is no point whatever in including the purely hay strains of Cocksfoot, such as the Danish or the New Zealand strains in a general-purpose mixture. S.26, being a hay-pasture strain, comes quite early enough to provide a good cut of hay; and at the normal time for haymaking provides a leafier and more nutritious hay than the so-called purely hay strains of the grass. These pedigree strains of Cocksfoot, though they will grow on the poorest of soils where other grasses may not prosper, nevertheless benefit from organic manures in a remarkable way; and on all except the heaviest and most intractable clays I would always include a few pounds of Aberystwyth S.26 and Aberystwyth S.143 Cocksfoot.

Source: Fertility Pastures

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