cocksfoot forage grass

Grow Your Orchardgrass: The Ultimate Guide

Are you looking for excellent forage grass for your livestock? Or are you scouting to adapt a new plant material to help control soil erosion in your land? Whether it’s to cultivate your sprawling land, take care of your livestock, or preserve the wildlife, orchard grass has got you covered.

Orchardgrass, also known as cocksfoot, has been a widely used grass in almost any landscape for its robust and multi-functional nature. It makes for an excellent companion grass, forage, hay, silage, wildlife habitat, biosolids, and many more.

Sowing and planting it on your land will make for a wise investment in your agriculture business or domesticated livestock. But first thing’s first一how can you grow your own orchard grass? 

Keep on reading below to learn more about orchardgrass and the best practices involved in sowing, maintaining, managing, and harvesting it.orchard grass for livestock

What is Orchardgrass?

Orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata) is a tall-growing, perennial bunchgrass of the family Poaceae. It is a persistent and productive cool-season grass that grows in spring and flourishes during the cool months. Furthermore, this grass specimen is shade-tolerant, mildly drought-resistant, and has more winter hardiness than other grasses of its kind. It can also tolerate a fair amount of heat, making it an ideal plant to be grown under sunlight.

Orchardgrass originally grows in temperate continents, like western and central Europe and North Africa. Then, it was introduced in the North American region in the 1700s as hay and forage grass for livestock. 

Now, orchardgrass is cultivated in different parts of the country as part of a crop rotation program. But in some areas, such as Delaware and Virginia, it’s classified as a noxious weed and invasive plant species. Although, many wild and domesticated livestock find these cool-season grasses highly palatable. 

What Does Orchardgrass Look Like?

This perennial turf has a characteristic light green to blue-green color with a flattened stem at the base. It has a distinguished panicle seed head and a long, membranous ligule with short spiky projections at the top. Additionally, it has a prominent midvein on the lower underside of its leaves. 

Orchardgrass makes significant growth during the cool seasons, reaching its maximum height of 50 to 120 cm tall. Its leaf is about 2-8mm wide and 20cm long but can reach up to 50cm. It has a flat but sharp-pointed leaf blade, which is rough along the edges. 

Lastly, the cocksfoot grass has a closed sheath for at least half its length. It also has a flattened and hairless sheath with a smooth to slightly rough texture.

Where Does Orchardgrass Grow?

Normally, you can find orchardgrass freely growing in savannas, woodland areas, old pastures, orchards, thickets, and fence rows. You can also see it flourishing in highly irrigated regions and places with much rainfall. But due to its tolerant nature, it can also grow in disturbed sites, such as roadside or waste areas. 

Furthermore, its dense root system and shade tolerance allow it to grow alongside competitive legumes, such as alfalfa or red clover.

How to Grow Orchardgrass?

If you’re planning to grow this tufted grass in your landscape, its specific growing conditions include the following:

  • Basic to acidic soil with a particular pH of 5.8 to 7.5 is best. 
  • It can grow in various soil types, from clay to gravelly loam.
  • It can grow in moderate to well-drained soils but not in saline soil and places with high water tables.
  • It thrives best in areas receiving 16 to 18 inches of precipitation yearly, but it can still grow in locations that receive as little as 11 inches of annual rainfall.
  • Its optimal growing temperature is at 73-54°F, but it can tolerate humid temperatures and summertime conditions.
  • It can still thrive during the winter months (up to -30F), but it’s not as winter tolerant as bromegrass and tall fescue.

Moreover, a well-prepared seedbed should be made months before the planting date to ensure that added amendments (e.g., fertilizer) react well in the soil. 

Read: How to Choose the Right Fertilizer

fertilizer granules

Seeding and Planting

Ideally, orchardgrass seeds should be sown during the spring to late summer. Seeding it after mid-September will make it prone to winter injury since its early seedling stage is not yet tolerant to freezing temperatures. Here are some essential seeding guides to use when planting orchardgrass for specific uses, in particular areas, or seasons:

  • For dryland and erosion control orchardgrass, seedings should be made during late fall or very early spring.
  • For forage or grazing use, it should be drilled in late winter to early spring.
  • For irrigated areas, drill the seeds during early to mid-spring.
  • For successful fall seedings, sow them about 45 days before the first average frost of the fall.

Use clean, high-quality seeds and sow them at a seeding rate of 8 to 12 pounds per acre. If you’re going to seed them with legumes, adjust the seeding rate to 4 to 12 pounds. For pure stands, make sure that the seedbed is limed and fertilized with one that’s rich in nitrogen.

Additionally, you should ensure that the seed depth is approximately ¼ to ½  inches. Sowing them deeper than that might not allow them to germinate or break soil during growth. After seeding or drilling, ensure that there’s good seed-to-soil contact by gently packing the ground using a cultipacking method.

Remember, you can seed or plant orchardgrass with other legumes (e.g., alfalfa) but NOT with other grasses. This is due to their palatability and maturity differences.

Seeding Method

The preferred seeding method for pure and/or mixed grass-legumes is drilling. For this technique, you can use grain drills or Brillion type for a more controlled seeding depth and perfect seed distribution. Another good option is the double-disc drill with press wheels.

Additionally, broadcast seeding may be used through different kinds of broadcast equipment, such as buggies and fertilizer trucks. However, this method has an increased risk of creating an uneven seed distribution. 

After broadcast seeding, make sure that there’s at least ¼ to ½ inch of soil covering the seeds. Use brush-type drags to cover the seeds and a cultipacker to ensure seed to soil contact.

close-up orchard grass

Maintenance and Management

Orchardgrass can thrive in challenging conditions. Additionally, it responds well to good fertility management, specifically nitrogen applied prior to seeding. It is also recommended to apply nitrogen promptly between growing seasons and/or based on soil tests. 

However, you should refrain from adding nitrogen to orchard-legume mixtures as the grass will only compete with the legume to the point of eliminating it. 

Additionally, it’s important to periodically fertilize it with lime, potassium, and phosphorus to ensure quality production and established stand life. Plus, you can maintain its thriving state by regularly checking the soil pH or doing soil tests to ensure topsoil conditions throughout its growth. 

Typically, soil requirements of orchardgrass or orchard grass-legume mix are as follows:

  • 20 to 30 pounds of nitrogen per acre
  • 50 to 120 pounds of phosphorous oxide per acre (for enhanced root development)
  • 40 to 60 pounds of potassium oxide (potash fertilizer) per acre

Here are some other important management practices to keep in mind when growing your own orchardgrass:

Pasture Management

Orchardgrass provides high-quality forage grass suitable for pasture and grazing several types of livestock. Ensure the best production and quality by doing rotational grazing. This means that you should only do heavy grazing during its thriving season (spring). After at least grazing 50% during the growing season, orchardgrass should be allowed to mature again so its stand can continue providing quality forage grass.

Additionally, orchardgrass should be at least 6 inches tall before grazing. After grazing, it should retain a minimum stubble height of 4 inches. Below that, you’ll risk damaging and retarding the plant’s future growth. 

It’s also important to note that orchardgrass taller than 10 inches may be less palatable and provide fewer nutrients.

Hay Management

For hay use, orchardgrass gives the highest yield when grown in pure stands or mixed with legumes, like alfalfa or red clover. Management should always favor the legume, especially during cutting or harvesting.

Read: How to Make Grass Green

Harvesting

For high-quality hay, make sure to harvest your orchardgrass during its late boot stage (before seedhead emerges). As the plant matures, its digestibility declines, so collecting during the flowering stage and beyond will only yield low-quality hay. 

When collecting, leave at least 4 to 6 inches of the grass above the soil. After that, proceed to harvest the subsequent growth at a 4 to 6 weeks interval.

For seed collection, make sure to check the seed and spike’s color first. Mature seeds develop inside the flowering spikes called an inflorescence. Once mature, the spikes will lighten in color, and the seeds will turn brown to light tan.

Harvest them by grasping the base of the inflorescence then pulling upward, stripping the seeds carefully from the spike. dactylis glomerata

FAQs About Orchardgrass

Is orchardgrass perennial?

Yes. Orchardgrass is considered a cool-season perennial grass since it can live for more than two years without requiring much maintenance. Its robust and long-living nature is partly due to its ability to reproduce in two ways: seeding and asexual vegetative reproduction.

Additionally, it possesses a unique attribute that most perennial grasses have一and that’s its ability to survive in extreme conditions.

Is orchardgrass good for horses?

When cultivated and harvested using the proper techniques, orchardgrass makes for an ideal forage for horses, specifically hay. It is a high-quality and highly palatable grass that overflows with nutrients. Here are some of its nutritional benefits:

  • It’s rich in protein, calories, calcium, and phosphorus. 
  • It has higher fiber content, making it more digestible than Timothy grass.
  • Fiber content also promotes gut health and motility in horses and other livestock.

Besides ensuring your livestock’s health, hay with a higher nutritional value, such as orchardgrass, also translates to cost-efficiency. 

You can buy orchardgrass for hay, pasture, or silage at your trusted agricultural grass and seeds dealer, like Standish Milling. We provide high-quality forage grasses for pasture, erosion control, and even conservation plantings.

Is orchardgrass good for rabbits?

Besides veggies and pellets, rabbits also need access to orchardgrass hay since it’s rich in fiber and protein. Specifically, it yields around 7 to 11% crude protein, 30% crude fiber, and calcium content of about 0.34%. 

Additionally, orchardgrass is not time-sensitive since it can be cut even at its earliest maturation stage. In fact, this specific stage yields the highest nutritional quality hay for livestock and domesticated animals.

Will orchardgrass reseed itself?

Yes, but only under optimal conditions. Furthermore, orchardgrass produces seed heads during their initial spring growth. After cutting or grazing, it will then reproduce through its leafy and palatable regrowth.

Is orchardgrass good for lawns?

Unfortunately, no. This type of grass is an ideal source of hay, but it’s not well-loved by many lawn owners. In fact, it is considered a noxious and contaminating weed in new lawns that had once served as pasture land. 

Besides making lawns rugged-looking, orchardgrass often competes with lawn turf (tall fescue) for space and nutrition. 

Does orchardgrass come back every year?

Yes. Orchardgrass is a tall-growing perennial grass, which means that it’s continually recurring. It has a life cycle of more than two years long, enduring any seasons and extreme conditions.

What is the best fertilizer for orchardgrass?

Is orchardgrass bad?

Although it infests lawns planted with tall fescues, orchardgrass is not bad. It actually has a wide array of uses and benefits in agriculture and ecology, such as:

    • Grazing – Orchardgrass primarily serves as the best and most cost-effective pasture, silage, hay, and green chop. It is also a versatile plant since it’s compatible with many types of legumes to be used as hay. 
    • Erosion control – This bunchgrass has a creeping rootstalk that can be used to prevent erosion in forestlands, especially those that had been burned. 
    • Survival of wildlife – Orchardgrass-legume mix is a good material for brood rearing, nesting, and winter cover of some upland wildlife. Additionally, elk and deer find its basal rosette a palatable winter forage. Plus, specific types of caterpillars and butterflies feed on their foliages. 
    • Manure and biosolid application

Where to Buy Orchardgrass for Pasture and Hay?

Are you looking for an ideal perennial grass for hay forage production? Look no further because we have got you covered! 

Get your highly productive, cool-season Orchardgrass Extend at Standish Milling. Our Dactylis glomerata var Extend is a superior yield and late-maturing grass perfect for alfalfa or red clover mixes. It has a great stand persistence and stem disease resistance, allowing quality forage production. 

Contact us now at (989)-268-7820 to order your orchardgrass and start growing it in your own pasture or landscape.