Fescues: Management of tall fescue through the winter and leading into the first cut/graze in the spring.

Simon Hunt, Stephen Pasture Seeds, Gippsland and Melbourne Victoria

Tall fescue is a perennial grass known for its persistence whilst being highly suited to livestock grazing systems. Tall fescues are very well suited to heavier soil types, particularly those that can get wet and can even handle low to moderate levels of salinity. They are a bit slower to establish than a ryegrass, but are very persistent once established. They are deep rooted and very productive, with summer active or “Continental” types being active particularly through spring, summer and autumn, given adequate soil moisture. Some other advantages of tall fescues include:

  1. They are a good companion plant to clover, chicory, lucerne, and Tonic plantain.
  2. They grow in warmer soil temperatures. The optimum for tall fescue is 26 degrees C with active growth continuing into the mid 30’s. Perennial ryegrass starts to go dormant at 24 degrees C.
  3. They can produce as much, if not more, dry matter than perennial ryegrass and being equal feed quality to perennial ryegrass can result in greater overall milk production compared to perennial ryegrass.
  4. They are more water efficient (especially Continental types) than perennial ryegrass and hence are well suited to irrigation in areas that have a hot, dry summer.
  5. They are sod forming and have a deep root system, to draw on moisture and nutrients.

Tall fescues are sensitive to a drop off in soil temperature and therefore should be sown when soil temperatures are above 12 degrees C. As an example, that generally means sowing prior to the middle of April in Gippsland, because after this the soil temperature will be too low, leading to slower germination and the potential of weeds outgrowing the tall fescue.

Tall fescues are slow to establish and develop, so applications of nitrogen are recommended to help both plant and root growth through the winter and for the first 12 months. This will also help the plant remain more vegetative and improve feed quality. As they are very responsive to nitrogen applications of 30 kgN/ha every 2 months from sowing is recommended. Tall Fescue is more responsive to autumn applied nitrogen than ryegrass with responses of 12 to 25 kg DM/kg N being recorded.

As with other grass pastures, it is good sustainable farm management practice to include clover in the pasture mix, to help with overall feed quality of the pasture and importantly to “fix” nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil to help with the grass and clover growth. This ‘free’ nitrogen can assist with overall farm sustainability.

Pictured are beef cattle grazing a paddock of Hummer tall fescue at Tambo Upper in East Gippsland, Eastern Victoria. This paddock was cut for silage several times during the spring and nitrogen is applied late in the autumn and early in the spring, (as well as other nutrients required from soil test:-phosphorus, potassium and sulphur). It was also grazed during other times of the year with sheep and beef cattle. 

Tall fescue is known as the ‘king of spring’ as it grows a large amount of feed in early spring. This is due to the flag leaf emergence so in turn it can run to head early. With summer active varieties such as Hummer it is good management practice to graze more frequently in early spring, and or cut for silage to remove the reproductive stem. This encourages the plant to stay in the vegetative stage, particularly if the season is going well and there is plenty of soil moisture or irrigation. Failing to manage this spring growth can result in stemmy pastures which are poor quality feed, and the seed heads can be difficult to remove and control by grazing.

If tall fescue is sown prior to soil temperature dropping off, good sowing practice is undertaken, weeds are controlled both prior to sowing and during the early stages, the appropriate fertiliser applied and the appropriate grazing/cutting management undertaken you can be confident of a tall fescue pasture that it is going to persist well and perform as expected.

References:

  • Agricom Tall Fescue Management Guide, 2017.
  • Pasture and Forage Plants for New Zealand, Dr Alan Stewart & Dr Deric Charlton, Grassland Research and Practice Series No 8. 2nd Edition, 2003.

 

 

 

 

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