Seasons change and after a blast from summer, a breeze from autumn and a chill during winter; it's time to welcome abundance, thanks to the spring flush of pasture growth. But don't take the abundance spring brings for granted as this season is very critical. You must focus on proper management practices that will ensure that you maximise spring's high pasture productivity. After all, this focus will affect grass growth for the rest of the year. Let's keep this as a priority, as, how you manage your grazings during spring is crucial for year-round profit.

In this blog, we will discuss:

1. What spring means to your pasture growth

2. What is Perennial Ryegrass

3. Uses of Ryegrass

4. Strengths and Weaknesses of Ryegrass Management

5. Ryegrass Care and Management

Ryegrass

What spring means to pasture growth

Abundance does not always come as planned during spring. In fact, pasture growth or grazing gets out of control the most in this season. Supplies of pasture forage are at its peak in spring. This season sometimes influences us to relax more than necessary and give little attention to management practices of spring forage. This loss of focus leaves us to spend time, money, and effort on cleaning up the pasture sward deep into summer and dealing with the flow-on effects.

Farmers such as yourself, usually stock up their grass-based pasture system in the summer to compensate for the lower production of cool-season effects on the grass. This growing season is why in spring; most pasture systems are under-stocked. Benefits arise with the abundance of forage. Allowing your animals to be selective with their consumption does not guarantee that you'll control and use all of your feed. Thus, having a management plan for the abundance of forage is still crucial to maximising the quantity and quality of the spring flush.

What is Perennial Ryegrass

Perennial ryegrasses are high-quality forage that also provides high-quality grazing for your livestock. Although perennial ryegrasses are a handy forage for grazing, ryegrass does not attribute its short lifespan to the lack of light energy removed by grazing or harvesting. Despite grazing, it already has a limited life span. Each tiller can only support three leaves at a maximum. Each leaf grows in each tiller one at a time, one after the other. When one leaf appears, the first leaf stops growing. And when the third one sprouts, the second leaf, just like the first leaf, stops growing as well. This lifecycle is why perennial ryegrasses are known as "three-leaf plants."

Uses of Ryegrass

Considered the best cool-season perennial pasture grass as it's both valuable and can grow rapidly. It can slowly break up hard soils for better absorption of nitrogen through its roots. For pasture purposes, ryegrasses have many benefits.

First, it can be very abundant. Why? Not only is it rapidly growing, but it also has a long growing season with a propensity for high yields. Secondly, ryegrass is highly nutritious as well as highly digestible for your livestock. Third, despite being used for grazing, ryegrass can tolerate and, when damaged, can recover quickly from grazing. Ryegrass is conserved as hay and silage, especially during times of high growth during spring.

But ryegrasses are not only very useful and beneficial to our farms. They're also valuable for us as we use it for home lawns. For some who are into golf or football, you can also observe ryegrasses used for decoration or to complete the look of a golf course or a football field. The reason being it can reproduce and proliferate so that it can maintain a particular volume and thickness in appearance. Think about food for livestock and decorations for humans in one.

Sheep grazing ryegrass

Aside from these uses, ryegrasses are resilient and not easily affected by high traffic. It is said to have the highest wear tolerance among cool-season grasses. This strength makes ryegrasses an excellent ornament for schools and public parks, where traffic is very high and not to mention the resilience of pugging and hoof traffic from our livestock.

Ryegrass tolerance to hoof traffic

Strengths and Weaknesses of Ryegrass

Strengths:

Grazing-perfect

Ryegrasses are perfect for grazing as its high nutritional values survive through delayed grazing and other forms of temporary shifts in grazing practices such as rotational grazing. When you put ryegrass under proper and well-planned grazing management, ryegrass thrives.

In fact, excellent production can be achieved with a solid feed supply from perennial ryegrass.

Ryegrasses provide excellent forage as they contain high levels of crude protein and soluble carbohydrates. The feed quality is brilliant for enhancing animal performance when matching feed supply with feed demand.

Ryegrass is a very common crop that grows quick and has a very nutritious taproot that provides fodder during periods of drought. For example, it can delay grazing until late spring, which helps farmers manage their livestock's nutrition management during the summer months when grasslands grow slowly. Ryegrass has been used for so long because it's adaptable to different climates, soils, and regions.

In addition to delayed or seasonal grazing, ryegrass also tolerates soil disturbance well which makes it great for establishing fields from pasture renovation or creating green lanes after harvesting crops.

High-quality silage

Aside from being perfect for grazing, ryegrass has a secondary use as high-quality silage. In short, there is no surplus for ryegrass as excess is utilised when conserved, and this is true when you manage pasture for quality and quantity. After all, you can't grow quality without quantity and vice versa.

The use of ryegrass in pastures is not limited to the spring and summer seasons, due to its ability to grow at colder temperatures than most other pasture species. This feature can provide early four-season grazing opportunities for your livestock. Additionally, there are several types of ryegrass that can be used as winter annuals or overwintering perennials. The so-called 'winter cultivars' germinate during autumn months after their seeds have undergone cold stratification (2–3 degrees Celsius). Another option is so-called 'evergreen cultivars'. These will stay green throughout most winters even if they experience sub-zero temperatures. That way your livestock can graze shortly after new shoots emerge.

Given the above, it is not surprising that ryegrass can be grazed or conserved whenever the owner thinks fit (season permitting). However, this grass flourishes in spring and autumn periods of high rainfall and warm soils.

The highly nutritive value makes conserving ryegrass into high-quality silage a perfect option. During spring especially, the grass is growing rapidly but can be harvested before flowering.

As mentioned in previous articles, ryegrass produces ample amounts of carbohydrates (sugar) under conditions with high nitrogen availability which is usually fertilised (60-100 kg/ha). These sugars are highly fermentable and make for efficient silage production.

Although this grass contains relatively low levels of calcium, it compensates through making maximum use of soil phosphate. Therefore, there is a net effect on soil pH pushing near-neutral under some circumstances, minimising acidification potential if conserving ryegrass as high-quality silage.

High-nutritional value

As stated above, in one of its uses, perennial ryegrasses are highly nutritious food and a great source of energy for your livestock. It has at least 11 megajoules of estimated ME per kilogram of DM. These energy levels can reach heights of approx. 12.5 MJ/KgDM. Also, ryegrass crude protein levels seldom go below 18-20%, except with unfavourable conditions such as water stress. Well-Managed pasture is often above 23% crude protein, which is usually more than your animals can utilise. Compared to most temperate pasture species, ryegrasses have higher and better nutritional value.

Ryegrasses are used for grazing livestock because they have a high nutritive value. In addition to the nutritive value, these plants are also good for pasture management because they can be planted to help control weeds. Species-specific traits that make the plants especially conducive to grazing livestock include palatable growth habits and the ability to tolerate heavy grazing from high growth rate demands driven by high stocking densities.

This high-nutritional value of ryegrass is essential for managing a highly profitable farm system and the pasture quality is a key driver of farm profit.

All-year-round growth

Most times of the year, perennial ryegrass can grow as long as there is sufficient soil moisture. Even during the autumn break of when summer rains transpire in the warm season, ryegrasses will respond to and grow based on the soil moisture, not the season, as soon as it can.

Characterised by typically an early spring growth and a late heading date, perennial ryegrass varieties are suited to getting a head start with cool-season growth.

The use of ryegrass in pastures is not limited to the spring and summer seasons, due to its ability to grow at colder temperatures than most other pasture species with impressive cool season growth. This feature can provide early four-season grazing opportunities for your livestock. Additionally, there are several types of ryegrass that can be used as winter annuals or overwintering perennials. The so-called 'winter cultivars' germinate during autumn months after their seeds have undergone cold stratification (2–3 degrees Celsius). Another option is so-called 'evergreen cultivars'. These will stay green throughout most winters even if they experience sub-zero temperatures. That way your livestock can graze shortly after new shoots emerge.

Low cost of production

Perennial ryegrass can be grown in the right environment at a significantly low cost of production and can grow rapidly and easily, even without much intervention. As long as moisture allows, perennial ryegrass grows and thrives.

Put simply, perennial ryegrass is one of the most cost-effective grasses with regards to fertiliser usage when compared with other grasses. It has high nutritional requirements which are met by applying high rates of nitrogenous fertilisers (whether organic or synthetic) with moderate quantities of potassium and phosphorus.

Vitality of seedling

Perennial ryegrass seedling's vitality makes it easy and rapid to grow.

Fast establishment, and in cooler regions, make planting not just perennial ryegrasses but other grasses such as annual ryegrass and Italian ryegrasses or short-rotation ryegrasses great for dealing with early spring feed pinches.

Just sprinkle the seed on the soil with good contact and water it. Seeds sprout within several days with quick germinability. Since the plant grows rapidly, too, harvesting is easy even with a sickle - well, not quite easy on labour!

Less-prone to diseases

Ryegrasses are prone to a few diseases that can lower their productivity or longevity. Most notably, they can be prone to fungal rust, also called crown rust. These types of infections do not affect their survival or germination, just their performance.

The disease will progress as the plant matures, so it is important to monitor for the disease and treat it if necessary. Ryegrass is not prone to any major diseases that can be spread by aphids or nematodes. It is also resistant to red thread, which is a disease that affects cereal rye species and fescue species.

Few pests

Few pests pose a threat to ryegrass. Common pests are the red-headed cockchafer, corbies, red-legged earth mite, and lucerne flea. All of which, may undermine ryegrass performance, reduce their density, or affect the growth rate. However, pests cannot destroy or kill the pasture sward with your due diligence.

A few methods will deal with pests, they include:

  • Appropriate fertiliser applications.
  • Keep the paddocks weed-free.
  • Keeping water available for stock.
  • Maintaining good tillage practices to discourage subterranean pests.
  • Rotational grazing helps prevent pest build-up in the soil

You may find issues with root aphid, black beetle, pasture mealy bug, and the Argentine stem weevil.

Manageable animal health issues

Animal health issues may trigger from factors including soil fertility and fertiliser programs and by spores and endophytes on ryegrass. However, these issues are manageable and do not affect animals long term if you diligently monitor for such problems.

Issues may arise from, ryegrass staggers facial eczema spores, poor endophytes, and even seed heads!

Weaknesses:

Limited access to moisture at depth

Because of its shallow roots, with most of its total root mass only at 10cm or even shorter, ryegrasses cannot access moisture at depth in the soil like plants such as Lucerne can. This lack of depth is especially true in drier months when soil moisture located at depth is mitigated only by irrigation. Because of its shallow roots, ryegrass rarely persists through very dry environments.

Ryegrass's early growth and vigour are typically so great that it competes for resources with other desirable plants. Because of this, some agriculturalists choose not to use ryegrass as a rotation crop as it will tend to outcompete and be hard to remove.

Growth rates decrease beyond the temperature ceiling.

Ryegrass growth is affected by temperature, particularly by temperature lower than 5 to 10 degrees Celcius. Once it hits its low a temperature ceiling, ryegrass' growth rate declines dramatically. Once air temperatures reach 25 degrees Celcius and above, ryegrass reaches a point of heat stress, where wilting of the stand and a reduction of growth rates are evident. These upper and lower temperatures can cause the plant to be dormant and eventually die.

Temperature is a vital component in plant growth, but after the ryegrass reaches its low-temperature ceiling, this vital factor becomes detrimental to its existence.

Ryegrass requires good air circulation and ample sunlight for optimum growth. Ryegrasses are highly diversified, with many cultivars having different requirements of light intensity and temperature ranges.

Lesser in summer

Hot and dry summers are not the season for ryegrass. The reasoning is due to the incapacity to access moisture at depth, as well as a low-temperature ceiling. During summer, ryegrass cannot provide for quality feed as much as it can during other seasons. Irrigation can be used to maintain optimum soil moisture for mitigating the summer woes for ryegrass.

However, this method of farming is sometimes not economically feasible. Hence it is advised to let the pasture rest during summer and use warm-season grasses for grazing instead.

The practice of strip grazing should be applied in order to get the most out of limited water supplies. Maintaining a smaller number of animals in a larger area and protecting pasture residuals.

The growth rate in winter is low.

Ryegrass thrives limitedly during winter because of the low temperature and limited sunlight. However, ryegrass that has grown through winter is observed to be of excellent quality. This quality is due to its production that has improved significantly through the management of grazing rotations, use of nitrogen, post-grazing residuals, and utilising winter-active cultivars.

However, winter is a time for ryegrass. Cold temperatures can inhibit cash crops growth making it hard to access the feed, so turning to certain grasses during this season is imperative. Ryegrass maintains its quality even in colder seasons while offering more endophyte protection against plant diseases.

Some ryegrass cultivars are used in the beginning of winter, while others are used during mid-winter. This variety of grass helps maintain quality throughout the whole winter period.

Ryegrass Care and Management

Now that you know the strengths and weaknesses of ryegrass, how do you manage and care for this valuable forage?

Here are some very noteworthy tips for ryegrass management:

Children playing soccer on a ryegrass pitch

1. Graze between 2nd and 3rd leaf stage.

Based on previous observations, grazing before the 2nd leaf stage limits ryegrass regrowth and plant survival as sugars deplete that are required to grow its first leaf. Meanwhile, grazing after the 3rd leaf stage reduces its nutritional value with lower ME, lower CP, and higher fibre.

2. Time your grazing.

Grazing pastures too often reduces its total root mass and prevents it from developing healthy root growth. Having a lower root mass makes the perennial ryegrass easier to pull by your animals, more susceptible to very cold or scorching conditions, and more vulnerable to pests that damage roots.

No ryegrass cultivar respects hard grazing, especially in autumn when you are aiming for winter growth. Ultimately, how hard you graze in autumn will determine your early spring growth and subsequently late spring growth.

Similarly when aiming for an outstanding summer whether, by rainfall or irrigation, it is possible to get through the aftermath of heading and benefit from summer quality perennial ryegrass.

3. Fertilise ryegrass and maintain a constant cover of green leaf area all year.

Use 200 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare per year during ryegrass' spring flush of pasture growth. The pasture growth months are usually between March to June and September to November. If water is accessible, irrigate during the summer months to increase both the summer and autumn growth and do so to a soil depth of 15 to 30 centimetres.

4. Keep pasture weeds to a minimum.

Weeds compete for nutrients and water with the ryegrass, reducing its nutritional value and yield by up to 30 per cent. Weeds can also harbour pest insects that attack the roots of ryegrass causing significant losses in plant health and production. Use herbicides if weeds become a problem or steeper ground where the grass cannot be maintained at a high level of sward cover.

5. Test your soil's soil pH (and nutrition) regularly.

Maintain your pastures' pH between 6.0 and 7.0 to improve nutrient uptake from the soil into ryegrass leaf cells for maximum growth rates, root development, quality and yield potentials.

As you can see, there is a lot to take away with managing the spring growth of your ryegrass dominated pastures. By grasping the crucial management aspects of perennial ryegrass pasture and grazing management, you are setting yourself up for a successful career in farming.

Look out for more articles, as we discuss more on Italian ryegrass, annual ryegrass and we may even throw in a few articles on broadleaf weeds, tall fescue and summer crops.

I reply to every comment and would love to hear your experiences with ryegrass in the comments below.

Happy farming!

- The Dedicated Team of Pasture.io, 01 September 2021