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Characteristics of Orchardgrass

Orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata L.) is a perennial, cool-season, tall-growing, bunch-type grass with an open sod. It starts growth early in spring, develops rapidly and flowers during May under Pennsylvania conditions. Orchardgrass is more tolerant of shade, drought, and heat than timothy, perennial ryegrass or Kentucky bluegrass but also grows well in full sunlight. Orchardgrass is adapted to the better well- drained soils and is especially well adapted for mixtures with legumes such as alfalfa or red clover. It will generally persist longer than the other cool-season grasses in frequently cut, properly managed alfalfa mixtures.

Orchardgrass is a versatile grass and can be used for pasture, hay, green chop, or silage. A high-quality grass, it will provide excellent feed for most classes of livestock.

Adapted Orchardgrass Varieties

Several varieties of orchardgrass have been tested and were high-yielding in Pennsylvania variety trials. Potomac is an early- maturing (early May) variety, Dawn and Rancho are medium-maturing (mid-to late-May) varieties, and Pennlate is a late-maturing (late May to early June) variety. When seeding an orchardgrass- legume mixture, the two should mature at about the same time. This will enable harvesting of both species at proper developmental stages and improve the potential of harvesting top quality forage.

Orchardgrass Establishment

Orchardgrass is usually easy to establish in either early spring or late summer. Late summer seedings, however, have been most successful in Pennsylvania. There is increased risk of winter injury with summer seedings made after mid- August.

Seed at the rate of 8-12 lbs. per acre. When seeding in combination with legumes, orchardgrass seeding rate should be reduced. Orchardgrass should not be seeded with other grasses because of differences in maturity and palatability.

Seed 1/4-1/2 inch deep into a well- prepared seedbed that has been limed and fertilized according to a soil test. Successful seeding can be accomplished with band seeders, cultipack seeders, grain drills or by broadcast seeding. Cultipack after seeding with grain drills not equiped with press wheels or broadcast seeding to insure good seed-soil contact and hasten germination and emergence.

If orchardgrass or orchardgrass-legume mixtures are seeded with a small grain companion crop, remove the small grain at the boot stage to minimize competition with the forage seedlings. This will increase the chances of obtaining a good orchardgrass stand.

Orchardgrass Harvest Management

For highest quality and high yielding hay, orchardgrass should be harvested in spring during boot stage. Beyond this stage, there is little increase in yield and the digestibility decreases at the rate of about 1/2% per day. Aftermath growth can be harvested at 4-6 week intervals. Production and cutting frequency are greatly affected by soil moisture, temperature, fertility and disease.

Since orchardgrass is a high-quality grass, it can be grazed by most classes of livestock. Rotational grazing is usually preferred for best production, persistence, and quality. Fields should be grazed heavily and frequently (every 10 -12 days) during the flush growth of spring, but overgrazing should be avoided. Leave a 3-4 inch stubble so the grass can recover quickly. Heavy grazing during October can lead to depleted root reserves and increased winter injury.

In a 3-year study at Purdue University, animal performance was compared when grazing orchardgrass and tall fescue. Both cows and calves gained approximately 1/2 pound more per day on orchardgrass than on tall fescue. Conception rate of the cows was 18 percentage points higher on the orchardgrass pastures. Although some tests have shown orchardgrass and tall fescue to give similar animal performance, it is generally agreed that orchardgrass is of higher quality than fescue during spring and summer. This is probably associated with the endophyte problem in older varieties of tall fescue. However, fescue is of higher quality in fall, especially after frost.

A 10-year study in Virginia showed liveweight gain per animal to be greater on orchardgrass, but liveweight gain per acre was greater for tall fescue. Palatability, as measured by grazing preference, was higher for orchardgrass than either tall fescue, bromegrass, or bluegrass.

Orchardgrass Fertility

Maintain soil pH between 6.0 and 7.0 for best results. In the absence of a soil test, assuming a medium-fertility soil and orchardgrass seeded alone, incorporate 0-45-135 lb. per acre prior to seeding and apply 20-20-20 lb. per acre (banded if possible) at seeding. Top dressings with lime, phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) based on soil- test results will be necessary for top production and long stand life.

If soil fertility is low, a large proportion of the total production of orchardgrass occurs in spring, whereas with proper fertility and split applications of nitrogen, aftermath production may contribute from 35 to 65% of total production. As a comparison, aftermath of timothy with similar management and fertility contributes only about 20% of the total production.

Orchardgrass is responsive to fertilizer, especially nitrogen (N), and becomes very competitive when adequate nutrients are available. Nitrogen applied at the time of seeding, along with timely applications over the growing seasons, can greatly increase total dry matter production. Annual nitrogen applications of 150 pounds per acre are economical. The nitrogen should be applied in split applications of 50 pounds per acre in early spring when the orchardgrass begins to green up and 50 pounds per acre after each cutting.

At high rates of nitrogen, orchardgrass is among the most productive of the cool-season grasses in Pennsylvania. Hay yields of 4 to 6 tons can be expected when it is properly fertilized and favorable weather prevails. Yields are reduced during periods of drought.

Orchardgrass Summary

Orchardgrass is a bunch type grass with neither rhizomes or stolons, which establishes rapidly and is suitable for pasture, hay, or silage. However, because it becomes coarse and less palatable as it matures it is best suited for pastures. The rapid decline in palatability and quality as orchardgrass matures is the major deterrent to its use. Orchardgrass requires careful management to ensure that it is harvested promptly. Orchardgrass responds well to N fertilization and is very compatible with legumes in a mixture. It is not as winter hardy or drought tolerant as smooth bromegrass but can survive and be highly productive throughout all of Pennsylvania.

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This page was last updated on November 16, 2002