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Ryegrass: It's Not a Weed Anymore

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The recent increased enforcement of the Plant Variety Protection Act has made me think about what farmers and ranchers can do to affordably produce winter pasture for stocker cattle. One option I have pursued is ryegrass. In clean-tilled pure stands, it is as good as or better than small grains for season-long production and maybe for fall production, too.

In the 1997 though 2000 growing seasons, Dr. Jerry Baker included Oklon rye and Jagger wheat as checks in his ryegrass variety trials at the Noble Research Institute's Pasture Demonstration Farm (PDF) northwest of Ardmore. Table 1 summarizes the results of these two checks versus common annual ryegrass. During these three years, in side-by-side replicated tests, common annual ryegrass out-produced Oklon by about 1,000 pounds per acre and Jagger by about 2,000 pounds per acre.

Table 2 compares the commercial wheat and rye varieties grown in the small grains test at the Noble Research Institute Headquarters Farm with the commercial ryegrass varieties grown in the ryegrass test at PDF from 2000 to 2004. Again, ryegrass out-produced the wheat and the rye.

So why are so many producers giving up this production?

One reason is the misconception that ryegrass will not produce adequate forage in the fall. Personal observation and experience has shown this is not true. I believe we, as a whole, plant too late. I used to recommend waiting until after Labor Day. However, last year in Ardmore, you would have had to wait until Sept. 24 for rain. We had good moisture on Aug. 28 and should have had the seed in the ground. Table 3 defines the rainfall events at Ardmore before and after Sept. 1. In 2002 through 2004, we should have had seed in the ground just before Aug. 27. In 2001, there was a little rain on Sept. 1, and then there was 0.8 inches of rain on Sept. 3. If we had waited until after Labor Day, we would have missed it. Ryegrass will produce fall forage, but we have to plant early enough to take advantage of the rain.

Another reason ryegrass is not planted is because of the farm program. However, the 2002 farm bill allows producers to keep their wheat base without ever planting a single kernel of wheat. Since 1996, the farm bill has allowed producers to keep their historic crop base. What will future farm bills hold? That is an unknown, but the two most recent bills lead me to believe producers will continue to be allowed to use their historic crop base.

Many producers don't plant ryegrass because they consider it a weed if they ever want to rotate back to wheat for grain. With current herbicides, this is not a problem. Finesse is very effective at controlling ryegrass. And, in my travels in south-central Oklahoma, there is very little wheat harvested for grain.

Some other benefits of ryegrass, besides increased forage production, are price and plants per acre. In Table 4, note that price per acre is about the same for ryegrass as it is for small grain, but plants per acre are dramatically higher. This also helps with weed control. Seed price may be even cheaper for ryegrass because, once it is established in a field, 15 pounds of seed per acre per year is usually sufficient.

For more information on using ryegrass, contact a Noble Research Institute forage or soil and crops specialist. And remember, if you are going to plant rye or wheat, make your plans now and secure your seed supply.