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Characteristics of Tall Fescue

Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea Schreb.) is a deep-rooted, long-lived, sod-forming grass that spreads by short underground stems called rhizomes. In Pennsylvania it has primarily been used for conservation purposes but is well suited as hay, silage, or pasture for beef cattle and sheep. It is well adapted to the soil and weather conditions of Pennsylvania. It is especially adapted to acid, wet soils of shale origin and will produce more forage on soils with pH less than 5.5 than other cool-season grasses. Tall fescue is drought resistant and will maintain itself under rather limited fertility conditions. Tall fescue is also ideal for waterways, ditch and pond banks, and farm lots and lanes. It is the best grass in areas of heavy livestock and machinery traffic.

Animals will readily graze tall fescue during April, May and early June and again in the fall, but show reluctance to graze it during the summer months of July and August. Some of this reduced summer palatability and traditionally low-quality forage, which resulted in poor animal performance, is associated with the presence of a fungus in the plant (endophytic). The fungus grows between the plant cells and overwinters in the base of the plant. The fungus produces alkaloids which are toxic to animals. These alkaloids are thought to cause the poor conception rates, low birth weights, and low daily gains of animals grazing fungus infected tall fescue. Low endophyte varieties are now available and are recommended for new seedings.

Tall fescue is the best adapted cool-season grass for stockpiling (accumulating growth) for use in the fall and winter. In addition, tall fescue generally has greater quality in the fall because of greater leaf retention than other cool-season grasses in the fall. Thus it can provide much of the spring, fall and winter feed for a beef cow herd.

Adapted Tall Fescue Varieties

Numerous varieties are adapted for use in Pennsylvania. However, the endophyte free varieties have improved quality compared to those infected with the endophyte fungus. Endophyte infected varieties are well-suited for use on reclaimed strip mines and other conservation uses where the soil conditions are unusually adverse for plant growth.

Because of differences in growth habits, palatability and time of the year when they should be used, other grasses should not be included with tall fescue at seeding time. However, legumes can be used in the seeding mixture with tall fescue, although the stand may eventually be used as a pure tall fescue stand for winter stockpiling. The legumes will persist for several years, improve the forage quality and serve as a source of nitrogen for the tall fescue. Regardless of the seeding mixture, it is recommended that low endophyte seed be used if the tall fescue is to be used for animal feed.

Tall Fescue Establishment

Tall fescue and accompanying legumes can be seeded in the spring or late summer. Spring seedings should be made as early as possible to avoid hot dry weather when the seedlings are small. Late-summer seedings usually have less weed competition and more favorable moisture conditions than spring seedings. Late- summer seedings should be made before August 15 in northern Pennsylvania and September 1 in Southern Pennsylvania.

When seeding alone,12 lb of tall fescue seed per acre is adequate. Tall fescue in legume mixtures should be seeded at 8-10 lb per acre.

For best results, band seed tall fescue 1/4 inch deep. Press wheels used in conjunction with band seeding will add additional stand insurance. If the seedbed is dry and not firm, cultipack before seeding to make a firm seedbed.

Tall Fescue Harvest Management

Tall fescue can be part of a forage program but should not be all of it. Legumes with tall fescue improves animal performance and increases forage production during the summer. Legumes are difficult to maintain in a tall fescue sod, but there are a number of management practices that will help keep legumes in the stand. Two of these practices are maintaining pH above 6.0 and annual applications of potash. Tall fescue grown with either red or white clover should not be allowed to smother the legume in the spring. This can be avoided by grazing early and close to the soil surface. Red clover is a short-lived perennial and must be managed to produce seed if red clover is desired in the stand after 2-3 years.

Tall fescue will withstand closer grazing and more abuse than most cool-season grasses. But it can be overgrazed to the point that vigor as well as production is reduced. Don't graze closer than 3 or 4 inches, and allow at least 30 days for the tall fescue to recover.

Improved animal performance has been reported for the new endophyte free varieties of tall fescue relaitive to endophyte infected varieties. Increased average daily gains of 0.5 lb per animal per day have been reported for 7-12 month old angus steers when grazing endophyte free compared to endophyte infected tall fescue. Other tests comparing orchardgrass and endophyte free tall fescue have shown similar animal performance. In a two-year study at Penn State University comparing endophyte free tall fescue varieties, animal performance was similar on all varieties. While orchardgrass is generally of higher quality during spring and summer, tall fescue is of higher quality in fall, especially after frost.

If fescue is to be used during the summer, maintain a legume in the stand to improve animal performance. Otherwise, allow the late summer growth to accumulate for use in the fall or winter stockpiling. Tall fescue that is used exclusively for stockpiling is usually maintained in a pure stand.

Tall Fescue Fertility

Prior to seeding, lime and fertilizer needs should be determined by soil test. Although tall fescue can achieve adequate yields on low pH soils, maximum productivity is obtained when the pH is between 6.0 and 7.0. In the absence of a soil test for tall fescue seeded alone, plow down 0-45- 135 lb per acre and apply 20-20-20 lb per acre at planting (banded if possible) when seeding without a legume. While small amounts of nitrogen and potash are beneficial at seeding, too high a concentration of these elements can interfere with germination. Do not apply nitrogen at seeding if tall fescue is seeded with a legume.

Under pasture conditions it is difficult to evaluate the amounts of nutrients removed by the grazing animals. Grazing animals will trample or leave some of the total growth available to them. This is returned directly to the soil. Manure is not deposited evenly across the field, most studies show about 12 to 15 percent of a pasture area is covered with manure by grazing animals each year. If there is an estimated 3 tons of forage produced from a pasture field, then a 0-20-60 fertilizer per acre, applied each year should maintain production.

If pure tall fescue stands are used, high yields can be expected if fertilizer is applied during the winter or very early spring. This is especially true for the nitrogen portion of the fertilizer. Tall fescue to be used for hay should receive 100 to 150 pounds of N during the winter period. The same fertilization practices apply for early grazing as well a for hay. If much fall pasture is desired, then fertilizer should be reapplied in July.

When legumes make up 30 percent or more of a tall fescue or any grass stand, do not use nitrogen fertilizer. When these stands are topdressed with fertilizer containing nitrogen the growth looks darker and appears more lush, but research shows that production is not increased. In addition, applying nitrogen fertilizer to mixed stands will cause the grass to dominate the mixture.

Tall fescue-legume mixtures should be topdressed annually with phosphorus and potassium. A fescue-legume mixture will remove about 15 pounds of phosphate and 45 pounds of potash from the soil for each ton of hay produced. Phosphorus and potassium can be applied anytime during the year with satisfactory results.

Tall Fescue Summary

Tall fescue is a deep-rooted sod forming grass which is best adapted to cool season production. It is extremely well suited for use as a stockpile forage because it retains its quality and improves in palatability in the fall. It is well adapted to soils of low pH such as strip mine reclamation. It is more tolerant of animal and machinery traffic, and mismanagement than other cool-season grasses. Low endophyte varieties improve animal acceptance of and performance on tall fescue. Tall fescue can be part of a forage program but should not be the only species in the program.

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This page was last updated on November 16, 2002