Tall fescue - agronomy facts 28
Agronomy Facts 28
Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea
Schreb.) is a deep-
(Table 2). In addition, compared with other cool-season
rooted, long-lived, sod-forming grass that spreads by
grasses, tall fescue is generally of higher quality in fall
short underground stems called rhizomes. In Pennsylvania
because of greater leaf retention. Thus, tall fescue can
it has been used primarily for conservation purposes but is
supply much of the spring, fall, and winter feed for a beef
well suited as hay, silage, or pasture. It is well adapted to
the soil and weather conditions of Pennsylvania (Table 1).
It is especially well adapted to acid, wet soils of shale
Table 2. Yield of grasses during the summer and when
origin and produces more forage than other cool-season
grasses on soils with a pH of less than 5.5.
Tall fescue is drought resistant and maintains itself
under rather limited fertility conditions. It is also ideal for
waterways, ditch and pond banks, and farm lots and lanes.
It is the best grass for areas of heavy livestock and
In the past, animals readily grazed tall fescue during
April, May, and early June, and again in the fall, but they
showed reluctance to graze it during July and August.
Note: All grasses received 240 lb N per acre.
Some of this reduced summer palatability, which resulted
Source: Wedin et al.,10th International Grassland
in poor animal performance, is associated with the
presence of a fungus in the plant (endophytic). The fungusgrows between the plant cells and overwinters in the baseof the plant. The fungus produces alkaloids that are toxic
to animals. These alkaloids are thought to cause the poor
Numerous varieties are adapted for use in Pennsylvania,
conception rates, low birth weights, and low daily gains
but the endophyte-free varieties are higher in quality than
of animals grazing fungus-infected tall fescue. Endo-
varieties infected with the endophyte fungus. Endophyte-
phyte-free varieties are now available and are recom-
infected varieties are well suited for planting on reclaimed
strip mines and for other conservation uses where soil
Tall fescue is the best adapted cool-season grass to
conditions are unusually adverse for plant growth.
stockpile (accumulate growth) for use in fall and winter
Because of differences in growth habit, palatability, and
Table 1. Characteristics of perennial cool-season grasses in Pennsylvania.
Tolerance to soil limitations
Persistence frequent harvest maturityc
a L = low, M = moderate, H = highb pH below 6.0
c Maturity characteristic refers to relative time of seed head appearance in the spring. This will depend not only on thespecies but also on the variety.
College of Agricultural Sciences • Cooperative Extension
time of year best used, other grasses should not be included
graze closer than 3 or 4 inches, and allow at least 30 days
with tall fescue at seeding time. However, legumes can be
included in the seeding mixture with tall fescue, although
An improvement in animal performance has been
the stand may eventually be used as a pure tall fescue stand
reported for the new endophyte-free varieties relative to
for winter stockpiling. The legumes will persist for several
endophyte-infected varieties of tall fescue. Increased
years, will improve forage quality, and will serve as a
average daily gains of 0.5 lb per animal per day have been
source of nitrogen for the tall fescue. Regardless of the
reported for 7- to 12-month-old angus steers that have
seeding mixture, it is recommended that endophyte-free
grazed endophyte free compared to endophyte-infected tall
seed be used if the tall fescue is to serve as animal feed.
fescue. In a two-year study at Penn State comparingendophyte-free tall fescue varieties, animal performance
was similar for all varieties (Table 4).
Tall fescue and accompanying legumes can be seeded in
Other tests comparing orchardgrass and endophyte-free
spring or late summer. Spring seedings should be made as
tall fescue for animal performance had similar results.
early as possible to avoid hot dry weather when the
While orchardgrass is generally of higher quality during
seedlings are small. Late-summer seedings usually have
spring and summer, tall fescue quality is higher in the fall,
less weed competition and more favorable moisture
conditions than spring seedings. Late-summer seedings
If fescue is to be used during the summer, maintain a
should be made before August 15 in northern Pennsylvania
legume in the stand to improve animal performance.
and September 1 in southern Pennsylvania.
Otherwise, allow the late summer growth to accumulate for
For seeding tall fescue alone, 12 lb of seed per acre is
use in fall or winter stockpiling. Tall fescue that is used
adequate. Tall fescue in legume mixtures should be seeded
exclusively for stockpiling is usually maintained in a pure
For best results, band seed tall fescue 1/4 inch deep.
Press wheels used in conjunction with band seeding add
Table 4. Average daily gains of ewes and lambs grazing
additional stand insurance. If the seedbed is dry and not
endophyte-free tall fescue varieties.
firm, cultipack before seeding to make a firm seedbed.
Tall fescue can be part of a forage program but should not
be all of it. Legumes with tall fescue improve animalperformance and increase forage production during the
summer. Legumes are difficult to maintain in a tall fescue
sod, but certain management practices will help keep
Source: L. C. Vecellio, 1992, master’s thesis, Depart-
Table 3. Seeding rates for tall fescue and a single
Prior to seeding, determine lime and fertilizer needs by soil
With any one of these legumes
test. Although tall fescue can achieve adequate yields on
low-pH soils, maximum productivity is achieved when the
pH is between 6.0 and 7.0. In the absence of a soil test for
tall fescue seeded alone, plow down 0-45-135 lb per acre
and apply 20-20-20 lb per acre at planting (banded ifpossible) when seeding without a legume. While smallamounts of nitrogen and potash are beneficial at seeding,
legumes in the stand. Two such practices are maintaining
too high a concentration of these elements can interfere
pH above 6.0 and making annual applications of potash.
with germination. Do not apply nitrogen at seeding if tall
Tall fescue grown with either red or white clover should
not be allowed to smother the legume in the spring. This
Under pasture conditions it is difficult to evaluate the
can be avoided by grazing early and close to the soil
amounts of nutrients removed by grazing animals. Grazing
surface. Red clover is a short-lived perennial and must be
animals trample or leave some of the total growth available
managed to produce seed if red clover is desired in the
to them. This is returned directly to the soil. Manure is not
deposited evenly across the field; most studies show about
Tall fescue withstands closer grazing and more abuse
12 to 15 percent of a pasture area is covered with manure
than most cool-season grasses, but it can be overgrazed to
by grazing animals each year. If an estimated 3 tons of
the point that vigor as well as production is reduced. Don’t
forage is produced from a pasture field, an annual applica-
tion of fertilizer at 0-20-60 lb per acre should maintain
annually with phosphorus and potassium. A fescue-legume
mixture removes about 15 lb phosphate and 45 lb potash
If pure tall fescue stands are used, high yields can be
from the soil for each ton of hay produced. Phosphorus and
expected if fertilizer is applied during the winter or very
potassium can be applied anytime during the year with
early spring. This is especially true for the nitrogen portion
of the fertilizer. Tall fescue to be used for hay shouldreceive 100 to 150 lb N during the winter period. The same
amount should be applied if tall fescue is to be used for
Tall fescue is a deep-rooted, sod-forming grass best
early grazing. If much fall pasture is desired, reapply
adapted to cool-season production. It is extremely well
suited for use as a stockpile forage because it retains its
When legumes make up 30 percent or more of a tall
quality and improves in palatability in the fall. It is well
fescue or any grass stand, do not use nitrogen fertilizer.
adapted to low-pH soils like those found in strip mine
When these stands are topdressed with fertilizer containing
reclamation. It is more tolerant of animal and machinery
nitrogen, the growth looks dark green and appears more
traffic and of mismanagement than are other cool-season
lush, but research shows that production is not increased. In
grasses. Endophyte-free varieties improve animal accep-
addition, applying nitrogen fertilizer to mixed stands will
tance of and performance on tall fescue. Tall fescue can be
cause the grass to dominate the mixture.
part of a forage program, but it should not be the only
Tall fescue-legume mixtures should be topdressed
Prepared by Marvin H. Hall, associate professor of agronomy
Where trade names appear, no discrimination is intended, and no endorsement by Penn State Cooperative Extension is implied.
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension Work, Acts of Congress May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Departmentof Agriculture and the Pennsylvania Legislature. L.F. Hood, Director of Cooperative Extension, The Pennsylvania State University.
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