Orchardgrass – A High Yielding, High Quality Forage Grass
By Anowar Islam, UW Extension Forage Specialist
Orchardgrass is a cool-season, bunch type perennial grass. It is an introduced species and originated in Europe. The leaves of orchardgrass are blue-green and mainly crowed near the base of the plant. The plant’s leaf sheaths are flattened with V-shaped cross sections. This grass can grow up to two to three feet tall.
Orchardgrass is winter hardy. However, it has less tolerance to drought and poor drainage when compared to other cool-season grasses such as tall fescue and bromegrass. It has more shade tolerance than most grasses. Because of shade tolerance, this is a very compatible species for mixed-cropping. For example, orchardgrass works well in a mixture with forage legumes, especially with alfalfa.
This grass species can produce high yielding, high quality forage compared to other cool-season grasses. A recent study at the University of Wyoming’s Department of Plant Sciences showed that orchardgrass can produce comparable yield to and higher quality than meadow bromegrass. Also, this grass produced even higher yield and crude protein when grown as a mixture with alfalfa.
Orchardgrass can be established either in spring or fall. In the southern U.S., August to September is the recommended time to plant. In Wyoming conditions, spring planting seems to work better than fall planting. The recommended seeding rate is 15 to 20 pounds per acre. However in mixture planting, seeding rate would be about half the recommended rate. Orchardgrass responds very well to fertilizers, especially nitrogen fertilizer. When planting as a mixture with alfalfa, it may not require any nitrogen fertilizer.
The production of orchardgrass varies depending on weather conditions, especially temperature. The peak production, in general, is in May to June or July, and less production can be expected in the late summer months up to October or November.
Orchardgrass can be used for high quality pasture or hay. Good establishment and stand management are very important for this species. Frequent cutting or continuous grazing may weaken the stands. Moderate stocking rate is highly recommended when grazing orchardgrass pastures. During the season, the first hay harvest should be made in the boot to early bloom stage, and subsequent harvesting should be done as plant growth permits.
Limited pest infestation has been reported on orchardgrass. However armyworms, rust and leafspot diseases can be found in orchardgrass. Nematodes could also be a problem, especially in sandy soils.
Orchardgrass is an excellent pasture for horses, produces good forage and can be complimented when planted with legumes such as alfalfa or white or red clovers. Some popular varieties of orchardgrass include Latar, Paiute, Profile, Potomac, Persist and Tekapu.
Anowar Islam is an associate professor and the University of Wyoming Extension forage specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He can be reached at 307-766-4151 or firstname.lastname@example.org.