Several days ago we had “just one more” chore: letting the cows into the hay lot behind Wesley’s house so they could eat the grass down. There is no fence between the hay lot and hay field so we put up some fake
electric fence and parked the truck on the outside of it where we could sit and watch the cows eat.
I fixed us both an adult beverage – it was way past five o’clock, maybe six or seven. I sat on the back of the pickup truck while Jeanne called the cows. Within minutes the cows started filing into the small lot and once the first couple of cows began eating the lush plants the other cows quickened their pace.
The cellulose-digesting mobile protein-factories were munching down. I like to watch them eat, especially with an adult beverage.
So Many Grasses
I was curious as to what they would prefer to eat. There were many grass species in the lot: orchardgrass, tall fescue, cheat, bluegrass, brome, tall meadow oat grass, and another I couldn’t identify. Broadleaf plants included wild mustard, musk thistle, Virginia pepperweed and others.
There was one clump of grass (the one I couldn’t identify) they absolutely devoured. They hit it once then hit it again and they came back and hit it again. It was the preferred plant – by far. They preferred it even over orchardgrass. They even ate wild mustard before they ate the orchardgrass or the tall fescue. Orchardgrass was just past the “boot stage” of maturity which is when most farmers like to cut it for hay.
I picked some of the stems of the preferred plant and took them to the house so I could use a grass identification “key” to find out what it was.
It was Quackgrass
I was shocked to find out it was quackgrass, Elytrigia repens, another introduced
species from Europe. It’s the weed we hate in the garden because it spreads by rhizomes.
I did a little research on it and found out it’s an amazing grass. In Europe the roots are dried and fried – they say it tastes sweet and a little like licorice. It has medicinal values as well curing kidney ailments and many others. The roots can be dried and ground into a flour to make bread and there are reports of the roots being boiled down to a syrup to make beer.
One Acre of Quackgrass is Worth Five Acres of Carrots
Here’s a quote from Nicholas Culpepper in 1653; he was an English botanist, herbalist, and physician: “Although a gardener be of another opinion, yet a physician holds half an acre of them to be worth five acres of carrots twice over”. Read more about its medicinal values here.
This species of pasture grass has far more positive attributes than the invasive, non-native, endophyte-infected, toxic tall fescue USDA still recommends. Quackgrass is one species that could easily replace tall fescue for erosion control and forage. There are several others that could replace tall fescue but I won’t go on about it now.
I have always heard that quackgrass is a sign of soil fertility and won’t grow in poor soil. It is certainly present throughout Virginia as the Old Dominion may be the launching pad for many European imported species. I have also spent some time watching animals preference when rotating through fields. This is often spoken about in old ag books as a task assigned to agriculture students to learn of what the animals chose at liberty. No doubt, Suffolk draft horse eat it liberally as a first choice too. But dealing with this species in a field setting where open tillage is part of the rotation is another matter. It is a persistent competitor to row crops managed by mechanical cultivation, as the activity spreads it throughout the field where it roots easily. Thanks for sharing your insight and observations Bob. Interesting to note that Nicholas Culpeper’s name is spelled the same as our Va. county.
Thanks Jason, it is indeed a problem with tillage as the tillage spreads it. Are you going to try and make some beer out of it for your horses?
I have worked in counties where they would string you up for such talk Bobby but I agree with you. 🙂 I have said the same about reed canarygrass here and lucky they have not run me out of the state. Reed canarygrass is the first grass my cattle munch on and they love it. The won’t eat it once it goes to seed however. In terms of nutritional content, I would prefer my cattle eat orchardgrass, brome, timothy, pernnenial and/or Italian ryegrass and various legumes. Barenbrug has improved varieties of all these grasses (including reed canarygrass) and an excellent forage guide available.
Quackgrass is considered a noxious weed in many counties in the USA.
Jim, thanks, I like Reed Canarygrass as well. We should consider tall fescue a noxious weed as well.
Grass sounds good for the cattle but is it quail friendly?
Frank, thanks. Well, it’s not native for starters so in that sense no. One thing over fescue however; is that we know that endophyte infected fescue seeds are toxic to birds. So in this sense, quackgrass would be better than fescue. Keep in mind I was writing the article from the perspective of cattle forage not wildlife habitat.
Nah, I don’t think so, I’ll keep the adult beverages for the humans. But I do pull it off the cultivator tines at the end of each row and give it a toss to the side.
Yoga Bera once said, ” you can observe a lot by watching”. I have some hardy stands of quackgrass as well. I think it came in with some annual ryegrass a few years ago. Thanks for your insight. I need to make some additions to my livestock tool box: cork screw, glasses, cooler…
Leo, darn, I wish I had said that! Thanks for stopping by and for your comment.
suggesting invasive non-native quackgrass and reed canary ? Both cause real problems for folks trying to restore wildlife habitat as well as grain farmers. I would also note that Italian ryegrass causes big problems when growing small grains.I guess it’s tough to find native grasses that cattle like. Anyone have any experience grazing native grasses?
Ha, Ned, you are so right! What was I thinking? We should not be recommending another non-native, invasive species. I guess I was venting because USDA still recommends tall fescue even though we know it’s toxic to just about everything. I haven’t read anything about quackgrass being toxic. We do need a cool season alternative for pasture that’s native. How about a pasture full of Virginia Wild Rye? Do you know of any? We do have a field devoted to warm season native forage…it’s looking real good.
Thanks for your comment.
Before we throw the baby out with the bath water and give away the persistence and yield ability of tall fescue, perhaps we should be examining the suitability of novel endophyte tall fescue. True, most of the “fescue belt” is abound with toxic tall fescue, generally Kentucky 31. Now 15 years on the market are new cultivars of tall fescue which have been inoculated with a plant-sustaining endophyte that does not produce the dreaded alkaloid known as ergovaline. These new varieties bring the best of both worlds; excellent yield as well as excellent carbohydrate and protein content; all without the toxin and they persist. I have pastures of such now 14 years old and going strong.
Thanks, Bobby –
I like your brand of citizen science.
Such inquiry is worthy of the better adult beverages.
May we all be so inspired.
Thanks Michael for your encouragement.
Hey Bobby. Quackgrass has been moving into our meadows. . Another professional in the Conservation realm said I should be spraying it, killing it as quick as possible. Is that your take on this species when it appears in meadow projects?
Bruce, yes, you should remove it. It is invasive and not native. Your beautiful meadow is native.
Thanks Bob, for the info on quack grass. Bardeby, from Barenbrug, is also recommended.
I was thinking of Va wild rye too. If I can ever get that wildlife guy down there to finish his native grass plantings for the year perhaps you two could look for a place to do a test plot to be planted this fall? His latest excuse for delay was whining about having to get the spray truck and tractor/planter through a 4 foot deep flooded creek to get to a field. It’s always something !
He did a good job spraying our new planting….those thistles and teasels are vaporizing.
Bobby, Don Wells sent me this link to your Blog….I didn’t know you had one…
good stuff….I have subscribed to your RSS feed.
Jim, thanks so much for your kind words and thanks for subscribing to the RSS feed. Let me know if there is ever a problem. I don’t post regularly, only when I get the urge, maybe twice a month at the most.
I have heard that Eastern gammagrass is a favorite of cattle (http://beefmagazine.com/mag/beef_eastern_gamagrass_queen) no experience with it first hand though.
Randy, thanks for stopping by. You are right and Eastern Gamma is native to North America whereas Quackgrass is not.
Quackgrass was considered a noxious weed and probably has not been taken off of anyone’s list yet, but it has been effectively wiped out of corn and soybean fields across the Midwest. Modern herbicides have done it in. Since the fenclines are also gone, it has no refuge except where a few remaining pastures and grassy odd areas exist and have it in the mix of plant species.
If you are trying to grow organic corn (or corn with cheaper, but ineffective herbicides) in rotation with hay and have adjacent pasture fields, you are likely to have the same problem everyone else did before the 1980’s when a number of new grass herbicides came out that were much more effective than anything else prior to that.
It can be a real problem for home gardeners, if it happens to be adjacent to the tilled garden soil as it will encroach every year into the garden as this is the path of least resistance for rhizome growth. I have had potato tubers skewered by quackgrass rhizomes.
Western wheatgrass looks a lot like quackgrass. Hence the reason why for awhile it was scientifically named Agropryron repens. In Montana and the Northwest, it was difficult to know by casually looking at a grass that looked like quackgrass whether it in deed was quackgrass or western wheatgrass.
Many thanks for the great short article, I was hunting for information similar to this, going to take a look at the various other posts.