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A specialist’s grass

Woody Lane, Ph.D., for Progressive Forage Published on 01 March 2020
Speciality grass

Every profession has special tools – auto mechanics, surgeons or sheep shearers. You know, those weird gadgets craftsmen pull out of their toolboxes when they need a whatchamacallit to fix a thingamabob.

Graziers are also professionals. We use forages to convert sunlight into beef, lamb and wool. But in our case, our thingamabobs are often troublesome fields where forages won’t grow well. To solve this problem, our whatchamacallit can be a grass called reed canarygrass.

Whoa! Do I mean that detested swamp weed that grows into tall bamboo thickets that animals won’t eat? Well, kind of. Read on.

Reed canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea, RCG) is a cool-season, broad-leaved, erect perennial grass that indeed grows naturally in wet areas. It also grows along sandy river embankments. It spreads by thick rhizomes that can form a sod dense enough to support a tractor, even in the mud. Its young vegetative growth is highly nutritious. It persists for years under intensive cutting or grazing, and it responds exceptionally well to fertilizer. RCG can produce prodigious amounts of forage – many trials have reported yields of over 7 tons of dry matter per acre. And it grows profusely all across northern North America and into Alaska.

So far, so good. From an agronomic point of view, RCG is quite tolerant of extremes. It grows well in wet, poorly drained acidic soils (pH as low as 4.9) and also in alkaline soils with a pH of 8. RCG is renowned for its ability to withstand weeks of standing water and then come back with spectacular regrowth. One important but little-recognized fact is that RCG also handles dry conditions better than nearly any other main forage grass. That’s why it can thrive in those sandy, droughty soils along the rivers. And once established, RCG grows fast enough and thick enough to out-compete most weeds.

This sounds too good to be true. So what’s the catch?

Well, RCG does have a couple problems: (1) animals don’t like it, (2) animals sometimes die from a neural disorder called “phalaris staggers,” (3) RCG loses nutritional value very quickly as it matures and (4) it grows so fast it becomes coarse and stemmy before animals have a chance to eat it.

Oh.

Actually, these problems are all interrelated, and new genetic varieties and good grazing management can help solve them.

Let’s take the first two issues: palatability and toxicity. With RCG, these are really two pages from the same chapter. The standard varieties of RCG found on farms and ranches all contain alkaloids. Alkaloids are potent organic compounds that can exert powerful effects in animals, and in RCG, these alkaloids cause intake and toxicity problems. Specifically, the RCG alkaloids are dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a few related DMT-derivatives and beta-carbolines. The RCG alkaloids are particularly troublesome because they closely resemble a natural compound called “seratonin,” which in animals is an important neurotransmitter (a molecule that helps nerves transmit impulses).

Actually, DMT-type alkaloids are quite famous, at least among some cultures. Their similarity to a common neurotransmitter helps explain their main effects: they are highly psychoactive. Psychoactive means, quite simply, hallucinogenic. Some interesting connections: DMT-type alkaloids occur naturally in many other non-grass plants around the world, including the hallucinogenic psilocybe mushrooms and a Mexican cactus known as peyote. A DMT-type alkaloid is also the active ingredient in the venom of the famed psychedelic toad Bufo alvaris. (And while searching for material about DMT for this column, I discovered a fertile source of information in areas of the internet concerning psychedelics.)

Although these RCG alkaloids have been around forever, the good news is that in the mid-1980s, three varieties of RCG were released that are specifically low in alkaloids: Palaton, Venture and Rival. The first two varieties came from the Upper Midwest; Rival came from Manitoba. These varieties are all palatable to livestock and free of the alkaloid-related problems that have given RCG a bad name. Today, a grazier can easily purchase seed of low-alkaloid varieties, although he may have to look in a mail-order catalog to find them. Even so, anyone interested in RCG today should only consider using low-alkaloid varieties.

The other two RCG issues – poor nutritional value and bamboolike growth – are really problems of maturity because most producers treat RCG like any other grass. For example, using RCG in a set-stocking management system allows animals to select between different plants in the same mixed pasture. The same situation occurs if a field is big enough to contain RCG and other forage species. If RCG contains unpalatable alkaloids, and livestock are allowed to choose between forages (the typical scenario in a set-stocking system), which plants will the livestock graze? Which plants will they leave for later? With its explosive growth, RCG does not wait for “later.” RCG quickly matures into coarse bamboo-like plants with low nutritional value, which then the livestock will avoid even more.

The answer: Treat RCG as a specialty grass. Manage RCG to its strengths and recognize that it must be treated differently than other grasses. For example, plant only low-alkaloid varieties in relatively pure stands (or with a compatible legume that can survive those extreme agronomic conditions) so that animals cannot choose between grass species. Always graze it while it’s young and vegetative, and never allow it to mature. This may mean creating small, tight RCG paddocks where animals can always be introduced when the forage is young and vegetative. This may mean using a high stocking density to prevent animals from choosing between plants, to force grazing that is quick and uniform. Managing RCG means good fencing, good sward management, good control of stock movement, high stocking density and a clear understanding of the principles of forage growth.

Most farms and ranches have areas that are wet or swampy, soils that are often flooded, soils with low pH or areas that are particularly droughty. Can RCG work? Possibly, but it may require work to make it work.

A specialty grass. A whatchamacallit. Planting low-alkaloid varieties and intensively managing them with timely grazing and high stock densities. RCG is not a beginner’s grass; it’s a specialist’s tool.  end mark

Getty Images.

Woody Lane is a certified forage and grassland professional with AFGC and teaches forage/grazing and nutrition courses in Oregon, with an affiliate appointment with the crop and soil science department at Oregon State. His book, Capturing Sunlight, Book 1: Skills & Ideas for Intensive Grazing, Sustainable Pastures, Healthy Soils, & Grassfed Livestock, is available on Amazon and through Woody Lane.

Woody Lane, Ph.D.
  • Woody Lane, Ph.D.

  • Lane Livestock Services
  • Roseburg, Oregon
  • Email Woody Lane, Ph.D.

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