Why ryegrass?

Jul 05, 2022

Written by Mark Johnson
In terms of agriculture, annual ryegrass has traditionally been viewed as a southern forage best suited to states that border the Gulf coast. But in recent years, new hybrids and improved field data have created inroads into areas with cooler climates, including Tennessee.
This is good news for livestock producers in Tennessee and its surrounding states. Under proper conditions, ryegrass has the potential to produce some of the highest quality forages of any grass species. It often results in high yields and is appropriate for nearly any class of livestock.
Perry Mobley, GreenPoint Ag Range and Pasture Specialist for the Southeastern states, says the advantages of this species are numerous.
“Annual ryegrass builds soil, reduces runoff and erosion, sequesters nitrogen, improves water infiltration, and increases organic matter,” Mobley says. “Of all the winter annual grasses that we can use, ryegrass can extend the grazing season or forage production longer than most other options. Because of its high nutrient content, it’s been a backbone of the stocker cattle industry in the Southern states for decades.”
Plant selection and breeding through university trials have developed two main types of ryegrasses: diploid and tetraploid, terms that refer to the number of chromosomes found in the plants. According to Mississippi State University Extension, diploid varieties tend to have narrow leaves, more tillers per plant, smaller seed size, and lower water content per cell than tetraploids. In contrast, tetraploid varieties have wider leaves, larger seed size, and higher water content, and they do not tiller as much as the diploid varieties. Due to the higher ratio of carbohydrates (sugars and starches) to fiber found in the tetraploid varieties, they could be more palatable to livestock and improve intake and rumen function.
“Tetraploids varieties are rarely recommended above Interstate 20 or north of Atlanta and Birmingham,” says Mobley. “That’s commonly accepted as the dividing line because of the differences in nighttime temperatures. With a big, robust plant with wide leaves and a lot of surface area, there are more cells to burst in a hard frost.”
Mobley says that he and other pasture specialists are working hard to dispel the notion that “ryegrass is ryegrass.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he points out. “There are more than 80 varieties of ryegrass from which a producer can choose. My job is to simplify that task to less than a dozen choices in places like south Mississippi and maybe five in Tennessee. We look for varieties that will perform well in those different environments and geographics and will handle the unique stressors of each.”
The Allied Seed ryegrass variety “Fria” has been a standout in university trials in the north Alabama and southern Middle Tennessee area, Mobley reports.
“It is extremely cold tolerant,” he says. “This helps with fall establishment and winter survival throughout the transition zone and further north. For forage production, Fria is typically seeded into dormant warm-season grass pastures or after wheat and corn silage harvest to provide grazing, hay, or haylage through the winter and spring.”
He adds that making annual ryegrass choices is mainly about timing. A diploid like Fria matures earlier than other, well-known varieties.
“Let’s say you’re overseeding into a perennial pasture, and you want that ryegrass to really produce in the spring and then get on out of the way,” he says. “This can be problematic as you go north. You’ve got to get into the 80s and 90s to really begin killing off the ryegrass, and in Tennessee, you may have cool nights for quite a while. In that case, you want a variety with an earlier relative maturity, and Fria fits the bill.”
A later maturing variety be a better choice for feeding dairy or high-value beef cattle or for pushing herd performance.
“In this case, you may be using ryegrass on a prepared seedbed where you’re planting in the fall with hopes of multiple harvests,” says Mobley. “You’d want a variety that will maintain forage quality, protein, energy, and digestibility for a longer time, but also get potentially more tonnage through multiple cuttings.”
Mobley stresses that while annual ryegrass doesn’t fit every situation, it may have more to offer than many Tennesseans have previously considered.
“It’s all about working with your area range and pasture specialist to come up with the right answer,” he says. “We’ve found that some varieties perform like gangbusters when planted under the very best fertility and management conditions. The same varieties might struggle where management is marginal, and fertility is lacking.”
In contrast, other ryegrasses perform best where least expected.
“You can put those in the toughest dirt, under the worst management, and beat them up and overgraze them,” he says. “Guess what? They keep coming back. By using the available knowledge and data, we can shoot with a rifle instead of a shotgun — and rifles tend to be more accurate. Better accuracy results in increased yields and production.”
To determine which annual ryegrass variety is best for your operation, visit with the range and pasture specialists at your local Co-op.

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