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Tall Fescue Shows Potential in Wyoming

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Grass pastures are essential components of western U.S. agriculture, especially on cattle ranches of the intermountain region. Unfortunately, the yield and quality of these grasslands are low, and continues to decline over time, which has been further accelerated by soil degradation. The yield of these pastures averages less than one ton per acre in many instances. 

Attempts have been made to increase forage yields of these pastures by fertilization and applying or controlling irrigation, but these efforts have resulted in little or no success. The price increase of fertilizer, energy and fuel has made improvement of these natural grasslands more difficult and, thus, threatens the profitability and sustainability of current production systems.

Introduction of a novel, drought tolerant and winter hardy tall fescue system in these grass pastures may have potential to increase productivity, profitability, quality and sustainability.

Tall fescue is one of the most productive cool-season grass species in the U.S. that can grow on a wide range of soils, has high drought and winter hardiness and can be used for pasture, hay, stockpiling, silage, soil conservation and turf grass. 

Due to the nature of prolific seed production, tall fescue will be a potential resource in producing seeds in the northwest Wyoming regions.

Recently, scientists in the Plant Sciences Department in the University of Wyoming initiated and completed a study to identify novel tall fescue cultivars and lines that would be suitable for growing in the western mountain regions, specifically in the Big Horn Basin area, and generate information on growth, forage yield and seed yield that would benefit not only local growers but also growers throughout the state and in neighboring states.

The study was conducted at the Powell Research and Extension Center in Powell and at a producer’s farm, the Stroh farm, also in Powell, under irrigated conditions from 2009 to 2012.  The study was repeated four times each year. 

The experiments included a forage yield trial with three doses of nitrogen – zero, 50 and 100 pounds nitrogen per acre, a seed yield trial with three doses of nitrogen – zero, 100 and 150 pounds nitrogen per acre, and three times of clipping – no, early and late. Standard seeding rates were used for both studies, with a rate of eight pounds pure live seed (PLS) per acre for seed production and 20 pounds PLS per acre for forage production. 

Forage yield, seed yield and forage quality were measured, and finally, an economic comparison was made. 

Tall fescue cultivars and lines used in this study responded very well to nitrogen treatments. The highest forage and seed yields were associated with the highest nitrogen treatment. 

Clipping treatments influenced seed yield, as well. The highest seed yields were associated with the highest nitrogen rate of 150 pounds nitrogen per acre and no clipping treatments. 

Nitrogen treatments did not affect the forage quality, and all cultivars and lines produced acceptable forage quality.

Economic comparisons indicated that at least 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre is needed to make the forage production profitable under irrigation. 

Seed production from tall fescue cultivars and lines were more profitable than forage production. 

The highest expected net returns were obtained from the no clipping treatments. Early clipping may be used in years when late freezing injury and/or limited forage availability are expected. Based on three years data and economic comparison, late clipping is not recommended.

The study generated useful data for the producers and growers in the region and beyond who look to use tall fescue as a potential forage and seed crop and to add revenue to their enterprises. 

Further studies warrant determining the maximum nitrogen rates for the maximum profits.

Anowar Islam is an assistant professor and University of Wyoming Extension Forage Agroecologist in the Department of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He can be reached at 307-766-4151 or

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