Mike Casler is optimistic that four perennial grass varieties he's developed will eliminate some problems growers have with current varieties.
The new cool-season varieties, which include reed canarygrass, meadow fescue, festulolium and smooth bromegrass, are in the foundation-seed phase, Casler says. He's a U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center research geneticist, Madison, WI.
The varieties should be commercially available in three to four years. Only the smooth bromegrass variety called Alpha has thus far been named.
Casler has bred this new variety for significantly better seedling vigor to counter a major weakness of reed canarygrass, which is poor establishment. Typically, seedlings have slow emergence, which gives annual weeds a chance to form a dense canopy that shades them out.
Casler began by identifying seedlings of greater vigor and used them to develop the new variety. It grows faster and, at a particular age, is taller and longer-rooted than current varieties, but comparable in yield and quality, he says.
In the past 50 years, meadow fescue has been replaced by tall fescue due to its higher yields and better resistance to crown rust.
“Tall fescue is a very good forage but meadow fescue has some distinct benefits,” Casler says. “Its leaves are softer and more palatable. Our feeding trials show animals prefer to graze meadow fescue if given a choice. It's more winter-hardy, too.”
The new variety produces large quantities of forage and, unlike some tall fescues, doesn't contain compounds toxic to livestock.
A hybrid of perennial ryegrass and meadow or tall fescue, festulolium contains more fescue genes and fewer ryegrass genes, and offers better drought tolerance and winter survivability than perennial ryegrass, Casler says. It's more winterhardy than Spring Green and, though festulolium's greatest value is as a grazing crop, it can be hayed, too.
Alpha ranks high in forage yield and digestibility, and is bred for persistence in mixtures with alfalfa, Casler says.
“It can be grazed, but it's more useful as a hay crop. We've had it under grazing and, like most bromegrasses, it doesn't do well in an intensive grazing situation.
Casler adds that the other three varieties are all well adapted to pasture-grazing situations, particularly meadow and festulolium.
“Because they have more dry matter closer to the ground, they can tolerate it. Plus, they have really good tillering characteristics,” he says.
Casler doesn't recommend the trio for use in continuous grazing situations, saying: “These are all taller-growing than bluegrass, and in a continuous system bluegrass would eventually dominate and drive it out.”
Geographically, he says, the bromegrass variety is adapted across the Northeast and central U.S., where it's shown high yield potential and good quality. The other three varieties would likely have a range of adaptation ranging from the Northeast across to the Pacific Northwest and into the more humid parts of Canada.
“They likely wouldn't work in the Great Plains where moisture is less,” he says.
Ann Behling is a freelance ag writer based in Northfield, MN.