Getting the mix right - Perennial grasses for the Tablelands

Aaron Kemp, AusWest Seeds, New England Tablelands & Mid North Coast NSW

Thumbing through pasture brochures while trying to decide what to plant can be a daunting experience. There are many different pasture species and hundreds of varieties on the market. When designing a pasture mix for your farm it is important to consider the whole production system, and the environment in which you are working. While no one pasture species will provide a flat feed curve all year round, with careful management and understanding of the farm enterprise, we can design pasture systems to minimise feed gaps and produce feed when it is needed.

Below are two examples of how pasture planning and selecting the right species and varieties can benefit your grazing operation.

The backgrounding operation at Rangers Valley feedlot, north of Glen Innes in NSW turns off between 9,000 and 10,500 Angus and Wagyu steers a year into the feedlot. The aim for weight gains across the backgrounding operation are 1kg/hd/day minimum on a supplemented grass diet, depending on breed and season.

Farm manager Mark Whyte uses a range of different pasture and crop options to make sure that the Angus and Wagyu steers are gaining weight and getting up to feedlot entry weights as soon as possible. Recent sowings of pasture blends based around Hummer MaxP® tall fescue have been performing well, seeing it form a greater part of the pasture mix on the Rangers Valley farm. Currently the farm has 253ha sown to Hummer MaxP® mixes and 525 ha using older tall fescues such as Demeter, Festival and Tablelands. When asked why he uses the Hummer mix Mark responded:

“Growing persistence throughout the year with a high quality pasture species chosen, that perform best in our soil type and climate and produce high quality feed with high dry matter."

Steers at Rangers Valley Feedlot | AusWest & Stephen Pasture Seeds
Angus steers being backgrounded on a 2 year old predominantly Hummer MaxP tall fescue mix. Other key ingredients in this mix include Savvy cocksfoot, Titan 7 lucerne, Arrow leaf clover and Tonic plantain.

Hummer MaxP® is a summer active, or Continental tall fescue, making it suited to medium to high rainfall environments 600mm+ and will take advantage of summer rains. It’s soft, palatable leaves make it very acceptable to stock, even stock coming from ryegrass will accept Hummer MaxP® without much objection. MaxP® is a novel tall fescue endophyte selected by AgResearch. It provides plant resistance to black beetle, root aphids, pasture mealy bugs and Argentine stem weevil, without any known animal health effects in continental tall fescue like Hummer. Over time, the mix sown each year at Rangers Valley has evolved. It usually includes Savvy cocksfoot, as well as Titan 7 lucerne and at times Tonic plantain. Various rates and species of clover has also been added to the mix.

“Our pasture program is also managed in conjunction with an annual forage program being either summer or winter forages. These annual forages help to back up daily gain with high quality feeds and allow pasture areas a growing break for weed control and fertiliser top dressing if required."

Tall fescue, as good as it is in spring and summer, doesn’t provide a huge bulk of feed through the late autumn / winter period. During this period, Mark uses a combination of winter cereal crops and ryegrass. The ryegrass used has historically been mostly annual types, but this year 150 ha has been sown to perennial ryegrass to reduce the need to sow every year.

“Currently it is early days and a trial period is in progress to see how the perennial ryegrass performs along with monitoring cattle average daily gains. We have incorporated diploid and tetraploid varieties together in a couple of paddocks to see if and how they may complement each other during the growing season."

Straight annual ryegrass is a valuable winter clean up crop providing a great bulk of winter feed as well as the opportunity to control broad leaf weeds. As a comparison, where it will persist, perennial ryegrass provides much of the benefits of annual ryegrass, and more growth later in the season.

Halo and One50 pasture | AusWest & Stephen Pasture Seeds
Halo AR37 and One50 AR37 perennial ryegrasses provide valuable feed while allowing broad leaf weed control. This paddock was sprayed for broad leaf weeds immediately after the photo was taken. This paddock was sown around August and is about 6-8 weeks old at the time of the photo.

This year Mark has sown Halo AR37 tetraploid perennial ryegrass and One50 AR37 diploid perennial ryegrass.

“They have good growing persistence and high dry matter and I believe One50 and Halo varieties should perform well in our growing environment. Along with AR37 endophyte package and late maturity of One50 and Halo we should be able to gain longer production and weight gains."

Halo AR37 is a high performance tetraploid perennial ryegrass. It has excellent yield potential under good fertility and grazing management. Halo is best suited to farmers chasing top end yield and performance from their ryegrass. One50 AR37 has been one of the benchmark perennial ryegrasses for nearly 10 years. Being a diploid, One50 AR37 is a bit ‘tougher’ than Halo, tolerating lower fertility, lower rainfall and more relaxed management.

Perennial ryegrass while slower to establish in year one than an annual ryegrass, will provide more feed during late autumn / early winter through years two, three and four than any new sown annual ryegrass, simply due to the fact it is already established. Perennial ryegrass, as mentioned above, produces more feed through winter than either cocksfoot or tall fescue. Quality feed produced during winter is incredibly valuable in backgrounding and finishing systems. It isn’t expected that the perennial ryegrass pastures will persist as long as the fescue mix, its fit is its ability to fill in some of the feed gaps. The key thing to keep in mind when planning a pasture system is balancing persistence with overall production and where the feed gaps are within the whole pasture system. The value of the feed during gap periods will more than makes up for the quicker turnover of paddocks.

A short distance north of Rangers Valley at Deepwater, Neil Harvey runs an Angus breeding operation on “Lockadee”. This farm uses a variety of different species to produce feed for breeding cows and bulls. The breeding cow units spend the majority of their time being rotationally grazed through pastures that are based upon Savvy cocksfoot, Hummer MaxP® tall fescue and native pastures. Bass oats and annual ryegrass are used as clean up crops and to supplement winter feed. The property has been largely re-fenced into smaller paddocks to allow for better pasture utilisation and to allow pasture species to be based upon the soil type as well as the balance of feed on the farm.
Mixed Hummer pasture | AusWest & Stephen Pasture Seeds
Just grazed! Cattle have just been moved out of this 3 year old Hummer MaxP tall fescue paddock at 'Lockadee'. With a dose of fertiliser and a little more rain, they will be back here again soon. 
Bull Mix at Lockadee | AusWest & Stephen Pasture Seeds
Last year's 'Bull paddock mix' on Lockadee. This mix was sown as a medium term pasture to provide close to year round feed for the bulls that are generally set stocked. This mix consists largely of Savvy cocksfoot, Atom prairie grass, One50 AR37 perennial ryegrass, grazing brome, Titan 7 lucerne and Urana sub clover. It has done a great job with the bulls during a tough season with very little supplementary feeding. It is now getting a short break as these guys go out to work.

Similar to Rangers Valley, tall fescue provides a good bulk of feed in the spring and summer period. In a breeding operation, Hummer MaxP® tall fescue can act to bring the spring early compared to ryegrass systems, due to the nature of the tall fescue to put on strong spring growth much earlier than ryegrass. This is a great help when planning calving – bringing a large bulk of quality feed right when the cows need it. The deep root system of the fescue also allow a reasonable amount of feed to be produced even in seasons with more limited moisture.

Savvy cocksfoot has been a star performer on the harder ridge country at “Lockadee”. It has so far been performing well through some very hard seasons. Savvy has allowed for flexible grazing due to its ability to remain palatable even when it has been left to go rank. These paddocks can be essentially set aside as standing hay paddocks, while the tall fescue growth is at its peak and being grazed hard. While rank cocksfoot may not be ideal for backgrounding – it is adequate for lactating beef cattle. Savvy is a high performing, palatable, soft leaf cocksfoot that is well suited to the medium to high rainfall regions.

It is very easy to get confused when looking at all the pasture species and varieties on the market. Shotgun mixes may work for a while, however, they can be difficult to manage and may not be perfect for everyone. Carefully planning what you need your pasture to do, and how different species will perform in your environment is key to pasture performance. For high performing pasture solutions to suit your production system and environment, consult your local agronomist or your AusWest or Stephen Pasture Seeds territory manager.

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