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Grazing cows favor meadow fescue

After being forgotten in the wake of developing tall fescues, meadow fescue is staging a comeback for pasture grazing. “The grass has great potential for grazing-based livestock operations, where it’s adapted,” says Geoffrey Brink, research agronomist at the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center in Madison, Wis.

It’s well-suited to frequent, managed grazing, he adds, but not as well-suited as taller grasses to hay management systems. Under Brink’s six cutting trials, the center’s Azov and Hidden Valley varieties yielded slightly less than tall fescues and orchardgrass, but more than the European Bartura meadow fescue.

Key Points

Meadow fescue is staging a comeback via intensive grazing.

Nutritional value may override slightly lower dry-matter yields.

The jury is out on whether new varieties top new tall fescue varieties.


The best varieties may be yet to come. Mike Casler, a research geneticist also at the forage research center, says the newest genetic material from his breeding program has been released to seed producers. But it won’t be commercially available for about four years.

Other commercial varieties are available from Barenbrug USA, DLF International, Euro Grass, Ampac Seed and Albert Lea Seed (organic), and possibly other sources. Unlike older tall fescue and ryegrass varieties, meadow fescues carry endophyte-friendly (nontoxic) fungi.

Better than tall fescue?

In two research pastures and plots, meadow fescue has been very productive and persistent when managed properly, notes Brink. It’s more sensitive to grazing or harvest height than tall fescue and requires a 4-inch stubble to remain persistent, he points out.

A commercial endophyte-friendly tall fescue yielded about 10% more dry matter than meadow fescue, as cut six times a year to a 4-inch stubble. Dry matter, though, isn’t necessarily the bottom line for graziers.

Brink tested three meadow fescue varieties against one variety of orchardgrass and one of tall fescue. “Meadow fescue had a nutritional forage quality advantage that may compensate for its slightly lower annual yield.

“At vegetative stage, cell-wall digestibility of meadow fescue is 5% to 8% greater than orchardgrass or tall fescue,” he explains. “Cell-wall concentration [neutral detergent fiber] and protein are similar. Fiber digestability of meadow fescue generally is 4% to 7% higher than other cool-season grasses.”

Meadow fescue is very winter-hardy, he adds. It’s grown in the southern regions of the western Canadian provinces. But persistence depends greatly on soil type. Annual yields decrease as one moves further north.

An older meadow fescue was included in trial plots at the Agricultural Research Service Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit at State College, Pa. Harvested (not grazed) yields were comparable to orchardgrass-legume mixtures, reports Matt Sanderson, research agronomist.

“There’s a lot of naturalized meadow fescue in Northeast pastures,” he adds. “So, it should also be a fit in the Northeast.”

Although meadow fescue was once popular in the lower Northeast, Cornell University research is focusing solely on tall fescue. Cornell agronomist Jerry Cherney explains: “Although hardy, meadow fescue isn’t as persistent as tall fescue. And, new tall fescue varieties are very high-yielding in New York.”

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MADE to CHOMP: Meadow fescue may once again become a major grazing grass.

This article published in the May, 2011 edition of AMERICAN AGRICULTURIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.