Species and variety selection

Perennial cool-season grasses have long been an important part of the Wisconsin forage program. Perennial grasses have very diverse uses, ranging from hay, silage, and pasture to sod for roadsides and animal lots.  Smooth bromegrass, orchardgrass, timothy, tall fescue, and reed canarygrass fertilized with nitrogen will provide both early-season and September grazing for beef, sheep, goats, and horses. While productive in the spring and fall, grasses usually experience a “summer slump” (period of reduced growth) when the weather turns hot and/or dry. Including a legume in mixture with grass tends to improve forage quality and reduce the effects of summer slump. Grasses are used in pure stands, in grass/grass mixtures, and legume/grass mixtures.

Grass species differ in several important characteristics that influence suitability to a particular situation. The most important characteristics are maturity (how quickly the grass produces heads in the spring), winter hardiness and survival, disease resistance, heat and drought tolerance, and grazing or traffic tolerance. For example, tall fescue is well-suited to a high-traffic lot, while timothy will not survive under high traffic because its crowns are very sensitive to hoof damage and will not produce new stems. Orchardgrass would be a poor choice for drainage ditches or waterways because it is a bunch-type grass, and, rather than forming a sod, it forms clumps that are interspersed with bare ground or weeds.

Table 1 presents yield and palatability data for many varieties. Palatability may be more beneficial for lactating dairy cows than for beef and sheep production because of dairy cows’ high level of feed intake.

Wisconsin has many bluegrass pastures and quackgrass hay fields or pastures. However, producers rarely seed these species; both are considered unimproved pasture Bluegrass productivity is extremely low. Quackgrass can produce good quality and tonnage of hay or pasture

For each cultivated grass species used in Wisconsin today, many varieties are available with wide-ranging characteristics. The most important grasses in Wisconsin today are discussed in more detail below.

General Rules for Selecting Grass Species:

The grass species differences can help narrow your choices, but selecting the best- fitting grass variety within a species may have a more significant impact on whether a particular grass suits your needs.

Use the following steps to help select the best grass for your needs

  1. Select high-yielding varieties to get up to four tons per acre additional yield per year. This data is available in table 1 and, for more detail, go to the forages website: www uwex edu/ces/forage. For both hay and pasture, it’s generally best to avoid the traditional choices of smooth bromegrass (with high yield, but 60–70% of yield in first cutting and little growth the rest of season) and timothy (short- lived at 2–4 years and lowest-yielding grass) Instead, select newer varieties of tall fescue and orchardgrass with higher yield potential and better yield distribution during the growing season.
  1. Select tested varieties to ensure adequate winter hardiness.  Selecting varieties tested for winter hardiness is especially important since most grass varieties are developed in other parts of the world with less need for winter hardiness than in Wisconsin

Click on the grasses listed below for more detailed information regarding their specific characteristics:

Meadow Bromegrass
Meadow Fescue
Reed Canarygrass
Smooth Bromegrass
Tall Fescue

(Content adapted from “Forage variety update for Wisconsin”, Undersander et al., UW Extension Publication A1525)

Publication addressing legume trials:
Legume trials for pasture

Further information on fescues: