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Keys to Tall Fescue Establishment

Posted Jul. 31, 2009

There has been a great deal of interest over the last several years in the novel or "friendly" endophyte-infected tall fescue varieties. These varieties have the potential to provide quality cool-season perennial forage without the negative attributes of the older toxic endophyte-infected tall fescues. We often recommend planting these novel endophyte tall fescues for those operations where we believe they fit the forage flow needs and have the right environment to be productive. The decision to make this recommendation is never easy since the seed costs alone can range from $75 to $100+ per acre. If we are going to recommend that type of investment, we want to do everything possible to ensure its success.

There are many possible reasons for establishment failure, some of which we have control over and some we do not. Some of those we can control include tillage type, seed bed preparation, proper soil fertility, use of good quality seed that has been properly stored (to protect endophyte viability), planting date, and proper grazing or haying management. At several locations in the fall of 2007, we had producers experience establishment failures even when following most best management practices. After reviewing the failures, we determined the common cause was annual ryegrass competition with the seedling tall fescue plants. Being an annual, the ryegrass seedlings grew more vigorously and overwhelmed the tall fescue seedlings.

The results of the 2007 planting season encouraged Noble Research Institute consultants, Agricultural Division researchers and Forage Improvement Division staff to establish demonstration plots at the Noble Research Institute's Dupy farm in the fall of 2008. The purpose of these plots was to demonstrate tall fescue establishment potential using different planting methods with and without ryegrass management. We also compared producing a summer hay crop (cowpeas) versus a summer fallow program. The planting methods included drill versus broadcast and roll planting. Seedbed preparation in fall was either no-till or conventional clean tillage. The ryegrass management treatments included:

  1. tilling under ryegrass prior to seed set in spring, allowing the ryegrass to germinate in the fall and controlling it with glyphosate, then planting tall fescue in the fall; and
  2. providing no ryegrass management and planting tall fescue in the fall.

What we found agreed with the findings of Butler, et al.1

In short, if you are considering a tall fescue planting, plan ahead to control winter annual weeds prior to or at planting and plan on drill planting rather than a broadcast and roll system. Of course, you will also need to soil test for proper fertility, plant when soil moisture is expected and plant late enough to avoid high soil temperatures, but early enough for seedlings to reach the five-leaf stage before the first hard freeze. If you can meet all these requirements, you have an excellent opportunity to have a quality, cool-season forage source for many years to come.

1Butler, T.J., Islam, M.A. and Muir, J.P. (2008). Establishing cool-season perennial grasses into former annual grass pastures in the southern Great Plains. Online. Forage and Grazinglands doi: 10.1094/FG-2008-0911-01-RS.