Though the most common grass used for hay in New England might be Timothy, another very common component of baled forage around here is Orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata).
Unlike Timothy, which takes a bit of care to get established, Orchardgrass often finds its own way into pastures and hayfields. Propogating both by seeds and by tillers that spread from its dense, clumped bases, Orchardgrass competes well with other grasses and weeds as it seeks new soil. As its name implies, Orchardgrass is tolerant to shade (surviving even in less than 40% sun) and thus can be found commonly between trees in orchards or woods as long as they are not overly dense.
Identifiable both by its distinctive seedhead and its leaves, which are folded at the base, Orchardgrass is an increasingly-popular species both for pasture, silage, and hay. In addition to its self-propogation properties, Orchardgrass is a robust producer in the vegetative state, outperforming Kentucky Bluegrass and Timothy while being more palatable to livestock than other high producers like Reeds Canarygrass. Orchardgrass also is tolerant to close grazing, and as long as the base and tillers are left behind, regrows vigorously after close cutting or chomping that would kill Timothy.
Orchardgrass is not only more shade tolerant, but also can handle a wide range of soil pH and is more resistant to drought, and heat than Timothy, Kentucky Bluegrass, or even Smooth Bromegrass. While it may stop growing or go dormant in these conditions, it springs back quickly with a bit of watering and Nitrogen.
Though it can handle infertile soils, Orchardgrass thrives in high-Nitrogen environments. In a lightly-managed field, it will be common to find the strongest stands of Orchardgrass in the places where livestock frequently deposit manure, or where those nutrients collect during rainfall. This is where we find most of it at the Flying T Ranch – in the low areas of our pasture as well as on the portion of our trails that get at least part sun.
Given good fertility, Orchardgrass will produce large quantities of Digestible Dry Matter (DDM) while simultaneously providing quality nutrition and energy.
Downsides include the fact that Orchardgrass also can out-compete legumes in its area, lowering the overall energy yield for a field. Orchardgrass also becomes less palatable to livestock as it matures.
However, palatability is all relative. Back when we were in Texas, we didn’t buy “hay” for our horses. Instead, we bought “coastal’ which of course is a type of “hay.” Coastal (Bermuda Grass) made up the bulk of the horses’ feed, because what most large herbivores need the most of is roughage, and boy is coastal rough. Our horses loved the stuff, though they obviously picked through it for the flake or two of alfalfa we’d add for energy and protein content. Even the most mature Orchardgrass can’t hold a candle to the coarseness of a good bale of coastal!
Note: This is the second installment in a series I’m writing for a class in Forages and Grassland Management.