Cows eat grass and grass is grass, right? If the blend you used before worked, so you might as well just keep using it. Or is there something better?
Annual crops are tested for yield and maturity, averaged over many sites and years. You can talk to neighbours to see how their varieties worked, and changing varieties is easy. Forages on the other hand, do not get the same level of respect or testing. As well, species are rarely seeded on their own. Most forages are seeded in a blend, are usually sown on tougher soils and managed in different ways on different farms. The number of forage varieties and species outnumber cereal and oilseed crops, so picking a new blend can be daunting.
For legumes, alfalfa reigns supreme and is the cornerstone of most forage blends. It is easy to establish and seed, we know how to manage it, and animals eat it with little problem. However, bloat is a concern, as is the amount of moisture, phosphorus and potassium it can remove from soil. Some other species worth considering are sainfoin, cicer milk vetch, birds foot trefoil and the clovers.
Sainfoin is a short-lived, non-bloat legume that’s easy to establish and suitable for hay or pasture. The negative is it is a large seed and needs relatively high seeding rates to establish a good stand. Yields are about 90 per cent of alfalfa, but with higher palatability. Cicer milk vetch is a long-lived, non-bloat legume. It also can be used for hay or pasture, but is slow to establish, normally taking two to three years. It can be hard to bale when established because heavy crops will lodge. Animals will be slow to start eating it due to its high tannin levels, but it retains leaves into the fall longer than alfalfa which makes it an excellent choice for stockpile grazing. Birds foot trefoil is a small-seeded, non-bloat legume that will readily seed itself out in moist conditions. It is easy to establish and is used predominately for pastures.
Clovers are a whole ball of worms. Yellow, red, and white species are used in the Prairies. Yellow is a biennial used for hay, red is used as pasture or silage in moist areas, and white is used more for grazing or reclamation. They are prone to bloat and can be hard to cure for hay. There are some feeding concerns around some varieties under some conditions. They do a great job of fixing nitrogen and improving soil in a short period of time.
Bromes have traditionally been the workhorse of the grasses. Smooth brome is the “hay” type, and meadow is the “pasture” type, although both are used in other modes. Smooth brome has a stronger creeping root than meadow brome, but the latter regrows faster. Meadow brome will put up a seed head for the first three to four years, and then turns vegetative, making it difficult to cut and cure. Smooth brome will turn sod bound and choke out other species, whereas meadow brome will stay in a blend longer. There are now brome hybrids that are varying degrees of intermediates between smooth and meadow bromes. Find out if the variety is more like meadow or smooth. Meadow brome is hairier than smooth and tends to be the problem in seeding blends.
Wheatgrasses constitute the most diverse and variable group of grasses. Crested wheatgrass is the best known, but has a drawback of taking over a stand if not managed properly. It is a high seed producer, has early maturity, and with proper management, can be a very productive grass for both hay and pasture. Intermediate wheatgrass is a good hay species that matches very well with alfalfa. It is a bunch grass that will not choke out alfalfa in a blend. It is fairly tall with good carbohydrate levels, which makes it very palatable. Slender wheatgrass is a short-lived bunch grass that is easy to establish and is relatively salt tolerant. It is used more for a hay, but has some grazing potential. Western and Northern wheatgrasses work very well for grazing as they cure well on the stem in the fall, retaining palatability and nutrients. Both are native species and sensitive to over grazing. They are both creeping rooting, drought and frost tolerant. Pubescent wheatgrass is also available, but rarely used due to the price (however, the price is falling). It’s similar to Intermediate wheatgrass, both bunchgrasses, with Pubescent being more drought tolerant and better to graze.
Orchardgrass is a bunchgrass species that is overlooked because of winter hardiness issues, needing about four inches (10 cm) of stubble to overwinter properly. The energy stores are above ground at the base of the plant. In grazing scenarios, animals will preferentially graze orchardgrass if given the chance. Drought resistance is it’s other weakness, along with its fast regrowth for hay. Under good fertility and adequate moisture, it will really produce, and is easy to establish and is small seeded.
Fescues are a short grass family used, as a rule, predominantly for grazing. Tall fescue is a rugged, stiff leaved species that has good drought and salinity tolerance. It is small seeded and mixes well in blends. It’s good for fall grazing, as the stiff leaves will stand through the snow. Creeping red fescue is used in lawns because it is a soft leafed creeping root species. It is good for ground cover and takes traffic well. The negatives are that it will choke out other species and it takes a fair amount of nutrients and water.
Timothy is a small seeded species that tolerates a fair amount of water. It is a fine stemmed bunch grass that is very palatable, and usually used in blends. Pure stands would be two to three pounds, so a blend with 0.1 to 0.5 pounds is adequate. Hay and pasture situations work well.
There are other grass and legume families not covered here with potential for hay, pasture, or ground cover. Find out the growth pattern of the species, how they mix, tolerate haying or grazing, longevity and palatability of the species. Having a different blend on the farm is good for risk management and increases biodiversity on the farm. Plus it might help boost your production. †