More Grasses 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.

Timothy (Phleum pratense) sometimes known as Catstail.

Timothy grass is, with Cocksfoot, perhaps the highest in dry matter content of all grasses. Though rather slower to establish than Cocksfoot or Italian Ryegrass it favors a wide range of soils, with special preference for heavy damp soils and should be preferred to Cocksfoot on the heaviest soils.

Because I have found Timothy tends to be rather shy in competition with Cocksfoot, I think it is wise to sow rather more Timothy than Cocksfoot in mixtures where they are both included. Subsequent management, too, must also maintain a balance between these two grasses, by not allowing the ley to grow so far that the Cocksfoot predominates. Normal grazing and topping off with a mower after grazing, will be sufficient to maintain a balance; but where repeated hay crops are taken, allowing the grasses to grow to maturity, the Cocksfoot tends to gain the upper hand.

Timothy does not contribute so abundantly to the first year’s grazing as, for instance, Perennial Ryegrass or Cocksfoot, as it is somewhat slow to establish; but in later years it provides an extremely heavy yield of very palatable and nutritious grass. Under heavy grazing, especially where long rest periods are not possible, I have found the commercial strains of Timothy very quickly die out before the end of a four- or five-year ley; but the pedigree strains have shown a great improvement in this respect, and the following varieties can be relied upon to survive the heaviest grazing with either cattle or sheep.

Aberystwyth S.48 and S.50

I have included these two strains together as they are both purely pasture types of Timothy. The S.50 is an extreme pasture type, bred solely for grazing purposes. It is prostrate and covers the ground by its spreading habit of growth, providing a dense sward when grown in conjunction with the Aberystwyth S.48. The S.48 is more upright in growth and to be preferred to S.50 where the grass is to be cut for hay, though the S.51 is the pure hay strain and might be included where the ley is designed as much for hay as for grazing. In my own experience I prefer to sow a primarily grazing ley, and to take the hay or silage at periods when the grass is growing beyond the cows. For this reason I find S.48 quite adequate, in conjunction with the other grasses, as a provider of hay; and it gives more scope for lengthening the period in which hay can be taken.

This does not mean that we take hay when the grass is not at its best, but that S.48 is, in my experience, more palatable and nutritious for a longer period than S.51, because S.51 more quickly goes to seed. All strains of Timothy, being yielders of bulky, broad leaves, benefit greatly from organic manuring; or, failing that, the topping-off with a mower each year of a little of its own growth. The broader-leafed grasses, as welas the herbs, show a wonderful response to a feed of even the smallest quantity of the ley mixture itself in combination with the dung and urine which has been left by the grazing animal.

Hence the great importance of frequent topping with the mower and harrowing with the chain harrows, or a ‘scratcher’ of some kind, following grazing; and, if possible, a topping-off which provides something more than the occasional long stalk which has been left ungrazed because of its unpalatability. I believe more and more that to remove the grazing animal a little before the field is bare, when topping is to be done, well repays the little grazing that may have been lost when the ultimate growth which results from it comes along.

Fescue grass
Meadow fescue

Meadow Fescue (Festuca pratensis)

Meadow Fescue is becoming increasingly popular as an ingredient of the simpler mixtures because, where choice is limited to one or two grasses, it is one of the most nutritious. It is a slow starter, but very productive; and once established is a heavy cropper. Unfortunately it is not, in my experience, as productive or palatable as Timothy on heavy soils where it is used as an alternative to Timothy as the companion grass for Lucerne. I would not, therefore, use it alone with Lucerne in the way that is widely advocated by some authorities. But it is worth a prominent place in all ley mixtures, for it produces an abundant growth in July and August when the ryegrasses are at their lowest. It does not compete well with ryegrasses in the earlier summer; but when they are grazed back, Meadow Fescue will come in to take the place of the ryegrasses, provided it has not been obliterated by the ryegrasses.

Meadow Fescue prefers a very heavy soil, but grows well on all soils of medium to good fertility. It prospers better alongside Timothy than Perennial Ryegrass; and it would be worth while experimenting with a drastic reduction of Perennial Ryegrass on the heavier soils, and growing Timothy and Meadow Fescue as the two main grasses in leys of five or six years’ duration. Meadow Fescue is not really at its best until the third year, so of necessity in my four-year leys I have limited it in favor of the quicker establishing grasses.

Meadow Fescue is, however, one of the best for winter growth, and should always take a predominant place in a mixture to be kept down a number of years, primarily for the purpose of providing winter grazing.

Tall Fescue (Festuca elatior)

Tall fescue is a taller growing and broader leaved grass than Meadow Fescue. It has a long growing season and in good conditions of soil and moisture will remain green throughout summer and winter. It tends to be unpalatable on soils of low fertility, but is one of the deepest rooting of grasses, which makes it a valuable ingredient of mixtures on all types of soil.

Permanent Bottom Grasses

All the above grasses are temporary ley grasses with a fairly tall and upright growth. In a ley of not more than four years’ duration it is not worth while spending money on the ‘bottom’ grasses. The S.100 and Wild White Clover can be relied on to fill up the bottom of the ley; but for longer leys and permanent pastures the shorter and finer bottom grasses are worth including if they can be bought at reasonable prices. They are:

  • Hard Fescue (Festuca durusicula)

In my experience this grass is suitable only for permanent or long duration pastures, when it provides an undergrowth of very fine, almost hair-thin, leaf. Again, its expense limits its use except in special mixtures. It can be used with advantage in a ley of five to seven years’ duration to be used primarily for poultry, as it has a succulent leaf much liked by poultry.

  • Smooth Stalked Meadow Grass or Kentucky Blue Grass (Poa Pratensis)

This grass is scarce and expensive in Britain, and consequently little used. But it is an extremely popular and very productive grass in the United States. Enthusiasts for their Kentucky Blue Grass, as it is best known in America, have sent me supplies of seed; and I must say it is an abundant cropper which seems to deserve more attention here. It has a creeping root and early growth, and favors the lighter drier soils.

  • Rough Stalked Meadow Grass (Poa Trivialis)

This grass grows well on the moister soils. It grows on the poorest soils, given sufficient moisture. It is in somewhat short supply, however—and seed may be costly. But in the longer ley it fills the undergrowth well with only 1 lb. an acre.

  • Crested Dogstail (Cynosurus cristatus)

This is one of the best drought-resisters I know, and is always worth a place in the very dry areas. I make little use of it now because, except for the occasional summer—such as 1949 (which was the last really dry one we had, when it served me well) we are not, it seems, much troubled by too little moisture in the summer in my part of the world.

  • Meadow Foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis)

This is not a bottom grass; it grows two or three feet high if allowed to go to maturity, but it is included in this section as a permanent rather than a temporary ley ingredient; for it is not in full production until its third year, so is of no real value in the four-year ley. At its present price, which at the time of writing is 12s. 6d. a lb., it is not worth serious consideration.

Source: Fertility Pastures

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