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Ryegrass 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.

Italian Ryegrass

Italian Ryegrass is perhaps the most widely used and the most useful of grasses for ley farming. Though its life is short, its adaptability to a wide range of conditions, its quick growing nature and its winter hardiness, make it suitable as an ingredient for all leys, long or short. In the long ley it gives the first grazing in the first and second years ; in the short ley it produces a quick bulk for mowing, and an aftermath for ploughing or discing in.

The greatest virtue of Italian Ryegrass (and in these general terms I include the more recent grasses, Westerwolth’s Ryegrass and New Zealand H.I. strain, Short Rotation Ryegrass) is that it is possible, by planning sowings, to obtain grazing at any time of winter or summer at a predetermined period after sowing. I found in experimenting with these grasses that, assuming reasonably normal growing weather, (and that means primarily sufficient moisture), whether in early spring or late summer one can arrange to have a bulk of grazing at almost any time by sowing a mixture in which one of these grasses predominates, approximately eight weeks before it is needed for grazing during the period March to September. Even for grazing during the period October to March, a sowing in late August or early September can produce, provided a sufficient area is sown to allow for the fact that regrowth may not be expected after grazing in December, a continuous winter grazing excepting, of course, during a period when the ground is completely covered with snow (though even then cattle will find it under the snow if it is long enough).

The disadvantage of this continuous grazing system is, of course, that none of these ryegrasses last beyond the second year, at any rate in economical quantities: so that a system of continuous grazing, based on ryegrasses, involves a continuous rotation of sowings ; and it is probably more economical to devise fewer mixtures, designed to give grazing at different times of the year, but to remain down for a period of four years.

All leys, whether of short- or long-term, should include, in my experience, at least 6 lb. of one of the species of Lolium Italicum: that is, either the simple Lolium Italicum or Lolium Itaticum variety Westerwoldicum or the New Zealand Short rotation strain.

The simple Italian Ryegrass is available in a number of commercial strains: Irish, American and Danish, or in the more leafy strain, Aberystwyth S.22.

Westerwolth’s Ryegrass is, strictly speaking, not a biennial grass, though it will produce quite considerable growth in the second year, and if allowed to go to seed will grow quite as strongly in the second year as in the first. The main feature of Westerwolth’s Ryegrass is its speed of growth and the extreme bulkiness which it produces ; but I do not favour this grass for grazing purposes because it tends to be rather stemmy and lacking in leaf, except in the very early stages of growth. The chief use to which I have put it is with a mixture of Broad Red Clover and Chicory in building up the fertility of very poor fields. It produces the quickest and greatest bulk of all grasses ; and in combination with Red Clover and Chicory gives an excellent bulky green manure for discing into the top soil to provide humus and nitrogen, and in the process of growth and subsequent discing-in to aid the elimination of weeds, and with the acids of its own decay release additional minerals which are unavailable in humus-deficient soils.

Annual ryegrass

New Zealand Short Rotation Ryegrass, H.1 Strain

This is the most recent of Ryegrasses; and as far as my experience of it goes it appears to be the most leafy and productive. It is much more palatable than Westerwolth’s Ryegrass and as palatable as the ordinary Italian Ryegrass. It is much later to go to seed than all other strains of Italian Ryegrass that I have used—even the Aberystwyth S.22, which is a leafy, late-flowering strain. Short Rotation Ryegrass also lasts longer under good soil conditions and grazing management than any of the other annual or biennial ryegrasses. This is probably due to the fact that it was bred from a cross between Perennial and Italian Ryegrass, and seems to have inherited the longer life of the Perennial Ryegrass and the quick growth and palatability of Italian Ryegrass. It provides the earliest grazing of all grasses in the spring; and when sown in early autumn will provide grazing and continual growth throughout the winter, except in the most extreme conditions of cold. It forms the basis of my mixtures for early spring and winter grazing.
Any one of these three short-term ryegrasses may be sown with confidence on any type of soil. I have found they thrive equally well on light and heavy soil and in moist and dry conditions; and no mixture should be without one of them, to provide early cover for the other ingredients of longer leys and the first grazing while the remaining ingredients are being established.

Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium Perenne)

Perennial Ryegrass is the next-most-commonly used of ryegrasses and is included in all seeds mixtures, long or short. But poor strains of Perennial Ryegrass, especially under conditions of low fertility in the soil, grow to resemble the tines of a Ferguson Scratcher—and are just about as palatable and little more nutritious. This probably explains Robert Elliot’s violent adverse opinions of Perennial Ryegrass, for in his day there were no pedigree, leafy strains, and most ryegrasses available at that time required a very high degree of fertility to prevent them from going quickly to stem and seed: for none of them had been selected for leafiness and palatability. Even to-day, Perennial Ryegrass is not one of the most acceptable grazing grasses where cattle have a choice under conditions of low fertility. Its palatability is much improved by maintaining a high organic content in the soil, and providing it with a wide variety of companion herbs and clovers. It is essential, of course, to use only the improved pedigree strains, of which there are several designed for various purposes.

Aberystwyth S.23 Perennial Ryegrass

This is the most widely used strain of ryegrass designed primarily for grazing purposes. Though rather later to growth in the spring, it is slow to come to flower; and provides a great bulk of extremely leafy grass up to midsummer, and again during the autumn and winter. It is very persistent and will out-live most other ingredients of the long-term ley. Ideally, it must have a good proportion of clovers and grows best with its stable-mate, S.100 White Clover—which provides, by process of nitrogen fixation in the root-nodules of the clover which is ultimately transmitted in the soil to the ryegrass, the excessively large quantities of nitrogen upon which this strain of ryegrass thrives best. In my opinion, arising from personal experience and the observation of many other leys, this is the only satisfactory way of providing the necessary nitrogen for maximum growth of Perennial Ryegrass in such a way as to maintain its palatability to livestock. Ryegrass, when stimulated with nitrogenous fertilizers, unquestionably produces large quantities of grass. But observation of cattle grazing predominantly ryegrass leys, manured with large quantities of nitrogenous fertilizers which tend to depress the clovers and decrease the action of nitrifying bacteria, when compared with similar leys in which the clovers are encouraged by close grazing and suitable resting periods, leaves no doubt that the grazing animal prefers the latter. I am equally convinced that the extra bulk of ryegrass which may be produced from nitrogenous fertilizers does not produce a proportionate increase in milk yield. The blue sheen on ryegrass, which follows the excessive use of sulphate of ammonia displays to his neighbours the farmer who will reap in his cattle the self-sown disease of his greed. I have never yet walked through the deep green-blue of an over-stimulated Perennial Ryegrass ley without finding, in the cattle which graze it, breeding troubles, acetonaemia and other forms of protein poisoning. Perennial Ryegrass, manured organically and grazed judiciously, is the loyal grass which lasts long in the ley; but, if whipped with the nitrogen bag, hits back with a poisoned blade.

The Aberystwyth S.23 strain, in particular, when grown in conjunction with S.100 clover, if grazed too hard for long periods, will tend to submit to the domination of the clover. It is wise, therefore, to graze for shorter periods, allowing reasonably long rest periods for the S.23 Ryegrass to establish itself and maintain equality with the clover. An occasional opportunity during the year for the ryegrass to grow almost to maturity by taking a cut of hay or silage, especially in the second and third year, will enable it to maintain its position in competition with the clovers in the ley.

Aberystwyth S.101 Perennial Ryegrass

Because the S.23 strain of ryegrass does not provide much grazing during midsummer, an alternative strain for use in leys designed primarily for summer grazing is the S.101 strain. This flowers later, produces little growth in the spring, but gives a good bulk of extremely leafy herbage during the period around midsummer. For this reason it is also a good variety for hay and silage mixtures where the cut is to be taken rather late. I have not considered it of particular virtue in the general-purpose ley; but where a mixture is being sown to meet the shortage of the July-August period there is a case for the inclusion of 5 or 6 lb. of S.101.

Aberystwyth S.24 Perennial Ryegrass

This strain of Perennial Ryegrass is primarily for haymaking purposes, but is leafier than the commercial or New Zealand strains of ryegrass. I would include it only where it is intended to cut hay, in preference to grazing, in the ley of not more than three years’ duration: for the longer ley of complex mixture I have not found that S.24 has a place of any value. Similarly, New Zealand Certified Perennial Ryegrass is useful only in the shorter leys designed for haymaking purposes.

Source: Fertility Pastures

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