Dairy producers are seldom ambivalent about reed canary grass as a forage species on their farm — they either love it or hate it. Those who hate it generally have had difficulty getting it harvested at an acceptable level of maturity, and the fiber levels end up being higher than they prefer. Others like to grow it because of its productivity, persistence, winter-hardiness, and its ability to thrive in a range of soil types and conditions.
‘Feral’ varieties of reed canary grass (such as are common in roadside ditches) are high in bitter-tasting compounds called alkaloids, which can reduce dry matter intake and reduce performance in grazing species. Plant breeders have been successful in breeding low-alkaloid varieties of reed canary grass (such as Palaton, Marathon, Chiefton, and probably others – no endorsement implied) that are palatable enough to even be used in dairy grazing systems.
A few years ago I asked a local farmer if he had ever planted reed canary grass. He said, “Yes – I – did! The seed was wicked expensive, and I never saw so much as a stalk of it come up!” This points to one of the challenges with reed canary grass: low seedling vigor, and low yields in the first year.
To be fair, reed canary grass seedlings are different – not deficient. In order for reed canary grass to gain a foothold, very few seedlings need to survive. It ‘knows’ that it has rhizomes and that they are a tremendous strategic asset, so it focuses on underground development more than top-growth in years 1 and 2. Good for the plant, bad for the feed inventory! If a farmer is not careful with seed placement and/or attentive to managing competition appropriately in year-1, it is certainly possible that the stand will be a failure.
But what if the farmer cannot afford to accept the low first-year yields? Will companion crops such as spring triticale, oats/peas, clover, or Italian ryegrass help significantly? Yes, they can, but there is a balance that could be hard for some to find. We want decent yield in the seeding year, but we also don’t want to out-compete the perennial species (reed canary grass, in this case) to the extent that we damage second year yields or lose the stand altogether. That is the subject of the short video below. Footage was collected in Spring of 2016.