What is orchard grass hay

The Big Two Forage Grasses: Timothy and Orchard

Dr. Stephen Duren, Performance Horse Nutrition and Standlee Premium Western Forage® Nutritional Consultant

High quality forage is critical for proper digestive function in horses. Forage (hay/pasture) makes up 60-100% of the diet for horses, depending on their function and activity. For horses that are stalled, or for horses that do not have abundant pasture, stored forage in the form of hay is the primary source of forage. The most popular choices for grasses to be utilized as horse hay are Timothy Grass and Orchard Grass making them the big two forage grasses.

Timothy Grass

Timothy Grass is the traditional favorite among horse owners. Much of this tradition is due to the fact that Timothy was one of the first grasses cultivated for horse hay. Therefore, feeding Timothy Grass has a well-established comfort level with horse people. High quality Timothy Grass contains a moderate amount of protein, usually testing at approximately 8% protein. It has a consistent and balanced ratio of calcium to phosphorus and Timothy Grass has a low to moderate calorie content. Timothy Grass is also a rich source of fiber. Seemingly, the only potential draw-back with Timothy Grass is availability. Timothy grass usually yields just two cuttings per year and requires a significant amount of water to grow. These two factors along with its traditional popularity limit the supply of Timothy Grass hay.



Livestock: Orchardgrass may be used for hay, pasture or silage. It is highly palatable to all classes of livestock. Orchardgrass is one of the best forage grasses for use in pastures and in combination with alfalfa or Red Clover for hay.

Erosion control: Because of its dense network of roots, Orchardgrass provides good erosion control on those soils to which it is particularly adapted.

Wildlife: Orchardgrass is used in grass-legume mixes for nesting, broad rearing, escape and winter cover for upland game birds and conservation plantings.


Dactylis glomerata L., Orchardgrass, is a persistent, cool season bunchgrass. Under dry land conditions, it usually develops distinct clumps and flower culms 15 to 18 inches tall. Leaves are usually less than 12 inches in height. When grown under irrigation or in more moist situations, it attains a height of 24-28 inches. No vegetative spread has been observed. Orchardgrass is one of the earliest species to grow in the spring, making tremendous growth during cool conditions. Due to deep roots, it also is capable of strong summer growth when conditions are favorable. Orchardgrass has 416,000 seeds per pound.

Adaptation and Distribution

Orchardgrass is found from Canada to the Gulf Coast states and from the Atlantic Coast to the Pascific coast. However, Orchardgrass is not as winterhardy as Smooth Brome or Timothy. Orchardgrass performs well on different textured soils ranging from clay to gravely loams and on shallow to deep soils. does not grow well in saline soils and areas with high water tables. It has the ability to establish and persist in areas that receive as little as 11 inches of annual precipitation.
Orchardgrass performs best in a pH range of 5.8-7.0.


A clean, firm, weed-free seedbed is recommended. Range and erosion control seedings should be made in the late fall or very early spring. Do not seed after the spring moisture period is well advanced or a failure may occur because of drought and hot summer conditions before the grass is well established. A deep furrow or range drill with press wheels may be used; Orchardgrass is easily established with grain drills or by broadcasting seeding. The seeding rate is 8 to 12 pounds/acre. For range and critical area treatment a seeding rate of 3 to 4 pounds/acre is recommended. If broadcast, double the seeding rate. Adjustments in seeding rate should be made when seeding in mixtures. Seeding depth should not be more than 1⁄2 inch.


Under irrigation and higher rainfall areas, Orchardgrass should be cut at boot stage for the first cutting and then at 4 to 6 week intervals depending on regrowth. Rotational grazing is best for production, persistence and quality. Fields should be grazed heavily and frequently during the spring, but do not overgraze. Leave a 3- to 4-inch stubble so plants can recover quickly. Heavy grazing during the late fall should be avoided to prevent depletion of root reserves. Under dry land conditions, Orchardgrass should not be grazed until late summer or fall of the second growing season. The plants may be severely damaged by overgrazing especially in the seedling year. Use no more than 60% of the annual growth during the winter season or 50% during the growing season. This plant responds well to rotational grazing systems. Orchardgrass responds to good fertility management. One strategy, to even out the forage production, is to fertilize the stand after the first and second cutting or grazing to boost late spring and summer production. Apply fertilizer based upon soil tests.

The oddities of orchardgrass

Orchardgrass is grown widely across the United States where adequate moisture and moderate temperatures exist. Though not the most winter hardy, orchardgrass has for years been a staple pasture and hayfield contributor to livestock diets.

In this writer’s experience, one of the curious things about orchardgrass is that farmers either love it or hate it; very little middle ground exists. I recall one farmer telling me that he wanted nothing to do with the species because its bunchgrass growth habit made fields too (insert expletive) rough to drive over.

Among the advantages of growing orchardgrass is simply the sheer number of potential varieties from which to choose compared to many other cool-season grass options.

One of the key differentiating features of these varieties is maturity. Selecting a late-maturing variety is important when including the grass in alfalfa stands; otherwise, the orchardgrass becomes cordwood by the time the alfalfa is at ideal harvest maturity.

Varieties also differ substantially in their ability to resist disease, especially leaf pathogens.

Orchardgrass, which is native to Europe and North Africa, only produces a seedhead during its initial spring growth cycle. The subsequent growth during the remainder of the summer consists essentially of leaf material that is soft and palatable to livestock. It’s these subsequent cuttings and grazings that bring most farmers into the orchardgrass fold. Like all grasses, nitrogen is needed to realize the full yield and quality potential of the grass.

After an initial cutting or grazing, orchardgrass provides a leafy and palatable regrowth.

Compared to many cool-season grasses, orchardgrass establishes easily and is sometimes interseeded into mature pastures and hayfields with a lot of success. It may take up to one year after seeding before full production potential is reached.

New study sheds light

As previously mentioned, there are a number of orchardgrass varieties to select from, though breeding programs have steadily been phased out over recent years. The number of variety performance trials has also declined, but some universities still carry out this worthwhile mission.

In the most recent edition of the electronic journal, Crop, Forage & Turfgrass Management, an interesting study was published that compared the performance of 13 different orchardgrass varieties with each planted at five distinctly different locations (Utah, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Virginia).

The 13 varieties were evaluated for yield, stand percentage, maturity timing, disease incidence, spring regrowth, and fall regrowth. Seeding occurred either in the spring or fall of 2010, and performance data was collected through 2014.

The performance of the orchardgrass varieties was quite variable among the five locations. In other words, a specific orchardgrass variety often exhibited different performance characteristics from one location (environment) to another. The study authors noted: “The results of this study demonstrate that U.S. orchardgrass cultivars are regionally adapted.”

This finding makes selecting a high-performance orchardgrass variety for a specific region more difficult unless you happen to be near a variety-testing site. Most orchardgrass varieties are marketed nationally, but not all may be adapted as such.

Perhaps the variable popularity of using orchardgrass in pastures and hayfields can partly be attributed to an individual’s experiences with a specific variety that was either well suited or not well suited to the specific situation. What we do know about orchardgrass is that there are huge differences in performance among varieties. We now also know that those differences get shuffled from region to region.


Jimmy Henning and Norman Risner
Department of Agronomy

Orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata L.) is a bunch-type, tall-growing, cool-season perennial grass. It is one of the most productive cool-season grasses, tolerant to shade, fairly drought resistant with moderate winter hardiness. Orchardgrass does not exhibit as much tolerance to drought or winter hardiness as tall fescue and bromegrass. It has been reported growing in the United States since before 1760.


Orchardgrass is well adapted throughout Missouri, but its persistence may be a problem on south slopes in the droughty shallow soils of the Ozark Mountains. However, new disease-resistant varieties and good management techniques should help maintain high-producing stands for several years, even in the more shallow soils in south Missouri.

Orchardgrass is well adapted to grow with legumes such as alfalfa, red clover, lespedeza and white clover. It establishes more easily than bromegrass or timothy when seeded with other species. Stands will be more productive and last longer than bromegrass or timothy when grown with alfalfa that is cut frequently and heavily fertilized.

Orchardgrass will persist and make reasonable yields on soils that have moderately poor drainage. However, it will not tolerate wet areas as well as reed canarygrass or tall fescue.

Growth characteristics

Orchardgrass is fast-growing and matures very early in the spring. There are some varietal variations but, in general, orchardgrass matures about one week earlier than tall fescue and about two weeks before smooth bromegrass. It also regrows quickly after harvest, making it well suited for seeding with frequently harvested alfalfa. It produces less fall growth than tall fescue under similar growing conditions. The bunch-type growth characteristic and shade tolerance combine to make orchardgrass well adapted to grow with competitive tall growing legumes such as alfalfa and red clover. In a three-year shade tolerance study, yield and stand were not affected by reducing light by 33 percent.

Orchardgrass is easy to establish and has a more dense root system than smooth bromegrass, timothy or bluegrass. It grows on a wide range of soil types, doing well in low-fertility soils, but also responding well to high-fertility soils. One undesirable trait is that forage quality of spring growth declines rapidly as maturity increases. However, orchardgrass re-growth, which is mostly leaves, is very high in quality. Temperatures above 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit will greatly reduce the growth and tillering of orchardgrass. That means that summer productivity is less than in spring and fall.

Establishing a stand

Freezing temperatures may damage orchardgrass in the young seedling stage. Thus, fall seedings should be made about 45 days before the first killing frost (usually about 27 to 28 degrees Fahrenheit) so seedlings can develop well enough to survive the winter. For this reason, fall seedings are not recommended in the northern one-third of the state. Late August to early September are considered best fall seeding dates in most of the state, with mid-September seedings satisfactory in the extreme southern areas. Spring seedings should be successful if made in late March to early April in the southern part of the state, and most of April is considered satisfactory in north Missouri.

A clean, firm seedbed is important to help plants make a more vigorous early growth and resist winter heaving. Orchardgrass may be seeded with fly-resistant wheat in south Missouri, seeded with spring oats in north Missouri or interseeded with winter wheat in early spring. Competition from small grains should be reduced by using them for pasture, hay or haylage.

Buying a certified variety gives the best assurance of obtaining quality seed. The minimum specifications for certified orchardgrass seed are 85 percent purity and 80 percent germination. Eight pounds of clean, high germination seed is usually adequate to obtain good stands of orchardgrass. A pound of orchardgrass seed will contain about 645,000 seeds, roughly 2-1/2 times the number of seeds in one pound of tall fescue.

Most Missouri orchardgrass is seeded with a companion legume as shown in the accompanying table. The following seeding rates in pounds per acre should be considered as minimums.

Table 1
Minimum seeding rates in pounds per acre

Bulk Pure Live Seed
Alfalfa 10 8
Orchardgrass 6 4
Red clover 8 7
Orchardgrass 6 4
Ladino clover 1 1
Orchardgrass 6 4
Lespedeza 15 12
Orchardgrass 6 4

The percent Pure Live Seed (PLS) is determined by multiplying percent purity times percent germination divided by 100. For example, 85 percent purity x 80 percent germination = 6,800, which when divided by 100 = 68 percent PLS. In this example, 10 pounds of bulk seed would deliver 6.8 pounds of Pure Live Seed.

Seeding methods

Drilling orchardgrass and the companion legume seed is preferred. The use of drills, such as the Brillion type or grain drills, will usually result in better stands at the same seeding rate, more controlled seeding depth and better seed distribution than broadcasting. Good results are obtained with grain drills when orchardgrass is put through the grain box and the companion legume is seeded from the small legume box. The legume seed should be allowed to drop straight to the ground to prevent covering too deep. Drag chains on the drill will cover the seed adequately. Pull a cultipacker or light roller over the field to give good seed-to-soil contact and promote more vigorous seedling growth.

Seedings of orchardgrass can also be made with broadcast equipment such as fertilizer trucks, buggies or tractor-mounted distribution. Broadcast equipment will not throw orchardgrass seed as far as it will throw fertilizer or heavier seeds such as fescue. To help avoid uneven stands, drive the equipment close enough to overlap the previous spread pattern to ensure even seed distribution. Orchardgrass seed should be covered with about 1/4 to 1/2 inch of soil. Spike tooth harrows or “brush type” drags make good tools for covering broadcast seed. The use of a cultipacker or lightweight roller is very important for the same reasons cited above.

Fertilizer and lime

Take a good soil sample and follow soil test recommendations for lime and fertilizer when seeding orchardgrass or grass-legume mixtures. Best results occur after incorporating recommended limestone in advance of final seedbed preparation. Companion legumes will require lime applications to be worked into the soil at least six months preceding planting. This is especially true when preparing soils with high lime requirements or when alfalfa will be in the forage mixture. Orchardgrass is more tolerant of acid soils than timothy or bromegrass but will respond to limestone that is applied for a companion legume.

Phosphorus is very important for good root development. When soils are extremely low in phosphorus (10 pounds P or less), it is a good practice to apply and incorporate the major portion of recommended phosphorus, then apply some as a starter. Band seeding with some phosphorus-starter fertilizer markedly improves seedling vigor of grasses or grass-legume mixtures. Soil test recommendations for establishment of orchardgrass or orchardgrass-legume mixtures will normally require 20 to 30 pounds N, 50 to 120 pounds P2O5 and 40 to 60 pounds K2O per acre.

Orchardgrass and orchardgrass-legume mixtures have high yield potentials. Various studies have shown that orchardgrass will respond to high levels of fertility.

The following fertility practices should be applied to realize the top potential of pure stands of orchardgrass. Soil test reports should be used as a guide in determining rates of N, P2O5 and K2O to apply for desired yield goals. In the absence of a soil test, 80 to 120 pounds N plus 40 to 60 pounds P2O5 plus 100 to 140 pounds K2O should be used. When using the heavier rates of N, apply 65 to 70 percent of the N with the winter application. The remainder of the N should be applied immediately after the first cutting in August to encourage late summer growth. Make the winter application of fertilizer from early February to about mid-March in south Missouri and about two weeks later in the northern part of the state.

Normally, the top annual yields in south Missouri will range from 2-1/2 to 3 tons per acre. North Missouri yields may reach 3 to 4 tons per acre due to better moisture-holding ability of soils and slightly lower temperatures. Yields of orchardgrass can be seriously reduced by high temperatures, low moisture supplies and the presence of plant diseases.

Nitrogen fertilizer should not be applied when the stand contains 30 percent or more of alfalfa, red clover or ladino clover. Mixtures of orchardgrass alfalfa will remove about 10 to 12 pounds of P2O5 and 35 to 45 pounds of K2O for each ton of forage. Potassium fertility is especially important when orchardgrass is grown with alfalfa and should not be allowed to become limiting. Orchardgrass competes vigorously with alfalfa for potassium, potentially reducing the yield and persistence of alfalfa.


Orchardgrass produces heavy growth during April and May. This growth can be used for pasture, hay, greenchop or silage. Graze it heavily or mechanically harvest it early to promote high yields of high quality forage.

Pasture management
When managed properly, orchardgrass will produce excellent results in pasture programs for dairy and beef. Properly managed orchardgrass plants will have a higher leaf-to-stem ratio than tall fescue. Several research studies have demonstrated higher animal intake and better animal performance from orchardgrass pasture as compared with tall fescue pasture, especially during spring and early summer. During a three-year study in Missouri, yearling steers gained 1.75 pounds per day on orchardgrass pasture, 1.16 pounds on tall fescue and 1.84 pounds on bromegrass. In the study, the carrying capacity of orchardgrass was well above bromegrass and slightly less than fescue. In a similar study involving cow/calf pairs, calves gained 1.80 pounds per day on orchardgrass and 1.51 pounds per day on fescue.

Mixtures of orchardgrass and clover (red or ladino) are very popular for pasture in Missouri. Rotational grazing with heavy stocking rates of cattle will give better animal performance and reduce spot grazing. If plants are continually grazed short, they will be weakened and stands may be depleted. Close grazing can be especially detrimental during hot weather. Heavy grazing of orchardgrass during October can decrease carbohydrate storage and lead to some winter kill of plants. Stands of orchardgrass will often be more persistent when grown with a companion legume.

Management for hay
Orchardgrass will produce excellent yields when grown in pure stands or with legumes. When using pure stands for hay, it is imperative that nitrogen be applied in combination with adequate phosphorous and potassium.

Harvesting the spring growth of orchardgrass at late-boot to early-head stage will produce higher quality forage than allowing the plant to mature further. This early harvest will also help increase yield of high quality re-growth. Forage researchers and several Missouri farmers have observed less damage to plants from summer heat and drought when the first harvest is made early and plants have time to re-grow before the stress. Some south Missouri farmers have reported almost 100 percent loss of stands when harvest was delayed to the late bloom stage. This can be more of a concern when late harvest is followed by high temperatures and low moisture supply.

As with close grazing, close cutting can lead to stand reduction. Harvesting at a height of four inches will help maintain strong root reserves, leading to fast recovery of re-growth and better stand persistence. Mixtures of orchardgrass with alfalfa or red clover should be managed to favor the legume. This is especially true with reference to fertilizer application and stage of maturity to harvest. Alfalfa orchardgrass mixtures should normally be harvested when alfalfa is at early bloom to one tenth bloom. This harvest state will produce good dry-matter yields, quality forage and favor stand persistence of the alfalfa.


Many diseases attack orchardgrass. Stem rust, leaf spots, brown stripe and scald are among the most prevalent in Missouri and surrounding states. Recent evidence from MU’s orchardgrass breeding program showed that the presence of rust on leaves lowered animal digestibility of the forage. Three years of grazing studies have documented that rust-infected orchardgrass varieties gave 0.2 to 0.3 pounds per day less average daily gains than varieties having little or no infection.

Diseases of orchardgrass are also partly responsible for stand depletions. Data from MU showed that when the stem rust pathogen is present, orchardgrass stands are severely depleted during late July and throughout the month of August. The best and most practical means of controlling diseases, hence improving animal performance and stand persistence, is to plant varieties that are resistant or highly tolerant to foliar diseases.


At the present time, Hallmark is the most commonly grown orchardgrass variety in the state of Missouri. Hallmark produces forage yields equal to or slightly above most other adapted varieties and persists fairly well in most areas of the state (Table 2). Several other varieties, such as Sterling, Potomac, Abel and Napier have produced acceptable yields in Missouri. Other developments by private companies are also being offered for sale in the state. Some of these varieties may be very well adapted to Missouri. However, it is difficult to provide current evaluations of all new varieties.

Table 2
Orchardgrass variety trials

A new MU variety of orchardgrass named ‘Justus’ has given consistently higher animal performance when compared to previously grown varieties (Table 3). Justus was selected for high tolerance to the stem rust pathogen and has produced better animal performance than other varieties in grazing trials.

Table 3
Average daily gains (pounds) of steers grazing orchardgrass, Mo

Year Justus Hallmark Potomac Sterling
1982 2.18 1.88 1.85 1.51
1983 2.07 1.92 1.96 1.58
1984 1.63 1.55 1.29 1.52

Seed production

The production of orchardgrass seed has not been a big business in Missouri. This is probably due to less demand than for tall fescue seed and because very few acres of orchardgrass are grown alone, making them suitable for seed harvest. Some producers have experienced difficulty in producing well-filled, high-quality seed. With the release of a more persistent, better performing variety, some Missouri farmers may be interested in seed production.

Good seed yields should be expected when farmers apply fertilizer according to soil test recommendations. This will usually include 60 to 80 pounds N applied in December or January. Higher rates of N will tend to encourage lodging. Nitrogen needs to be applied earlier than for hay production, as early applications form reproductive growth over leafy growth.

Seed yields also can be increased by clipping and removing the stubble shortly after each year’s seed harvest. The summer re-growth may be used for grazing, but avoid heavy grazing during September and October. Forage can be grazed later in the fall when plants have become more winter hardy. However, this late fall growth will be less acceptable to cattle than tall fescue.


Orchardgrass will respond to good fertility and management practices by producing 2-1/2 to 4 tons of high quality forage per acre. Early stand depletion has been one of the major complaints from farmers. With the development of more disease-resistant varieties to help maintain longer-lived stands, orchardgrass can take its place as one of the important cool-season grasses in Missouri.

The authors wish to thank Jim Brown, Daryl Buchholz, Dave Sleper and Jerry Nelson for assisting in the preparation of this guide.

Forage Focus: What should I reseed in my hay and pasture fields?

The next time the snow melts off, it becomes the time of year to evaluate your hay and pasture fields to determine if they need to be reseeded. First and foremost, you need to make sure the pH and fertility is adequate for the forages you want to plant. If it is not, the new seeding could germinate then die or never produce to its potential. Next it is a good idea to know what you need for your livestock. For example dry beef cows probably do not need high quality alfalfa and stockers may need a higher quality and more palatable forage then what fescue grass can provide. Other ruminants can graze pastures close so orchard grass which stores energy at the base of the plant may not be a good option if you have sheep or goats too. Poorly drained fields or fields with a lot of deer pressure are not good options for alfalfa. So what should be planted? The following is a list of common forages that can be planted throughout Ohio and the characteristics of each.

Alfalfa- It is probably the best high quality feed for livestock and as a cash crop but it requires deep, well drained soils and high fertility for high yields. While it can be used for grazing, it is best adapted for hay or silage. Be aware that it can cause bloat when grazed by livestock and purchase improved varieties with good winter hardiness, disease and potato leafhopper resistance.

Birdsfoot Trefoil- This is a deep-rooted perennial legume that is best adapted to northern areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania, but I have seen more growing in southern Ohio over the past three years. It can tolerate low pH, poor soil drainage, marginal fertility and is non-bloating. It is slow to establish, subject to weed invasion so should be planted in a mixed stand, and prone to diseases.

Red Clover- Red clover is a short lived perennial legume but has several advantages. It can tolerate poorly drained and slightly acidic soils and has good seeding vigor. Seeding vigor is important because it can stretch out or improve stands. It is a good option for frost seeding, so in the next month, we can spread this seed on pastures or hay fields. Red clover can be hard to dry for hay bloat can be a problem when grazing if there is not enough grass present.

White Clover- This is a low-growing short lived perennial. This is a good legume to have in pastures especially if short growing grasses like bluegrass are present. It is a good legume if sheep and goats are grazing as they tend to graze closer than cattle. This is a good plant for continuous grazing as it is a prolific seeder, but bloat can be a problem.

Kentucky bluegrass- This grass is ideal for pastures as the low growth habit makes it tolerant to close grazing. It forms a dense sod and spreads by seeds and rhizomes. It can persist under poor soil conditions and management, but responds to good management. Yields will be less than many other cool season grasses and is more drought susceptible than other grasses.

Orchardgrass- This grass is good for pasture, hay and silage. It is very productive “bunch-type” grass that responds well to good management. It grows best in well drained soils, has rapid regrowth and is palatable. However when it becomes mature, palatability rapidly declines. Common varieties mature rapidly, so consider late maturing varieties. Rust can be a problem in latter in the summer, so select varieties with leaf disease resistance.

Ryegrass- If alfalfa is the “Queen” of forages, ryegrass is the “King”. Perennial ryegrass is a bunch-type grass that is palatable with high nutritive value. It has a long growing season and excellent yields with good fertility. Why doesn’t everyone grow it? It is less winter hardy than other grasses, best adapted to areas like northern Ohio, it is not as competitive as other grasses and it is difficult to dry for hay.

Fescue- The grass we love to hate. During this time of the year, it is the best grass we have. It will stockpile well for grazing during the winter and retain much of its quality. It is a high yielding grass that tolerates low fertility, drought, insects and diseases. The problem is that common types have a fungus or endophyte in it that makes it unpalatable and can cause health problems in the summer months and pregnancy problems with horses. The good news is this is greatly reduced during the winter months and palatability increases. There are also varieties available without the endophyte or with a “novel” endophyte that will not cause problems with livestock.

There are several other grasses that have good adaptation for our area. Smooth bromegrass is high quality forage for hay and pasture and will retain quality better than other grasses when mature. The grass is adversely affected during stem elongation if cut or grazed. Reed canarygrass is a good option in flood prone areas but will grow in other areas. It is high yielding and very competitive but slow to establish. Purchase only high quality low-alkaloid varieties to increase forage quality.

Unless growing a pure stand of alfalfa, mixing types of forages for a new seeding is a good option. Consider a primary grass, a primary legume, then you can consider minor species to add to the mix. It is important to consider species with similar growth habits. For example, you would not want to plant bluegrass with red clover, but you could plant orchardgrass or fescue with red clover. Finally, purchase only high quality improved varieties of seed. There have been tremendous advances in quality, yield, persistence, insect and disease resistance which makes the added cost of the seed a good value.

For more information and detail, see the Ohio Agronomy Guide, available at Ohio Extension offices or on-line at http://ohioline.osu.edu

Also, view the presentation on forage species selection embedded below by Bob Hendershot during the 2011 OEFFA annual conference.

When to Plant Orchard Grass?

Orchard grass is a cool season grass which is typically found in pastures. Cool season grasses germinate very early and produce well in May and early June. Orchard grass is commonly cultivated as forage such as hay or silage or used as grazing grass. Because orchard grass is dormant during the summer months, and is at its peak in late spring, planting orchard grass is often done in late summer or sometimes early fall.


Orchard grass is grown from seeds and produces fuller crops when grown on rich soils. With a well-prepared seed bed, however, orchard grass may flourish in poor soils or shady areas. Orchard grass responds well to nitrogen, which can be added after the spring thaw. Orchard grass is often planted in tandum with field brome grass, as the two will not dominate each other and will produce a thicker crop.


Ideally, orchard grass should be planted in August or September. You may wait until October or November is you live in warmer climates. Soil should be tilled before planting and be moderate to well-drained. Seed should be planted 10 to 20 pounds per acre. Planting depth is 1/4 to 1/2 inch.

How to Grow Orchardgrass | Guide to Growing Orchardgrass


7-14 days

4 years

acidic, fertile, well-drained

Full sun

For hay, thin to 12-18″ or less

Cattle, sheep, others

Growing Guide
Orchardgrass is ideally sown in spring, or late summer. Note that sowing in mid to late August or later may not give young starts enough time go become stable for the oncoming winter.

A well-prepared seedbed will help to promote higher quality orchardgrass. This should be done 6 months or more prior to the expected planting date to ensure that added amendments have significant time to react with soil. The first step will be to test the pH of the soil with a tester, available at a farm or home & garden store. Ideally, the soil should have a pH between 6.5 to 7.0. Soil can be amended with lime (limestone) if needed to raise pH. Do not sow if pH is not 6.2 or higher. Amendment with organic fertilizers rich in nitrogen is recommended.

For grazing, orchard grass is best sown with legumes to provide a more balance nutritional profile and to assist with nitrogen fixation. Avoid sowing with other grasses.

Seeds should be sown approximately ¼-1/2″ deep. Seeds sown deeper may not be able to break through the surface of the soil. Gently pack soil to ensure good seed to soil contact. Like most seeds, they require warmth and plenty of water to germinate. Do not start in arid or excessively dry locations or conditions. If sowing in fall, do not sow later than one month prior to the first average frost of the fall.
Orchardgrass is fairly tolerant of drought, traffic and other challenging growing conditions.

Orchardgrass is often considered suitable for a wide range of livestock. As always, consult an animal feed expert, veterinarian, or other qualified professional before initiating any feeding regime.

If growing for pasture, orchardgrass pairs well with clover varieties for balanced nutrition and nitrogren fixing from the legume. This will also help to promote and ensure healthier stands. Rotating orchardgrass with other forage crops is recommended, to promote more balance nutritional intake by livestock, and to allow orchardgrass and other plants adequate time to recover from grazing.

Do not allow livestock to overgraze orchardgrass-ideal height for grazing is 6 inches or more. Grazing below 3-4 inches can cause damage to plants, retarding future growth and delaying future grazings. Additionally, grass taller than 10″ or so can become unpalatable and less nutritious.

If growing orchardgrass in the absence of legumes, fertilization with nitrogen is recommended. This is not necessary if growing with legumes as they will fix nitrogen naturally in the surrounding soil. Periodic fertilizing with organic sources of phosphorus and potassium is also recommended.

It is a good idea to periodically check the pH of stands-ideally this should remain between 6.0-7.0. If pH drops, top dressing with lime can be used to correct.

Orchardgrass For Pasture & Hay

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Dactylis glomerata
Orchardgrass seed produces an excellent pasture grass, especially for horses and cattle, and can be used in wildlife food plots for deer, turkey and quail. Orchard grass also makes an excellent hay production crop and is complimented when planted with legumes such as Ladino (white) clover (Patriot or Durana) or red clovers.

Orchardgrass can withstand trampling and heavy grazing, has a high nutrient content, is a great green manure crop and is used a green chop (fed directly to livestock wet). When properly maintained and established, planted with clovers or alfalfa, Orchard grass will survive as a pasture grass for several years.

Orchard grass is a bunch-type, tall-growing, cool-season perennial grass. It is one of the most productive cool-season grasses, tolerant to shade, fairly drought resistant with moderate winter hardiness. Although newer varieties are showing more winter hardiness. Often considered a “native” USA grass, orchard grass’s origins are traced back to Europe. It has been reported growing in the United States since before 1760.

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Orchard Grass Quick Facts

Orchardgrass is a long lived, cool-season perennial bunchgrass that grows from 2-4 feet tall. It reproduces from seed and forms tufted shoots held together by short rhizomes. This grass has a panicle-type seed head that is 4-10 inches long and cannot be mistaken for other grasses. Its shape seed head shape has caused it to be named “Cocksfoot” (Also its name in Europe).

Origin: Europe
Description: Perennial
Primary Adaption: Orchard is less tolerant of drought and poor drainage than tall fescue. Often found mixed with Tall Fescue fields. In the lower South, stands do not generally persist more than two-four years. – Short life perennial in the deep south.
Uses: Pasture and hay. Forage quality is pretty high under good management.
Planting Rate: Seed should be planted 15-20 lbs an acre August-September.
Fertilization: Requires higher fertility than tall fescue. Responds well to Nitrogen. Obtain soil test for fertilization program.
Seasonal Production: March-July. Production during September-November is usually much less tall fescue production.
Management: Moderate stocking programs are best. The first hay harvest of the season should be in the boot to early bloom stage.
Pests: Armyworms, rust and leafspot diseases. Nematodes are very serious problem when grown in sandy soils.

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Orchardgrass is a native of Europe and Eurasia and has been cultivated in North America since 1760. It widely distributed across the United States. It can be found growing in abundance in the Pacific North-West and in an area from the Dakotas to South Kentucky & Tennessee. Orchardgrass grows best on rich soils, on poor soils and even performs well in shady areas. Fertilization is essential for high forage production. It is often grown in combination with Fescue, Lespedeza, clovers. Orchardgrass is used for pasture, hay and silage and produces an abundance of quality forage. It starts early growth in the spring after being grazed or mowed, making it good grass for summer pasturage. Seedland sells certified Orchard Grass Forage Varieties: Potomac and Persist.

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Planting Orchardgrass For Pasture & Hay Production

Orchardgrass seed should be planted at least 60 days before the first killing frost in the fall to protect young seedlings. Early spring plantings are harder to establish.
Seeding Rate: 18 to 20 lbs per acre into a clean seedbed. Reduce this rate to 8 to 10 lbs per acre if planting with other grasses or clovers.
Seeding Dates: Spring Or Fall
Fall: At least 60 days before the 1st frost in the fall when soil temperatures are 75° and falling.
Spring: After the last killing frost when soil temperatures are 65° and rising.
Soil: Soil should have a pH of 6.5
Depth: 1/2″
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FAQ – Orchard Grass Pastures

I am in need of information on when to harvest orchard grass to achieve the maximum protein content. I understand that just prior to the boot stage is the best time to cut.

What does the orchard grass look like at the boot stage so I know when to cut?

The boot stage is defined as the time when the seed head is enclosed within the sheath of the flag leaf. Mid to Late spring you’ll notice the stems of the plant beginning to elongate and the “flag leaf” can be seen. This leaf is shorter than other leaf blades and is generally rising higher out of the crown than other leaves, follow this blade down to its stem and split the stem open and you will find an immature seed head inside. Until this seed head emerges the plant is in the boot stage. As the seed head starts to emerge this is “early boot”.


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