A recent study comparing spring-seeded winter annuals for grazing at three sites in Saskatchewan shows Westerwolds and Italian ryegrass to be excellent choices for forage in moist grey and black soil zones.
This reinforces 1990 work at Ag Canada’s Melfort station where Aubade (Westerwolds) and Maris Ledger (Italian) rygrasses were cut in July, and the regrowth clipped weekly from Oct. 5 to Nov. 9. The regrowth was greater than that of oats, fall rye and winter wheat with similar quality to oats and winter cereals right into November — 19 to and 23 per cent crude protein on Nov. 3.
While this early research showed the grazing potential of ryegrass, it’s still most commonly used for seed production and baled aftermath in the West, except around Steinbach, Man., where dairy farmers have accepted it as a high-quality silage crop that produces three to four cuts a year under the right conditions.
“The most eager ryegrass users are our European farmers,” says Tom Peters, a hay producer, alfalfa grower and BrettYoung seed distributor near Steinbach. While alfalfa is the forage of choice among livestock producers in Western Canada, grasses are used more extensively in Europe. Dry matter yields are very similar to alfalfa — three to five tons per acre — in this region bordering on the flood plain of the Red River Valley.
“Grasses have good protein and good energy, but they can lose that energy component very quickly as they mature,” Peters explains. “Ryegrass works well because it gives several fresh flushes. As for palatability — it’s a forage cows drool over.
Ryegrass is typically grown as a cover crop when sowing new stands of alfalfa and as a monoculture for silage. The regrowth is great forage for putting gains on newly weaned calves in the fall. The total digestible nutrient content can be as high as 80 per cent, but generally is around 65 per cent.
Another potential use is to under-seed it with barley or oats cut as greenfeed or silage, to provide regrowth for late-season grazing. The Melfort work showed sowing a cover crop to be harvested for grain will significantly reduce the fall yield of the ryegrass. When barley was cross-seeded at a rate of 30 pounds per acre, the fall yield of ryegrass was half that of the fall yield from the plot grown without a companion crop. An important note is that ryegrass does very poorly when sown in the same seed row as a cereal crop.
Italian ryegrass is a biennial that doesn’t set seed in the first year and won’t survive the Canadian winter. Westerwolds ryegrass will set seed in the year of planting, so you’ll need to get that first cut or grazing at or before heading to keep it vegetative. The general recommendation for graz-
ing ryegrass is to begin when the plants are eight to 10 inches high and leave about 30 per cent behind to support regrowth.
Ryegrass likes two things: moisture and nitrogen. The plants have shallow, fibrous roots, so they don’t do well under drought stress, however, ryegrass does have some potential to rebound when moisture conditions improve. It tolerates prolonged wet conditions far better than prolonged dry spells, Peters explains.
The crop responds well to nitrogen and some producers in the Steinbach area apply more than 100 pounds per acre using multiple applications. About half is put down with the seed, typically in a broadcast application. Ryegrass does well with less-intense fertilizer regimes and the general practice is to fertilize it like cereal crops.
Hog barns and ryegrasses are a good combination because the crop can take a mid-season application of hog manure. Dairy producers also spread dry manure on ryegrass stands during the summer, however, cattle manure doesn’t contain as much nitrogen and releases nutrients at a slower rate than hog manure.
When the seed is broadcast, it is harrowed in to a depth of one-quarter inch (a half-inch at the most in dry soil), then packed and rolled for good seed-to-soil contact and to leave a firm, smooth seed bed.
Peters says a smooth seedbed is important if the crop is to be cut for silage because it’s cut close to the ground. The popular Italian ryegrass, Fabio, is a low, bushy plant, while Aubaude tends to be a bit taller and not quite as leafy.
Both take about 14 days to germinate and don’t compete well with weeds during this period. After establishment, it’s a fairly aggressive crop. Refer to your most recent crop protection guide for broadleaf herbicides registered for use on ryegrass and be sure to follow the grazing and feeding restrictions. Mowing is another option for early-season weed control.
“Probably the one biggest weakness of ryegrass compared with perennial grasses is the time and cost of seeding it each year,” Peters says. It is one of the least-expensive grass seeds, but it does require a certain level of fertility to get the yield advantage and when nitrogen prices go up, this becomes a discouraging factor.
Perennial ryegrass with winter hardiness would be the perfect solution. One such variety, Festulolium (a cross between ryegrass and red fescue) is grown with success in the U. S., however, a trial in the Steinbach area showed that it wasn’t hardy enough to survive a Manitoba winter.
Though baling is an option, Peters says the waxy leaf seems to lock in moisture. It takes quite a while for the swath to dry down and even at moisture levels as low as 10 to 12 per cent, moisture seems to come out of the leaves after baling so you can still end up with heating problems.
All around, he says ryegrass is a reasonable option for silage and great option for grazing. It produces high-quality, high-energy feed, does well in moisture and will shine if you give it nutrients to work with.